Dimitar Berbatov.

UTD Unscripted: Maybe Sir Alex is waiting for you...

Sunday 08 September 2019 12:30

When I was on the plane to Manchester, I was already wearing the red shirt. Well, in my mind, anyway.

Of course, it’s good to have other offers from other clubs, good to be wanted because it means you’ve been playing well, but I was already imagining playing with Giggs, Scholes and everyone else at United.

History for me is very important, for a club to have a history going back, to respect that history then you can have a future. And United had all these legendary football players. So, from the moment my agent first told me that United wanted me, there was only one result.

So we get to Manchester Airport, I’m walking and talking with my agent and then I look up and I see Sir Alex Ferguson is waiting for me.

I thought that I was going to have a heart attack.

What. The. F***.

I’m just a normal guy from a small country, and the manager of Manchester United – a few weeks after winning the Champions League – has come to personally meet me at the airport. He wants to sign me.

When you’re a kid, of course, you can’t dream of that moment. Especially when you’re growing up during communism in Bulgaria, like I did.

Dimitar Berbatov says

"That was such a crazy day, joining United. All day, waiting for the call to see if you’re going. It happened like in the movies: dramatic late entrance, sweating. Then I’m sat there in the car with Sir Alex Ferguson."

As a kid back home, I’d wake up at six in the morning and then go to queue for bread with my family. Except your family make it into a game for you, so you don’t actually know what is happening. First, your Dad is going to wait in the line, then your mother is going to change for him after an hour, then the biggest son – me – goes in, then the little sons go in. So we rotate to keep our place in the line, which was probably kilometres long, just waiting for bread. When it’s your turn, you wait alone. If you give your spot away, your bread is finished. You don’t eat.

Even when I grew up a bit and moved to the big city, to Sofia, to train, it wasn’t easy. You’re with four other boys sharing a room, and your parents are sending you jars of something to eat. Everybody puts their jars in the middle of the table and we go, ok, what have we got today? Then when those jars are finished, you’re like: what are we gonna eat today? So if you have any leftovers, you put the crumbs together because they are sticky, you roll it together to make it whole, put some butter or something on it and make something to eat. This is what made you bond together with your boys, with your team, and we won the junior title because we were so together with this.

These kind of things, you think back when you grow up, and yeah it was difficult time, but it makes you smile because you appreciate how it was and where you are now. They were such important lessons for me. That’s what I try to teach my daughters. They don’t have to queue for bread or make food from crumbs, but from time to time I make things difficult for them so they can see. You need to.

You know how I know?

You know how many football talents we used to have back home in Bulgaria? There were so many who were better than me. My father was a football player too, and when we would walk around he’d stop me and point people out to me.

"Dimitar, you see that guy?"

And he’d be looking at a homeless guy, or sometimes not as bad as that, but you’d look at who he was talking about and see somebody who had been battered so much by life.

"You know who this guy was? He was an unbelievable talent, he was so strong, he was destroying defences. You know what happened with him? He thought he was the big deal, he started drinking, betting, chasing women, didn’t have the right people around him, and you see where he is now. He was one of the best talents I saw, but now he has nothing."

And as time passed, I grew up and I saw so many different people with the same fates. What they all had in common was that they had great talents, but had bad advice, made bad choices and ended up broke or worse. Then this is in your head constantly, even if you don’t want it to be there. It’s like a mechanism that makes you take the right decisions – not all the time, but most of the time you’re going to do the right thing. Even if you don’t know you’re doing it. I still remember that because it’s so true. They don’t have anyone next to them to say: ‘This is not the right way, over there is.’ You’re gonna suffer for a short while but then you’re going to succeed in the long run.

I remember the people I used to train with, partying after games… even partying before games.

'Berbs, let’s go. We only live once.'

I wasn’t big on that. Even now, I’m not. My goal was to become a good player. I need to achieve something, and this helps me a lot, especially with all these things in my head. I don’t want to end up on the street, I want to end up independent.

So I always worked hard. Even when I was so small, I would practice non-stop. I was constantly outside in front of my block, kicking the ball high and trying to control it. Nobody taught me about it, nobody told me to do that, I was just doing it, I don’t know why. I just thought it was interesting.

No phones, no Facebook, no Instagram. Just kick the ball.

"Berbs, come home, you need to eat."

Go away, I don’t need to eat! I’m not hungry. So I would just kick the ball around. Even if no friends were around, I would just kick a ball around alone. You know how Brazilians master their touch on the beaches? I mastered mine on the tarmac.

We didn’t have artificial grounds to play on; we had rough tarmac in schools. The ball jumps high, you have to control it in some way, so it just becomes habit all the time. You don’t think about it. After a while you begin to appreciate it. That’s how you master your technique.

On those surfaces, by the way, if you fall down, your knees are bleeding, you’re crying. Nobody is paying attention to you. Nobody cares. We play football. Get up. You get up, continue, just bleed everywhere. So what?

You have one pair of shoes that have holes after a while, so because you cannot afford another pair you just tape them up, you continue. That’s how we east Europeans used to do it.

You just play, and if you want to succeed then you work and listen to the right people and live right. And then… I don’t know what it is, but sometimes, maybe the planets arrange in the right way for you.

Then maybe one day you’re signing for Manchester United.

Maybe Sir Alex Ferguson is waiting for you at an airport.
Dimitar Berbatov says

"You have one pair of shoes that have holes, so because you cannot afford another pair you just tape them up... then maybe one day you’re signing for Manchester United. Maybe Sir Alex Ferguson is waiting for you at an airport."

Now, that was such a crazy day, joining United. So, so crazy. All day, waiting for the call to see if you’re going, if you’re not going. In the end, it happened like in the movies: dramatic late entrance, sweating.

And then I’m sat there in the car with Ferguson.

It was so awkward and funny, but respectable and honourable to sit in the car, just travelling, and you’re thinking:

What do I say now? What do I need to say? 

 ‘How are you? What is the weather like?’

I’m not big on conversation. Everybody who knows me knows that normally I don’t like small talk. How are you, blah, blah, blah… I’m straight to the point. So when you’re in a situation like this, it’s like... Okayyyy!

I look at my agent, give him a look. He gives me a look. We don’t know what to do.

But these memories now, they make me happy and smile, even if they were awkward at the time. Sir Alex was so nice. I noticed this when I had the luck to meet other successful managers, players and people in general; they have a quality that even if you’re really above other people in your profession in terms of success, it doesn’t stop you treating others with respect and attention.

With me, he just decided to go and meet me at the airport. This is what impressed me the most, probably. People like that, they try to elevate you and pull you into their world. This is a special thing.

So we went to sign the paperwork. I remember all the things being put in front of me to sign, and being hurried because we had to send it back to the Premier League to verify and everything.

Come on, come on, come onnnnn…

In the end, we got it done and you could see the joy in everybody. In me, in my agent – because he is like my second father to me – and in everybody in the room.

I was on top of the world.

My first training session, I was shy. Just so shy. Going to play with these guys that I admired and always wanted to play with, it was crazy. Sometimes this shyness can stop me or prevent me from being more open. I’m a very private guy, and you have other guys who might have been going along to their first training session like ‘What’s up, give me a high-five’, you know, like they’ve been there all their life, but I kept to myself, which I’ve been like all my life, just because I’m shy in moments or don’t know what to say in situations like this. But everybody was so nice and I was living my dreams. First training session, Ferguson, Giggsy, Ronaldo… everybody was there. I was dancing inside.

Everybody was different. Everybody can be better at something that the other player is not, and the other way around. For example, Giggsy was very professional in the way he carried himself. I’m watching him, going into his late-30s. What did he play until, 40? I’m like, ok Berbs, can we do that? Try at least. See what he’s doing. Yoga. You could see he was just so lean. The DNA can be part of this as well, but the way he was training, carrying himself, resting when he needed to rest, stretching after training, the way he was training: sometimes easy, sometimes he needed to push a bit more. Scholesy the same. Gaz as well. Then I have Ronaldo in my first year there going like crazy.

You need to pay attention to these things, at least if you want to try to be as good as the other players, because you need to be. Otherwise, in a dressing room full of big egos, personalities, winners, if you don’t try to be as professional as them, match their enthusiasm, their willingness to win, then it just won't happen for you.

Everyone in that team, in his position, in his way of seeing football, wanted to be the best. Everyone achieved different levels of success in their careers, some went straight to the top as Ronny did, others went a bit under there, but at least you can try. If you don’t do it, at least you tried your best to do it. Otherwise, what was the point? To be around these kinds of players, you get that winning mentality that you didn’t have before.

When you line up in the tunnel before the game, the stadium announcer at Old Trafford tells you all you need to know about that squad:

‘Ladies and gentlemen, the champions of England, the champions of Europe, the champions of the world…’


In that tunnel, you’re feeling on another level. Whoever the other team are, they are below that, and most of the time they know it. Even if you don’t look at them in the tunnel, you can see in your peripherals that they are already defeated. It’s over.

(It helps that you have Ronaldo, Rooney, Giggs and all these players, of course!)

You start walking out onto the pitch, the announcer is still saying all these things and you look over at the other team. You might make eye contact with them and the look on your face just says:

Yeah, I know, guys. I know. That’s why I worked so hard!

My first year at the club, I won my first Premier League title. I was just like… oh my God. Jumping inside.

When I went home that night I jumped around for real because nobody could see me, with my medal, going around the house naked. I was so happy. But when I go in the dressing room after the game, I see Giggsy with his 110th medal or whatever, already saying:

‘Berbs, the next one is coming.’

We won the league a few minutes ago and already it’s forgotten!

I’m like… can I have five minutes, please? I’ve JUST won my first medal. You know, nothing special!

You could see that for them it was almost like something normal. Probably for me it would be the same after that many medals, but in that dressing room it was always about the next goal, the next cup, the next title, the next Champions League. This is what winners do. It was unbelievable.

For a Bulgarian guy like me, coming from a small country, I was so proud. I grew up during communism. I was not lucky enough to be born into a good infrastructure, good pitches, money for the infrastructure so I could stay in my country for the whole of my career. For me, coming to England is more difficult, but then achieving success is more sweet, you know? The difficult parts, overcoming them, made everything more sweet for me.

Again, being around these guys, it was unbelievable. Even if you don’t speak much, you just have to watch. If you wanna ask, you go ask them, they will give you advice. Or when they need to rough you up, they'll do that too because you need it from time to time. These are not kid games and this is not something to take personally; it’s always about the team because everybody wants to be a winner.

Look at Vida. 

I was close to Vida because I was born close to the border with Macedonia, so for me, these countries – Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, Croatia - we are all the same. I understand and I can speak the languages no problem. We are all brothers there.

It was so natural to have that good bond with him because I knew where he was coming from, I know at some point in his life what he was going through when that war in Serbia was raging, you know? So it’s good to have someone like this when you go to a different club, because he knows you on some level, you know him, you speak the same language as him, and he was always helpful. He was a good joker; his sense of humour was so funny. If you don’t know him then you’re gonna take it personally, but Vida was so funny. I still keep in touch with him, great guy. 

Training against him every day, it wasn’t hard… it was a nightmare! You know you have teams and players you don’t wanna face?  You see the opposition team and think to yourself: 

Oh, not today. I’m not in the mood for this today.

Vida was one of those guys. 

When I was with Spurs, he was always a nightmare. Then in training when I went to United, it was like war. It doesn’t matter who was against him – Ronny, Rooney, me – doesn’t matter. Everybody got kicked. Then when we played the games I was so relieved that he was in my team! He was always coming in after the game, bleeding, bump on the head, but you could see it was always for the team. He put his head there for the team.

So if success was extra sweet for me, I know it was the same for Vida. He’d been through the same as me and worse, growing up through a war. When you visit Serbia now, you still see the bullet holes in the big tower blocks. Vida was going through worse than I was, so for him it was even better to succeed.

You had players like me and Vida, the guys who had been at the club since they were kids and all other kinds of different personalities, but Sir Alex was able to speak with us all and motivate us all.

Sometimes in training he comes up, we’re warming up and stretching, and you see him going to players individually. Some days speaking with some players for two, three minutes, other days with other players, making them feel special in some way. Always you see how the players were reacting to the way he was speaking to them. This showed the quality of his psychology; that he could speak to every single person. You need to be different with everybody, with every football guy, because we have big egos, we’re all different, all spoilt in some way, so you have to know how to speak with everybody: gently with some, jokingly with others, more angry with some, and he has that approach where he can speak with everybody. 

This is Sir Alex Ferguson. One million titles, one million more achievements in life, so you listen. You listen to what he says. This was so special, and football players like to be made to feel special. Even if it’s for five minutes, 10 minutes, make them feel part of the team, to see that you pay attention to them, even if they don’t play. He was very good, and the speeches he gave before games, the motivating speeches… sometimes it was like a movie. He’s going on about his life, saying how he started in the docks, his father and him, talking about all the people around the world who are not as lucky as us, and by the end of it you’re like…

Man, I’m going to f****** EAT someone out there!

So you’d go out there and give everything. It was the least I could do.

After all, he did pick me up from the airport!

UTD Unscripted: Exceptional stories, brilliantly told