Our Q&A with the coolest man in football
Dimitar Berbatov is the latest high-profile former United star to take part in our popular daily 'MUTV Group Chat' series.
The legendarily cool striker was in fine form, as he spoke about Paul Pogba, Harry Kane and Anthony Martial, plus his future plans in the game.
Berba also took us back to some of his greatest moments in a United shirt, and shed some light on what he’s been up to outside of football…
How are you?
“I think we are all the same. I'm 52 days in my home now, which is not a pleasant thing, but at least it's more time with the kids, with the family, and that's the positive thing. Other than that, I hope soon we can go back to normal.”
You're actually back in Bulgaria right?
“I'm back home in Bulgaria, yes.”
How badly have you been hit? It's been a disaster here...
“Well, we were lucky because our government took decisive measures from the beginning. They took restrictions straight away, and that limited the cases of diseases we had, so it's a low number, the [number of] deaths of people also. So we are very fortunate on that case, and people are trying to stay at home. Of course, some people need to work, even in these circumstances, so other than that, it's okay. As much as it can be okay in this situation.”
Berba makes the MUTV Group Chat look coolVideo
You're looking after the kids – are you schooling the kids?
“Well, let me tell you something. From eight in the morning until three in the afternoon, the kids are in school – online school! Me and my wife are next to them – obviously my wife more than me – but we try to help them. But it's a lot of work, man, a lot of work!”
So what are you doing now? You're now definitely, definitely retired. What's next for you?
“Actually, I had my book, my autobiography, in Bulgarian. Now we're almost finished in English. Wesley [Brown], you are in it! So we are almost finished, and we're going to start publishing soon, so that's the thing that I was taking care of. I have more time spending at home now to check how everything is going. Besides that, I took my A licence in coaching, so next is my pro licence, hopefully this year at some point. And we'll see, down the road, what happens.”
Tell us about Wes in the book – are you nice about Wes in the book?
“Of course not! I'm telling about his first touch, not good! [Laughs] I'm telling how strong and powerful he was, and – can we swear on this?! – I always hated when he went to Sunderland and I needed to play against him. It was a f****** nightmare! Him and Sheasy were doing a sandwich on me! It was like going against a rock. It was not pleasant!”
You mentioned you might end up doing the pro licence. Can you see coaching and management as a future for yourself?
“It's in my head, but probably it's in the head of every ex-football player, because we all think that we can be good managers, which is not true, of course. But I have my thoughts and my ideas in my head. I would like to do it probably, but I would like to do it probably in England, because I love it there. Maybe down the line, when I'm ready and prepared to do it, because this is a big challenge.”
How do you manage a player like you?!
“Well, it's not going to be easy! But as we grow old, everybody is developing and learning things! Wes can say better than me, that when you've been in charge under Sir Alex, you saw how he can communicate with everybody differently, so for me this is the most important thing: to know how to speak with each and every player individually, because everybody is different.”
So would you put some of the things into your management that you learned from him, and I guess other managers in your career?
“Yeah! And if you know your players, you know how to speak with them, because everybody's motivated by different things. Somebody needs to be calm here... give them a couple of motivating words. Others react maybe to a slap in the head, for example. Different kind of things, so you know how to keep the spirits high. Even if the guy is not playing, he can still feel part of the team, because when he goes on the pitch after that you want him to play well, not to be like, 'What the f***, I'm not playing, I don't want to be a sub'. That was one of the reasons Sir Alex was so good. Because he can explain to you, 'Well, son, you're not going to play next time'. But he was explaining to you that you can understand. You know that you're not going to play but you accept it, in a way that he's manipulating you, in a way, and you're going home with a smile on your face, and you're not like: 'Why am I not playing?' That was very interesting for me, and I would like to get into the psychology of this kind with the players.”
Your four years at United, did it live up to your expectations? And when you look back now, how would you sum it up?
“First of all, it was the peak. It was the top of the mountain, in [terms of] my success. I climbed my level of success, from Bulgaria, from Germany, and then England, and when I reached my top I was a bit shy. And the one thing I would change, if I need to go back, it was to be a bit more open in a way that, when you walk into a new dressing room full of champions, I was telling myself: I made it, I'm here. But at the same time, I was saying to myself: What the f*** am I doing here? It was that inferiority complex. [There are] all these champions here, and I'm looking around, smiling inside, but also a bit intimidated, because this is a big club and [with] big players. If I was a bit more open from the beginning, maybe it's going to be more beneficial to me. For example, Wes, do you remember Anderson? He was smiling, high-fiving everyone, like he had been there for 20 years. That is probably the one thing I would change if I had the chance to go back. But, other than that, to have the chance to learn from the players that I played with, win some medals, score goals, it was, as I say, the peak of the mountain for me, and what I worked my whole life to do. In the end, I had some good times, I had some bad times, I scored goals, I missed goals, which every football player will tell you they go through. But this was the peak for me, for my personal success.”
I suppose you had a dressing room of massive characters when you arrived. Massive characters everywhere. You were an experienced player at that point, but were even you a bit daunted by that?
“Of course, of course. And it comes from the character of a person. For me, it was like that. For the guy next to me, maybe it's going to be different. But for me it was exactly like that, because when you come from a small country, sometimes you grow up with these kind of things. When you go to a big country or a big club, you're like 'wow'. Even though you deserve to be there because you worked hard through your life, you still are a bit afraid and shy to ask something, to say 'how do you do that?' or 'How are you?' Not because you don't want to, but purely because I was shy. So what do I say? It sounds childish and funny, maybe, but it was like this. Sometimes I was thinking, when I look back, I think: Berbs, you needed to be a bit more open, and maybe it was going to be better. But it is what it is, and when we grow up later in life, you see new things and you develop. Now, Wes, when we go to do things together, I'm more open and speak [more] than before. When you know someone really well, his plus sides and minus sides, his cons and pros, you have a good understanding with him. You know he's like that, he's not impersonal, it's just his character. But as I said, one thing I would change is to be more open in the beginning.”
When you signed, in a way, was that mission accomplished for you? You said before, you came from a small town, from a small-ish country, and now you've joined Manchester United, the European champions. You could have joined City – thank God you didn't – but was it mission accomplished for you?
“Yes it was, because I worked my whole career to climb my personal mountain, and when it happened I was the happiest man alive and I was so proud. But at the same time, it was stepping in that dressing room that had just won the Champions League and the Premier League, and I'm like: as much as I'm expecting that moment, to train with the guys, to play and score goals, inside me I was bit nervous. Which is normal, I think, because you're going to have Sir Alex as a coach. You're nervous as hell. But everybody was so great to me, and when you have someone from close to your country – like Vida was, he's Serbian, and I can speak Serbian – this can make some things a bit easier, because you have someone and it means that you're not alone completely. You have someone who can speak your language, know your temper, because we are Serbian-Bulgarian, we are almost the same.”
That first season you were there, 2008/09, Ronaldo, Rooney, Tevez and yourself – that was a brilliant team. Have you ever played in a better team than that?
“No, not a better team, because that was the top for me. The players around you were giants in the way of playing football. At times, it can be intimidating, and if you cannot hold your ground in training, in the dressing room, that's not a good thing. You need to know how to keep your ground, defend for yourself if someone is challenging you in the training ground or in the training [sessions]. Sometimes Wes is going to kick me around! You need to know how to behave. Vida was kicking everyone around, and he was standing his ground. 'I don't care who you are!' I was like 'Brother, can you be more easy here?' 'No f******* chance!' But it was a great time, he was a top guy.”
Sometimes you don't appreciate just how good players are until you actually play with them. Have you experienced that? Not just at Manchester United – anywhere you've been...
“Yeah. Actually, sometimes you don't experience and you don't appreciate everything until the moment it's finished. I'm in Manchester United at the top, I'm enjoying it, but then it flies like this. You guys, you know how it is. I was at the greatest place and it was unbelievable, but because you're into the moment, you don't fully appreciate it. When you're out of it, then you're like: woah, it was great. This player was unbelievable... But because you're fully concentrating on yourself, on player development, you're more focused on yourself and your development. People ask me, 'Did you believe Pogba was going to become one of the best in the world?' And I'm not going to lie and say I was so focused on him. I was focused on my own development. He was training with us, and I saw how good he was, and I hoped that he could become one of the best – like he is – but I was focused on my own development because I also wanted to be one of the best in my position. Sometimes, you are not looking to other people; you look to yourself, because you want to upgrade and improve yourself.”
Who was your idol growing up? If you had one striker you could look at, who would it be?
“I had two! One of them, I have his shirt here [points behind]. You see the shirt? One was [Marco] van Basten, because I mean, he was unbelievable. I cried when he finished playing football at 29! I remember that, because he was injured. The other one was Alan Shearer, because he was smashing goals from everywhere. These were my two favourite players when I was growing up. Then you see other players of course. The modern one – the one that I used to play against that was number one for me – was Ronaldo, El Fenomeno. He was something else.”
Mikael Silvestre played with him at Inter and said the same...
“He was [on] a different planet. I never wanted to change shirts when I played, because I wasn't this type of player, but the one shirt I wanted and I got was when I played with Leverkusen against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. I wanted his shirt, but I was so shy to go and ask him, I made one of my team-mates, Juan, who was Brazilian, to go and get it for me, because I was so shy I didn't even know what to say! So he gave it to me.”
You scored unbelievable goals for Man United. But would you prefer to set somebody up than score a goal?
“Actually, if I'm to be 100 per cent, if I can go past three players and then give it someone just to make a tap-in, I would do it every time. I prefer that. Honestly, because I will know I've done the hard thing, and that goal will be as much mine as to the other player.”
How close were you to joining Man City?
“In my mind, it was never. Because in that time, for me, it was about reaching my personal top, and that was Man United at that time. When you see the shirt, the red shirt, the badge, the history, the players, the managers... I mean, you fell in love immediately. My agent said, 'We have the interest from Man City' but I said, 'Man, please, you know where I want to go, just one way'.”
You had a great rapport with United fans, as well. As soon as you signed, they had that song, 'One look at City...' Did you feel that love from supporters quickly?
“I did, but I feel very strange – it was the same in Spurs – when someone is going to sing a song for me. I'm thinking to myself, 'Guys, please', because I feel embarrassed. Embarrassed is the right word, because I don't deserve that. I don't know how to explain it, but I did not feel in my place. I felt in a spotlight, and I didn't like that. I just wanted to play football, and when you hear something like this, it's a good thing, but I felt embarrassed.”
If fans see you now, what do they ask you about most? Is it the hat-trick against Liverpool?
“Probably, because that hat-trick was against Liverpool, which puts a lot of weight on it. It's really special. Most of the time they ask me about that game and that goal with the scissor-kick, and I needed to explain every time how it happened and everything. That's it probably. But it depends who the fans are. I have people from Leverkusen still asking me questions, from Sofia, from Spurs, it's different.”
I'm interested in what your view of United at the moment is, and particularly the strikeforce, Rashford, Anthony Martial. You played with Martial at Monaco – how do you think he's developed, and did you ever speak to him about United?
“When I go to Monaco and I see all these talented players, Martial, Fabinho, James Rodriguez, Falcao was there as well. First or second training session – I'm 33 at the time – and these young players are flying past me and I'm like: What the f*** is going on here? You can see talent straight away, if you know where to look. You can see talent straight away. I saw Martial, and he had everything. Speed, tricks, power, stability, balance, you know? The only thing he didn't have was that confidence that he could beat someone. Wes can tell you that in training sessions I used to play as a defender sometimes, because I enjoyed playing that in training sessions. When I was in Monaco, in a five-a-side training session, I go to defend, and he was coming at me full speed. But there is that moment in football where young players, if they face-off one-on-one against someone more experienced, that can play on their mind. So he was thinking that I can easily get the ball from him because I was more experienced, but that wasn't the case. I took the ball from him, but after training I was telling him, 'Anto, you're so fast and quick, you can go past me like that [clicks fingers]. Don't think [about] it too much, just go past me, because you're so incredibly fast and talented'. The way he has gone to Manchester after that and developed, for me, I love him. I like playing with him, to watch him play and score goals, because he's a different player. [His] imagination is high. I like him and Marcus Rashford a lot – that's why I said many times I would like to see them play more and more and more, because they are so young. The future is ahead of them. The funny thing is, before Manchester bought him, Jim Lawlor give me a call – the head scout from Manchester. And he's like, 'Berba, we're watching that boy from Monaco, Martial. What do you think?' I was like, 'He's unbelievable, he's just needs some guidance, someone to give him the right direction'. Manchester took him after that, but I'm still waiting for my commission. Tell Jim that!”
Did you leave too soon in 2012?
“Yeah, I did. The truth is you don't want to leave. Everybody who played for United, you don't want to leave in the end. But when you love football, when you really love football and you want to play it, you need to take difficult decisions and in that moment I didn't play as much as I wanted to. We had too many strikers. I could have easily stayed one more year maybe, and play from time to time and just do nothing, and just think I'm part of the team. But that wasn't me. I wanted to play; I wanted to feel alive, to play football. You know how it is. To score goals, to do what I love, and not just sit around and do nothing.”
Does Harry Kane face the same dilemma that you faced when you were at Tottenham? He got to the same age and you maybe left to win trophies. Does he face this dilemma?
“I think yes. I think he's in the exact same position I was. It's a funny coincidence, because it's the same team, the same position of striker, and he is one of the best in the world, captain of England. So I'm very curious and interested to see what decision he takes, where he's going to go, because he's at a crossroads, and I'm sure his head is going like this [confused] with all the questions. Everybody who played football knows how it is. You get confused. You try to sabotage yourself with different kinds of question. Is it the right moment now? Is it not? If I don't go, what happens? Am I going to win something? Honestly, it's not easy, and it's not going to be easy for him. But who is going to pay that much money that they're going to want for him, after all this is finished with this virus? I don't know. Because football is going to change.”
We've got to ask as well: what was it like in India with Wes?
“This is the moment where you realise you need to count your blessings. Is that how you say it in England? To appreciate what you have. I mean, Wes can you tell you, we saw things that are sad; that are difficult to understand. Even though the people who are in this situation were smiling, for us, especially for me – I don't know how it was for Wes – it was strange. I'd never seen things like this. Even more you realise: I need to appreciate what I really have and not want more and more. Appreciate what you have now. That was outside of football, because you can see it. You look and it's everywhere. On the football side, it was okay. It was difficult sometimes. I was 36. When you go to a place like this, some of the people, the fans, think, in my case, that I can take the ball from one goal and bring to the other goal and score by myself. Purely because I used to play for United! That was the impression. I'm like: 'Guys, if I can do that now, at 36, I'm not going to be here – I'm still going to be in United!' It's difficult to get them to know that, because they were expecting me to do scissor-kicks and all this unbelievable stuff, but it was not possible anymore. I tried my best, as Wesley did, and we enjoyed it. Football-wise, we enjoyed it, but it was different.”
Wes also says you're in a movie playing a gangster?
“I will send you the links, guys, so you can check it out! But it's in Bulgarian, so you're not going to understand anything! I've done it because I'm a big fan of movies and I've always wanted to try something like this. It was here in Sofia, two days, and I had a great time and, in the end, I think I did well.”
A future in acting, possibly, if management doesn't work out?
“The problem is sometimes when you want many things, you think you're good at many things, [and] in the end you're left with zero things!”
How do you want to be remembered as a footballer? Do you care? But how would you like to be remembered?
“Well, I will send each and every one of you my book in English, because this is where I'm truly myself. In the beginning, as I said, I was a bit shy, so people didn't get that full understanding of who I am as a person. But remember me as the guy who did it my way. The way I play football, the way I understand football, the goals I scored, this was all my way.”
“Guys, thank you. See you later.”