The sound of Dimitar Berbatov’s credibility disappearing went like this: “Bangbangbangcrash”.
Although I may have left the washing machine on last night.
But it definitely also sounded like this: “I don’t think Dimitar was a failure here.” That was what Sir Alex Ferguson said about Berbatov today when asked about his time at United. Berbatov was for a while the alternative fans’ alternative footballer’s alternative footballer; he isn’t anymore. In the most sickening turn of events since Ralph McTell re-released ‘Streets of London’ as a dubstep track, which hasn’t actually happened, Dear Dimi has gone as mainstream as a Coldplay or Lionel Messi. He’s not worth anything to me, the effortlessly cool youth of today, now.
With affirmation from Alex Ferguson, the most successful coach in the British football, a knight of the realm and part-time head of the Real Football Association, Berbatov has consensus all the way on his side: everyone likes him these days. Ferguson is at the heart of the establishment and he’s just come out in support of Berbatov. That simply isn’t cool, is it? Ferguson, remember, was supposed to be on team ‘Berbatov isn’t effective enough’. Without his not-even-putting-Berbatov-on-the-bench-for-the-Champions-League-Final-leadership, that team is all but dead now. And if it isn’t dead, then, if anything it actually represents the alternative opinion—these days it’s less popular to say that Berbatov doesn’t work hard enough or score enough goals than it is to say the opposite. I’ve had to start saying that to people.
Obviously what’s happened is that he’s moved to a less high profile club (Fulham, I think?) and it’s made him easier to like. Ferguson’s opinion on Berbatov hasn’t really changed, it’s just easier for him to give out positive evaluations when he’s talking about a player who doesn’t really concern him anymore. The old dog. At a smaller club than Manchester United (Fulham, maybe?), a goal-scoring record like the one Berbatov managed in four years under Ferguson—57 in 149 appearances—becomes a lot more convincing. And even if it doesn’t, it’s okay to admire an ineffective player when he’s playing for another team : “Oh yeah, doesn’t he look great not scoring for that other team, which could well be Fulham but I’m not sure.”
Football fans seem to have followed Ferguson’s lead. Berbatov isn’t playing in the big leagues anymore so he’s easier to admire; he’s not going to help or hinder many people’s teams at Fulham (is it?), so he’s okay to applaud. But what that means is that he’s reduced from being one of the most divisive players around—“Does he score enough?” “Does it matter?”—to footballing novelty act. Listen to the commentators say he plays the game at his own pace and cringe at what he has become: popular.
Alright, popularity alone shouldn’t be enough to stop you from being cool (it is, but it shouldn’t be), but in Berbatov’s particular case his being divisive was a large part of his appeal. At United, he was the silky footballer who didn’t run around very much and occasionally got photographed with a cigarette in his hand. And he had slicked back hair. That was all well and good, but what made it great was that it was a player at a big club who managed to do the opposite of what quite a lot of people wanted him to do: it was two fingers up to football as a numbers game and that results-are-everything culture which has developed amongst fans of all big clubs. At Fulham (I’m pretty sure it’s Fulham), all of those gestures of defiance look quite a lot less defiant: you can’t subvert expectations in the same way once there aren’t really any expectations—or, worse, when everyone actually wants you to do the things you were doing before as acts of rebellion.
It’s not really Berbatov’s fault, but he has gone mainstream and it ain’t the same. At Fulham (I should look it up?) he even scores enough goals to be a key player for his team. He’s still great to watch, but you can’t use him in foreplay anymore, which makes him a bit of a letdown.
I’ve replaced him with Bryan Ruiz, who, despite playing for Fulham as well (possibly), has circumvented the problems of not having many expectations to subvert by directly questioning what it is to be a footballer. Ruiz is almost entirely ineffective. He’s Berbatov minus any of the evidence you might use to defend him in a pub: goals and assists don’t bother him, he just likes controlling the ball over and over again and then not doing anything with it. Plus, he’s left-footed, which as we all know is the alternative footballer’s choice of foot.
Bryan Ruiz will never have Berbatov’s popularity, so savour him. Tomorrow Berbatov will play against United and it would not be a surprise if he was applauded by both sides: is there any great indictment? I’ve thought about it a lot, and the answer is no.
This piece started out as a joke, but I’m so good I’ve almost convinced myself of the point it’s trying to make. If you want, try and spot the point in it where I start to become convinced of what I’m saying. If you don’t want to, simply do not do that.
In other news
Theo Walcott scored again this week. This, however, had little or no impact on his dignity deficit. He remains a ludicrous footballer on £100,000 a week. Further updates as and when I get them.