Sunday, April 4, 2010

Dimitar Berbatov: The Godfather



FOR a man who models himself on a big screen Mafia Don, today's showdown with Chelsea is 'nothing personal, it's purely business'.

Dimitar Berbatov has had a life that could make a film.

And there have already been offers for the Bulgarian to move from the glamourous world of football to another in cinema.

For now, he is happy being at Manchester United.

But off the pitch you could be forgiven for mistaking him for Andy Garcia in The Godfather: Part III... or so he thinks.

Berbatov, 29, said: "Lots of people tell me that I look like him.

"He has actually influenced my choice of hairstyle and I have even studied the way he smokes so I can hold my cigarette in the same way."

Berbatov learnt English from watching The Godfather trilogy as he made his way from the dark mean streets of Communist Bulgaria to the bright lights of the Premier League.

The young Don Corleone himself was brought up on the streets of Little Italy in New York.

For Dimitar, life was tougher in the bleak mining town of Blagoevgrad and as a kid and he was reduced to kicking an old dusty basketball to hone his talents as there was no money for a proper football.

This came after he queued for bread for anything up to eight hours.

He said: "We would get in line at six in the morning and, if you lost your place, you had to go to the back.

"I don't know many footballers who will have experienced what it was like being a child in a communist country."

As a rising star, the mob KIDNAPPED him after training with CSKA Sofia.

Gangland chief Georgi Iliev wanted him to play for his club Levski Kjustendil.

Berbatov managed to make a call to his dad Ivan, who was also a professional footballer, who did a deal to free his son.

Understandably, it is not a subject Berbatov talks about at length.

He said: "It was an horrific ordeal but a long time ago now."

Then, in November last year, he had to evacuate his wife Elena and daughter Dea from Bulgaria when his mother Margarita was warned of a kidnap plot against them.

Berba is understood to have struck an agreement to keep all his family safe.

All this is perhaps why the striker is different and something of a loner at Old Trafford.

While others indulge in usual football banter he can often be seen standing alone in his own thoughts at airports on United's travels.

He has never forgotten his roots and gives money to five children's care homes and has his own football foundation.

Even when he was starting out as a player in 2001, he saved the life of a sick Bulgarian girl by paying for her liver transplant operation.

For him, the streets of Blagoevgrad have not been eclipsed by the leafy lanes of Cheshire.

He once admitted: "I miss it in some ways. I had my friends, and the conditions united and strengthened you. My personality has been shaped by my upbringing. I know what a crisis is."

His mother Margarita says her son finds strength from his faith in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

She once said: "When he left for England, he carried a Bible I gave him. I pray for him before every game."

Those prayers will be offered as Berba faces Chelsea today.

And all eyes will be on him for the next couple of weeks with Wayne Rooney sidelined.

The time for talking about style over substance is over - the Ј30.75million man must deliver.

He needs to be more prolific than the 12 goals in 36 appearances he has contributed in his second season at Old Trafford.

As a kid, he wanted to be Marco van Basten, as a teen he idolised Alan Shearer and would go to bed in a Newcastle shirt.

He once painted a mural of his favourite players from Pele to Michael Owen, now his own team-mate.

While Berbatov is adored at home, his recent performances for his country have been criticised after Bulgaria failed to qualify for the World Cup finals.

His response to that on his blog was Cantona-esque: "I have this to say to all who envy, I am too high up to see you. And even if I fell, I would not fall so low.

"I am the dog you love to hate because I am a big success.

"In Bulgaria, everyone is an expert on football even though most of them have probably never kicked a football. But this is my blog and I can say anything I like."

If he can now also play like Eric Cantona until the end of the season there will be no criticism.