Life at Spurs, Man United and more -- Dimitar Berbatov talks to ESPN FC

MARBELLA, Spain -- Growing up in communist-era Bulgaria, Dimitar Berbatov's day would begin at 6 a.m. when he queued to buy bread for his family. After that, though, his focus was football and he had a reputation of his own in Blagoevgrad, a town of 70,000 people.

"My friends would play teams from the other tower blocks," he tells ESPN FC. "They would say: 'Berba is coming with his team; we need to prepare.' I was 10. We played six-a-side, which I still play. I had street cred. Like drug dealers. I walked to school with my chest out."

Berbatov talked with his father, a footballer himself, about Bulgaria's finest players.

"[Hristo] Stoichkov, [Georgi] Asparuhov, [Lyuboslav] Penev. Asparuhov died young in an accident with his best friend, [Nikola] Kotkov, another excellent footballer. Both wanted to play outside Bulgaria, to improve their game and their life, but they were not allowed."

Berbatov trained with older boys and played in the junior sides of local team Pirin, then began his professional career at CSKA Sofia under legendary boss Dimitar Penev. He didn't want to leave, but CSKA's lack of money meant he did, for Bayer Leverkusen in January 2001.

After a slow start he established himself and, in his first full season in Germany, helped knock Liverpool and Manchester United out of the Champions League. Leverkusen reached the final against Real Madrid and Berbatov, then 21, came on after just 39 minutes.

"I almost scored too and we almost beat Real Madrid, if it wasn't for that fabulous [Zinedine] Zidane goal," Berbatov says. "I was in the centre of the pitch and saw the ball drop down. That left foot of his. Bang."

Berbatov was young and, as his star continued to rise, so did interest from other clubs.

ESPN FC: In 2006, you moved to Tottenham.

My agent said we'd had a serious offer from Tottenham. I said: 'Who?' I was watching German football, not English. There were rumours of Man United's interest too. I'd definitely heard of United, but they told me I was effectively a second choice if another player didn't happen. So I took the offer to move to London, which I loved, and play for Spurs, who I grew to love.

ESPN FC: Some of your best football was at Spurs, wasn't it?

In [coach] Martin Jol, I saw my grandfather. He was a big man and you think he's a tough guy, but underneath he is a kind man. I knew immediately that I could have a good relationship with him. It took me a couple of months to get used to English football, to adjust to the speed and the physical side but, when the chance came, I came off the bench to score two goals against Fulham.

ESPN FC: You had a good partnership with Robbie Keane.

More than good, it was my best partnership. We just understood each other. He knew who I was. He wasn't going to bother me and ask why I wasn't speaking and I respected that. We had an understanding on the pitch and I always knew where he was. Robbie was so passionate, always running, while I ran in my head, trying to anticipate the moves and see where the ball was going to go before it went there. That's what good players do. We complemented each other very well and scored so many beautiful goals.

ESPN FC: Tottenham had a decent side but never came close to winning league titles.

We won the [2008] League Cup and beat Chelsea in the final. The coach was Juande Ramos, who knew how to train us, relax us and prepare us for the final as if it was a normal game with little pressure. If you overthink then you are going to have problems. Everybody thought Chelsea would win. They were so strong and reached the Champions League final a few months later with my old teammate Michael Ballack. But we won 2-1, the first Spurs trophy for many years. Spurs have not won a trophy since.

Spurs fans liked me. When I heard them singing my name I thought: 'What the f---? Why are they singing for me?' I didn't like that attention. Some players do, but I was embarrassed and thinking: 'Please, please shut up.' I don't know why I felt like that but, when my family wanted to come and watch me play, I always asked that they didn't come to the stadium. Sometimes I had to be tough and say: 'No, you're not coming.' Even my father. He knows I prefer him to watch me on television, without the pressure of having to perform if they come to the stadium.

ESPN FC: Why did you leave Tottenham in 2008?

When you follow your own path, you have to make decisions like this. I wanted to win trophies and play for the biggest club and the biggest club in England is Manchester United. They had been interested before and I thought: 'If they come again, I'm not going to miss that chance.'

My agent called and said that United were interested again. I didn't believe him at first, but I trusted my agent and he said: 'You can stay here in your comfort zone or make the next step in your career.' It was not a difficult decision; Manchester United were the English and European champions, they had the best players, they had Sir Alex Ferguson and Old Trafford. How could I not be seduced?

When I signed for United, I felt like it was a reward for everything that I'd been through in my life. Like Nemanja Vidic, I came from a small town in a small country in Eastern Europe, but we had reached the top.

ESPN FC: Manchester City also wanted to sign you, didn't they?

Yes, but when United wanted me I was like a horse with blinkers on. I was not interested in anyone else. City offered more money but the team was weaker and their history couldn't compete with United.

ESPN FC: Did you make the right decision?

When I stood in the tunnel as a Manchester United player, I saw [Cristiano] Ronaldo, [Wayne] Rooney, [Ryan] Giggs, [Paul] Scholes, [Gary] Neville, [Nemanja] Vidic, Rio [Ferdinand], [Patrice] Evra, Edwin van der Sar. I said to myself: 'Berba, you need to cherish this moment forever, my friend.' And then I looked at the opponents. They were already beaten.

ESPN FC: Is Manchester an attractive city for a professional footballer?

Some people complain about the weather, but it's a perfect city to concentrate on being a footballer. I had no complaints; I was playing for Manchester United and I started to think: 'OK, you've reached your professional goal, now you can also think about starting a family.' I said to my partner: 'Let's have a kid.' It sounds a bit robotic doesn't it?

ESPN FC: Ronaldo was the best player in Europe during your first season in Manchester.

Young players try and imitate the best players like Ronaldo. They try to imitate the hair, the clothes, the cars, the tricks. I try to tell them how hard Cristiano Ronaldo trained in training and after training. He only wanted to be the best. Everything else came after.

Players shouldn't try and imitate s---, they should concentrate on themselves and being professional. Ronaldo was fine in our dressing room. He could take a joke and Patrice Evra was doing jokes, but he was serious when he played. I was shy, quiet and used to watch all of this.

ESPN FC: Yet you were popular; almost all the players you mentioned came to your charity game in Sofia last summer. Neville and Vidic hadn't played any football before that but got especially fit.

I was delighted that they came and shows the strength of the relationship I had with them. I respected them greatly. You don't play for the best team in Europe if you're not special.

I would watch the way Giggs carried himself around the training ground and played at such a high level even though he was coming close to 40. I could go to players like that and ask for advice. I've been doing yoga for six years because of Giggs and I'm still playing.

ESPN FC: What other interests do you have outside football?

I paint and draw. I can draw everything I see. I can see something I like, imagine it, relax and then draw it from memory. I can draw portraits; I can draw people, comic characters or landscapes. I draw for my kids; they constantly ask me to draw.

ESPN FC: How many children do you have?

Two daughters, aged 7 and 5. And I have two guns for whoever comes to date my daughters. They need to know that I have guns before they date my daughters! But seriously, as long as everyone is healthy I'm OK and, when the time for the big talk comes, when they say: 'Dad, this is my boyfriend,' I'll be ready. What can I do about it? It's coming.

ESPN FC: United won the Premier League and reached the Champions League final in your first season.

I had cost a lot of money and I felt the pressure sometimes, even though I didn't want to admit it. Sometimes you put pressure on yourself; we're all human. You need to be mentally strong, but sometimes you doubt yourself, you overthink. I would see people who understand football speaking about me and think: 'You are speaking s---.' A player would take notice of someone who had played at a high level over someone who has never kicked a ball in his life. I see the same thing now with Paul Pogba.

But I am a striker and people expect strikers to score goals. But I don't see myself as a striker. I like to play with the ball and have the freedom to move around. If every player is on the left and I am on the right, you need to trust me that I have seen something the other players have not seen. I like it when the coach knows this and allows me to express myself. I felt that Ferguson trusted me.

ESPN FC: You have pictures of your league title trophies as your WhatsApp icon.

I'm proud of them. I was the first Bulgarian to win them. I was so happy that I went home and made love to my girl.

ESPN FC: But that first season ended in disappointment with the Champions League final defeat to Barcelona.

The first 10 minutes, it was all United. We had chances. Barcelona were better after that. Carlos [Tevez] and I were left on the bench and we wanted to play.

ESPN FC: Messi was decisive.

Because he's the f---ing greatest. Ronaldo is brilliant, Messi more my kind of player. He sees the game so clearly. He can score, create, he's the complete player, the best ever probably. If you ask someone older than me they will say Pele, Maradona or Puskas or Di Stefano. But for my generation it's Messi or Ronaldo. They're pretty much even, but something with Messi makes me shout 'Messi! Messi!' when I watch Barcelona on television.

ESPN FC: You sound as in awe of Barca as the rival teams in the tunnel at Old Trafford.

We were like that in Rome a little bit. It was the second final that I'd lost, too, so it was more painful. I got on the pitch in the second half, but by then it was too late. Barca were passing the ball around us.

ESPN FC: There would be brighter moments for you to come.

We lost the title to Chelsea in my second season but won it again in my third. That was one of my best seasons in football, 2010-11. I kept scoring hat tricks. I have those balls at my home, all signed by the United players. I treasure them.

ESPN FC: One of the hat tricks was against Liverpool.

Football players score hat tricks all the time. But this one was special because it was against Liverpool. The second goal was really special. Nani crossed the ball and I saw [Rooney] in front of me. I saw by his body movement that he was going to try and go for the ball. I said: 'Wazza, leave it. Wazza! Wazza! It's me.' He left it and afterwards he was very proud as he said: 'I left you the ball.'

I controlled the ball with my thigh. I would be lying if I said I did this intentionally. The ball was falling and my thigh was the best option. The decisions were made in nanoseconds. It was automatic; I didn't think about it. And the way it went in off the bar and down made it more cool. By the roar of the crowd, I knew it was in.

ESPN FC: What is it like to play at Old Trafford?

Sometimes the people say it's too quiet, but I'm not bothered with that. When you have the players that I had around me, I needed to save that moment in my head. I watched them play around me and felt that I was at the theatre. Sometimes you need the roar of the fans, but you don't need to scream to appreciate what is happening on the pitch.

ESPN FC: Who were you friends with at United?

Everybody. I didn't go to dinners with them and everyone has their private life, but at training I was ready for the challenge. And at the heart of United -- this huge club known around the world -- it feels like a family. Lots of the staff have been there for decades and they cared so much about the club. The chef's ring tone was: 'Glory, Glory Man United.' They cared about the team and doing their job, so that made us care about the team and do our role.

ESPN FC: And Sir Alex was the head of that team?

When he walked into the room, people would stop talking. He commanded so much respect and attention because of all the success he'd had. He was good with words, probably from all the books he read. I'd go to his office and he'd have Napoleon's biography on the table.

ESPN FC: Did he ask you about Bulgarian history?

Not a lot, but he bragged about what a good striker he was to me. He'd say: 'Berba, I was so good, I scored so many goals!' We laughed. He knew how to speak to people in their language, even if he was telling them that they were not going to play.

He'd say it in a way that you didn't feel it was a personal criticism. He'd say: 'You're not playing today but you're playing next week.' And you'd think: 'Maybe he's right.' You need to have this psychology in football these days because there will always be someone saying: 'What the f---? I deserve to play!'

Sport is healthy but it can be the opposite of that at the top level. You have so many injuries; you put your body through so much. You wake up at 2 in the morning and you cannot move. Top-level football gives you fame and money, but it takes away a lot, too.

ESPN FC: So how can fame be positive?

Fame comes normally after you have put a lot of hard work in, when you didn't try and become famous, but to do something like be a top footballer. Then, one day, you walk down the street and the guy walks past and says: 'Great game today, Berba.' Or you're sitting there and you can hear people talking about you, even though they think you can't. And they're saying: 'There's Berba, great goal today.' It makes you feel positive because you've done something to make people feel happy.

I don't like persons from Big Brother who are famous for no reason. How did this make their country or their family proud? This is easy fame. I came from a background where we didn't have bread. I know what it's like to live with money and no money. Fame and money, step by step, is better.

ESPN FC: You wouldn't have had United fans coming up to you to say 'great game' after the 2011 FA Cup semifinal against Manchester City at Wembley, when you missed a chance to score.

S--- game. But it was not as s--- as losing the title to Man City in the last minute. I couldn't believe it was happening. We were celebrating winning the league and then, all of a sudden: 'What?' As a team, that was my low point at Old Trafford. Personally, when I miss a chance or don't play well, you always feel bad.

But when [Sergio] Aguero scored that goal, it was terrible for all of us. Someone had said that they had finished and we celebrated. And then someone said: 'No, they have scored.' The journey back to Manchester was terrible. Normally when you lose, you try to joke because there will be another game. But this one was in the last minute of the last game of the season. S--- happens.

ESPN FC: Did you want to leave United later in that summer of 2012 when you moved to Fulham?

Nobody wants to leave United. But footballers want to play and I was not getting enough chances to play anymore. I told Sir Alex and he said that he could not guarantee me this as they had bought Robin van Persie. Competition is good but my ambition to play more meant I left. I don't want to sit down and do nothing, even though I could have won another champions' medal.

I had offers from Fiorentina and Juventus, but after so many years in England I wanted to stay in England and not learn a new language, new training methods and style of football. I'd already learned English from movies and talking to myself and I wanted to use that. I tell my daughter to speak English when she plays with her dolls. She speaks better English than me now.

ESPN FC: You reunited with Jol at Fulham, for a £5 million fee.

'Berba!' he shouted like a big bear when he called me: 'I want you in my team.' I could not say no to him. London, England, Premier League, Martin Jol. Lovely.

ESPN FC: And a traditional old English ground at Craven Cottage...

Yes, it gives you a romantic feeling of how football used to be and that feeling could keep your feet on the ground. They need to expand the dressing room, but it's not possible because the building is listed.

ESPN FC: What was the story with your 'Keep calm and pass me the ball' T-shirt?

Before the game as I warmed up I went to the toilet. There, I decided to put that message on my shirt. All good ideas come in the toilet. I got a pen from the kit man and I always play with a T-shirt underneath. The message was spontaneous and I didn't tell anyone.

ESPN FC: Your manager said it wasn't the brightest thing to do.

He said that publicly. But to me he said: 'Berba, well done.' He understood my humour. But anyway, if people did pass me the ball it would benefit the team. I scored 15 league goals in my first season at Fulham. It was a great season for a good team. I was feeling good again, especially when I scored a goal from the volley against Stoke.

I felt confident and I hate playing against Stoke; they always f---ing kick you. But I liked that goal so much. I went to the boss to celebrate and I could see his eyes getting wet. He hugged me so strong I thought he was going to break my back. I love that guy.

ESPN FC: Monaco came next, which is just about the opposite to where you grew up.

I wanted to stay in England but, in the last minute of the [January 2014]transfer window, Monaco approached. It was just for six months because Radamel Falcao was injured and we had to take a chance. It was the right choice, it's a great place to live and I liked the coach Claudio Ranieri. At first, I don't think he was convinced by me, so I said: 'Boss, give me a chance.' He put me in one game and I scored. From that moment I played every game. We extended my contract one more year.

ESPN FC: Anthony Martial was one of your teammates.

I went into the first training session and saw Anthony Martial, James Rodriguez, Geoffrey Kondogbia, Yannick Carrasco, Bernardo Silva. These young players were flying around me and I was thinking: 'What the f---? I am too old or are these guys too good.' Martial had something special and he's developed. He'll develop even more.

You could see how fast and strong he was. The only thing lacking was to be more confident. I liked playing in defence in training; it helped me understand the defenders well. Martial would come towards with me the ball. Sometimes he hesitated; he didn't want to take me on because he thought I was going to take his ball. The self belief was not there. I would say: 'Anto, you are so quick, you can go past me. Don't be afraid to do that to every player because you are so quick.' He's a top guy.

ESPN FC: Greece was next, Salonika.

I wanted to go back to England but the owner of PAOK, who is so passionate about his club, was calling my agent all the time. It's two-and-a-half hours' drive from our place in Sofia and next to the sea, but the coach didn't know how to handle me in the training process or the games. We had some issues. In the end, the coach was fired, but it was too late for me. The fans were so passionate and crazy. I have some happy memories from there.

ESPN FC: Are you still passionate about football?

Of course, I want to play as much as I can. I'm about to play in India for Kerala Blasters. Is this going to be my last club? I don't know, but I'm looking forward to working with Rene Muelensteen and the young Indian players. They can only grow in a country where football is still new. I'm looking forward to playing in front of 50,000, if not being away from my family.

But I watch football too, especially my old clubs. I went to (Man United's training ground) Carrington recently. I saw Jose Mourinho and he was very welcoming. I saw the beast, Antonio Valencia. I gave him stick about his English, but he was shy like me. Shy off the pitch, but never on it. That's where it matters.