Kerala, meet Berbatov, the Bulgarian who'll never be a vulgarian
September 2008. Manchester United are in the middle of their last great title-winning run under Alex Ferguson. The team has stardust everywhere but the focus is the forward line of Rooney, Ronaldo and Tevez, a blur of speed, skill and interchanging positions. They can - and do - score from anywhere and everywhere but their USP is speed, making the most of those raking crossfield Paul Scholes passes.
Into this fluid, frantic mix is dropped Dimitar Berbatov, languid, almost lazy, with a shyness as far removed as possible from the exuberance - and more - of his fellow forwards. He's had four seasons on the trot scoring 20+ goals, for Bayer Leverkusen and Tottenham Hotspur, but this is Manchester United.
Being a good player isn't enough, you have to have the strength of character to take the flak when you fail, not only from the opposition but often from your own fans. Will he survive? Will he be an Eric Cantona - another brooding foreigner, who succeeded - or a Juan Sebastian Veron, similarly signed to give Manchester United a more subtle dimension when playing in Europe but ultimately proving too sophisticated for the team?
Typically, as with anything Berbatov, the answers took a while (and maybe we don't know them yet). Playing Berbatov alongside Rooney, Ronaldo and Tevez was a bit like sending Tyrion Lannister along with Jon, Tormund and the Hound to fight the White Walkers. The problem was at several levels. Berbatov was never the fastest but in his current team he appeared static and slowed play down, effectively undoing the team's advantage.
He liked to pass; his teammates (as Nemanja Vidic said recently) expected him to score. He liked the ball at his feet, knowing he could wriggle out of the tightest marking and the most acute angles; United's playmakers were used to passing the ball into clear space for the forwards to chase and win. Eventually, the story goes, Ferguson had to tell his midfield to pass the ball to Berbatov's feet and trust him to control it.
Berbatov's demeanour didn't help; he usually had a doleful, hang-dog expression, head bowed and shoulders slumped, portraying, as one writer put it, "the anguished look of a man who has just missed the last bus home". His celebration was much of the same, with an occasional smile that only accentuated the sad eyes. Paul Scholes was similarly reticent but with one difference: He knew he owned the pitch. With Berbatov, it was as if he felt he was trespassing.
Slowly, though, the class came through. First, the ball control, that ability to spin with the ball, leaving the opponent looking quite foolish. Best exemplified here, perhaps the most audacious of all his moves. The passing, with a vision and accuracy (and simplicity) that seemed otherworldly. Everything about him oozed class. The Bulgarian could never be a vulgarian. The team was hot, he remained cool.
And then the goals followed - he was, as Ferguson used to say about that other United striker Mark Hughes, not a great goalscorer but a scorer of great goals. Scissors-kick, bicycle kick, back-heel, outside of his foot. Against Liverpool, in 2010, a hat-trick (two headers and an overhead kick); a few weeks later, five - five! - against Blackburn, including one where he won the ball near his own penalty area, then exchanged passes twice as the play sped to the other end and finally swept the ball home.
All this interspersed with tricks, flicks and shimmies that were as good as Ronaldo's but with half the effort. And the attitude - he was pictured smoking, a no-no for pro footballers, and when asked, said he was trying to act cool. Was it a double bluff? Did it really matter?
The problem was evident, though: You could bank on him for magic but not for goals. He still scored plenty - he was the Premier League's leading scorer in 2010-11 - but not consistently, and increasingly not when it mattered. He could score at will, but his will too often seemed at odds with the team's needs. The fans knew that every simple missed chance that made you gnash your teeth would be followed by one that made you gape in awe. But vice versa too.
For a side chasing trophies, it wasn't good enough. He was relegated to the substitutes' bench and, in the Champions League final in 2011 against Barcelona, he was not in the squad at all. That marked the beginning of the end and his exit from Old Trafford was a typically dignified, quiet slow-burn. It was desperate to see. By the end, one newspaper estimated, he had missed almost two-thirds of United's important matches in his time there.
Yet Berbatov can't be reduced to numbers - minutes played, goals scored, medals won, assists, distance run, tackles and interceptions, those are for others. To examine him through the optics of Opta would be to miss the point: It was always about the means, not the end.
I've been a United fan for almost 40 years and few players' departures affected me as much as Berbatov's. Not even Ronaldo's; sure, he was special, one of the greatest to play the game. His departure meant the trophies would dry up. But United would, in theory at least, be home to the greatest in the future. When Berba left something more fundamental was gone; in the tightly controlled, cookie-cutter, PR-driven world of superstar football, you knew you'd not see his type again.
And now he comes to Kerala, a place that has a reputation for doing things its own way, taking pleasure in going against the grain. Swagatham, Dimitar, to Kerala Blasters, home of the ISL's most passionate fans. The next season should be a song of fire and ice.