Iceman Berbatov melts in Kochi heat
It's not hard to spot Dimitar Berbatov in a crowd, even from afar. If his tall and lanky figure doesn't give him away, the confident demeanour and nonchalant ball control most certainly do.
It wouldn't be Berbatov any other way. He has always played football on his pace, and on his terms.
Forget about Champions League finals and title-deciding Premier League games; Berbatov is unfazed even by glitzy ISL opening ceremonies graced by Indian darlings Sachin Tendulkar, Salman Khan, Katrina Kaif and Mammooty. With ice in his veins, why should he be?
The thing about ice is that, it has to melt. Any kind of ice. And pushed into the spotlight before an eager Kerala crowd, Berbatov melted fast in the sweltering Kochi heat.
It's difficult not to symphatise with Berbatov, or any of the other 21 players on the pitch. After a drab and uneventful 0-0 draw, head coach of Kerala Blasters, Rene Meulensteen pointed out how the "unbelievable heat and humidity" made it "almost impossible" for his team to play well for the full 90 minutes.
Berbatov, though, is all about the impossible, so he tried nonetheless. He tried to shake off the rust - he hasn't played competitive football since leaving Greek club PAOK in 2016 - with a couple of early touches in the game, but rather than sticking to his feet like magnet, as is usually the case, the ball ricocheted off him. Even as early as three minutes in, things weren't going according to plan.
With his touch at the final third deserting him and Kerala's midfielders failing to feed him well, Berbatov, now 36, was reduced to a non-entity the entire game, dropping deeper and deeper just to stay close to the action.
He tried playing to the crowd, occasionally showing bursts of pace by running down the goalkeeper. He even briefly got the crowd going by stealing a ball in transition and tricking his way past two ATK shirts, but made a mess of the final pass. The full capacity crowd at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium quickly got back into their seats.
Berbatov is one of the most high-profile players of the still-young ISL, and the fans were desperate for some Berba-magic to break the deadlock.
But there was no magic. No effortless roulettes, no skills near the byline, no chest control and bicycle kick into the roof of the net. As Berbatov began to tire and the noise began to lessen, the stadium DJ was forced to come up with a quick "KERALA, CAN WE HEAR YOU?" just to get the volume back up again.
It was that kind of night for Berbatov, and in general, for the fans: Difficult and frustrating, but with just enough glimpses of promise to be hopeful for the season ahead.
"We started with Berbatov up top and later changed to a 4-4-1-1 so that he could drop deeper," Meulensteen said. "We wanted him on the ball a bit more, as he's got the quality. Unfortunately we weren't able to produce the final ball and that's something we'll look to improve upon."
But in ATK head coach Teddy Sheringham's assessment, it wasn't just the heat and humidity that managed to keep Berbatov quiet.
"Our defensive unit worked very hard all week [to contain him]. We know that if you just give him half-a chance, he'll score," he said. "Berba has that star quality. You give him an inch, and he's going to do something beautiful. We worked very hard on shutting off his supply."
Berbatov's game was summed up in the 82nd minute, when Meulensteen brought on Jackichand Singh to replace midfielder Courage Pekuson, who wears the number 99 on his shirt. Berbatov, presumably having heard the announcer just say "nine", began walking immediately towards the dugout, only to be told by the support staff that he still had to last the remaining 10 minutes of the game.
It eventually ended 0-0, with both coaches later saying they were happy with the point. ATK have lost just once against Kerala, and Kerala will much rather be bored than heartbroken again by their opponents.
No doubt there will be better days for the ISL - and for Berbatov too - but for the packed crowd in Kochi, the entire occasion fizzled out rather quickly after all the colour and festivities leading up to it.
All game, the league's signature "Let's Football" theme song was played by the DJ on loop, drilled into the ears of 37000-odd fans simply desperate for some good football.
A more appropriate song choice for Friday's opener would have been Mick Jagger's "You can't always get what you want".