Football is enamored with the past. Football writers, fans, and even entire clubs cannot seem to get enough of what has been. Manchester United are proprietors of one of the more interesting histories in British football. As such, United supporters have a rather extensive well from which to draw when they are feeling nostalgic. When Cristiano Ronaldo broke through at the club, he was declared the ‘new George Best.’ As Wayne Rooney inches closer and closer to a role at the center of the park, he turns more and more into Sir Bobby Charlton. Were it not for those flash hair implants, he might already be there. Sir Alex Ferguson, the most successful manager in English football, has long existed as the ‘new Sir Matt Busby.’
Fans use the past to give the present context. The past helps us place expectations on players, and it guides our belief in a player and, ultimately, in our club. As the present makes good on the past- as Ronaldo does become one of the world’s best, as Rooney inches closer to Sir Bobby’s club goal record, and as Sir Alex continues his revivals of the club a là Busby after Munich- we feel emboldened to continue linking today with yesteryear.
Yet the past offers pitfalls, as Dimitar Berbatov illustrated this summer. After toying with Italian hearts on the last day of the transfer window, Berbatov has joined Fulham FC, of London, in the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham.
At United Berbatov was a victim of the past. Rather, he was a victim of an incorrect interpretation of the present, which may or may not be the same thing. Signed from Tottenham in 2008, after a long affair between player and club, Dimitar Berbatov arrived at a club high on domestic and European titles. Since then, and before a ball was even kicked, Berbatov has been on the way out. Writer Musa Okwonga, in a poem written in light of Berbatov’s departure, reflects:
“You and I were beautifully doomed.
With some loves, you know it’s the end before you ever really begin.”
In strangely beautiful style, Okwonga hits the proverbial nail on the head- Berbatov was never going to work out, was he? The more I followed news of his imminent departure from Old Trafford, the more I began to understand perhaps why Berbatov was ‘beautifully doomed.’ I was unaware of this, but it appears Dimitar Berbatov was signed with one Eric Cantona in mind. Everywhere I read, Cantona’s name was bandied about, sometimes to describe Berbatov’s style, but mostly to support the notion that Berbatov was preordained as a reincarnation of the dynamic Frenchman. A piece on this very site insists Sir Alex brought the Bulgarian to the club because, in spite of the considerable in-house attacking talent in Mssrs. Ronaldo, Rooney, and Tevez, what Sir Alex really yearned for was:
“…that player who was unpredictably brilliant, who could win matches with unfathomable pieces of skill and mastery…’
This would all be well and good, except that United already had that player in Ronaldo. The author goes on to question whether Berbatov was brought to the club perhaps out of the need to “fill the void left by Eric Cantona…” How, and when, did this comparison begin? Since Cantona’s departure in 1997, Sir Alex has not had the time to think about Eric Cantona. He has been busy winning 21 trophies- league titles, European Cups, F.A. Cups, League Cups, FIFA Club World Cups- an awful lot of cups. I find it difficult to believe that Sir Alex would have spent much time contemplating what-may-have-been had Cantona not decided to retire early. After the Frenchman, Sir Alex went on to manage the forward quartet of Cole, York, Sheringham, and Solskjaer, along with Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, and David Beckham. Then came van Nistelrooy, the aforementioned Ronaldo, Rooney, Tevez, and Chicharito. Berbatov came in amidst all that, not because of it. His purchase was the result of the machinations of a proactive manager, not one stuck in the past.
Again, where did this comparison begin? Why did it begin? Aside from a somewhat similar playing style, what other likenesses exist? As dynamic and mercurial a personality as Cantona was off the pitch, his ability to inspire and lead on the pitch are perhaps his most important contribution to the club, unquestionably head and shoulders above anything Berbatov has done, either in Germany or previously in England with Tottenham. And what of kung-fu? Cantona was obviously quite adept at the odd roundhouse to the face, while our Bulgarian friend would probably argue martial arts get in the way of his cigarettes. The similarities begin at the absurd capacity to influence the flight of a football through space; there they end.
If we are to bemoan the loss of a player, look no further than Roy Keane, the influential United captain who left the club in controversial fashion in 2005. His departure did in fact create a void. Since he left, United have lacked bite in the center of the pitch. Witness the manner in which M. Fellaini absolutely bossed United’s midfield in the loss on match day one. Here we have a visible void which has developed into a rather pressing need. I digress, but the point remains- memory, when applied incorrectly can tarnish the reputation of even the most gifted of players.
This need, this obsession to link a player with someone from the past, has to come from somewhere. David Winner, writing in Those Feet: A Sensual History of British Football:
“English fans don’t just live in the past, they commit its names…. to sacred memory.”
In the case of Dimitar Berbatov, all this nostalgia, all this memory, has led to his name being uttered wistfully by the Old Trafford faithful. Therein lies the problem with collective memory, which is exactly the obstacle many a player, not just Berbatov, face.