STILL GOT IT: Berbatov walks off with the match ball after
scoring a hat-trick in the league match against Wigan Athletic on December 26.
Dimitar Berbatov has always had a mixed reception at home – without doubt the biggest star of his generation in Bulgarian football, much was expected of him and plenty of criticism was heaped by fans and media alike whenever it was felt that he was giving less than his everything for the national team.
Much like Manchester United fans, many of whom accuse Berbatov of looking too nonchalant and occasionally disinterested on the football pitch, a good portion of Bulgarian supporters have always felt that the striker never really played his best for Bulgaria (although never doubting his ability and the fact that he had an inferior supporting cast in the national side).
It all culminated in May 2010, when at the end of a dismal World Cup qualifying campaign, which saw Bulgaria miss the plane for South Africa by a wide margin, yet one during which Berbatov scored enough goals to become the national team's all-time leading scorer, the striker announced his retirement from international football, aged only 29.
Team captain for the previous three years, Berbatov said that he felt it was time for an infusion of new blood, but also made it clear that he was sick of the vitriolic criticism levelled against him after nearly every match.
Since then, he has repeatedly shot down all suggestions that he might change his mind, while at the same time clashing with some senior Bulgarian Football Union officials, most often with vice president Yordan Lechkov, himself a former footballer and a member of Bulgaria's celebrated 1994 World Cup squad, which reached the tournament's semifinals.
Until now, that is.
On February 7, Berbatov gave the first indication that he might be open to returning into the fold of the national team.
"I have not discussed the issue with [new national team manager] Lyubo Penev. If I were to receive an invitation, I might think it over," Berbatov told Bulgarian reporters in Manchester at the announcement of a commercial partnership between Manchester United and Bulgarian mobile operator Globul.
Unretiring, however, was not his main concern, Berbatov said.
"Right now, it is more important for me to play for my club, because if I don't play for Manchester United, I do not think that I can help much the national side," he was quoted as saying.
Berbatov's contract with United expires in June, but, according to reports in British media, the club has the option to unilaterally extend his current 90 000 pounds a week deal for one more year.
Last year, Berbatov and his agent asked for a longer extension, one that the club has been reluctant to offer, even though Berbatov's blistering form in the early stages of the campaign helped the club win a record 19th domestic league title. He finished as the Premier League's joint top scorer for the season despite seeing increasingly diminished playing time in the last months of the campaign and was left out of the squad for the Champions League final, which United lost to Barcelona.
This season, Berbatov has been relegated to third-choice striker and yet has scored more goals than anyone other than Wayne Rooney, nine (although six of them came in a 10-day stretch before New Year's Day).
Despite never-ending tabloid speculation about his future, Berbatov did not move clubs in the January transfer window and there is little indication that United received any credible offer for the striker. Media reports linked him to clubs in Germany, Spain and Italy, as well as big-spending Anzhi Makhachkala in Russia, home to Roberto Carlos and Samuel Eto'o.