As a player at Manchester United, Dimitar Berbatov’s curiosity about leadership was sparked by seeing the books in manager Alex Ferguson’s office.
A biography of Napoleon Bonaparte made an impression on one of Bulgaria’s greatest forwards, who is now embarking upon a campaign to lead his national football federation — one that has a chaotic recent history.
“That was the first book that got my attention,” Berbatov said, recalling his 2008-12 stint playing for a coach whose management style was studied at Harvard Business School.
“I was like, ‘Boss, what is with all the autobiographies?’ And he is like, ‘Well, Berba, I’m leading an army in a way. If I can take something from all the books I read I can implement it into my own philosophy of leading you.’”
Berbatov has clear ideas about how he would lead Bulgarian football out of a prolonged slump. The national team was once a staple at World Cups — qualifying for seven out of 10 editions through 1998 — and reached the semifinals in 1994.
Actually getting the keys to the federation’s presidential office is the current issue.
Berbatov won a vote by clubs in Bulgaria last week, held one hour after an official Bulgarian football federation assembly was canceled. The sitting president, Borislav Mihailov, was the goalkeeper in that 1994 team.
The federation reacted on Wednesday by suspending dozens of clubs who took part in the meeting.
The legal stalemate is “ridiculous,” Berbatov said, and he has asked football governing bodies FIFA and UEFA to help create order. He wants an “honest congress” to give clarity.
“What is happening now is sad,” he said in an online interview this week. “Nobody wins. I don’t want it to be like this.”
The decline of Bulgarian football on the field has been clear since its last appearance at a major tournament, the 2004 European Championship with Berbatov as the star striker from Bayer Leverkusen.
Off the field, problems were broadcast to the world in October 2019 when England visited Sofia for a Euro 2020 qualifying game. England won 6-0 but play was twice stopped as Bulgarian fans made Nazi salutes and targeted monkey noises at Black players.
“This is something that should never happen in the world of football,” Berbatov said.
Mihailov, who had led the federation for 14 years, resigned the next day under pressure from the country’s then-prime minister. The federation’s offices were raided by police.
Mihailov returned 18 months later, one day after Berbatov launched his campaign.
An election victory for Mihailov last October was recognized by FIFA and UEFA, but it has been disputed in court. The result did not stall Berbatov’s campaign team, which includes two more Euro 2004 stars, Stiliyan Petrov and Martin Petrov.
“I have gathered a really good team around me which follows my way of seeing things,” Berbatov said. “An honest way, according to the laws of Bulgaria.”
FIFA and UEFA wrote to the federation this week saying they are “gravely concerned about the situation of Bulgarian football” and acknowledged “an ongoing legal process” about the election last year.
While the future is uncertain, Berbatov plans a 10-year strategy to revive youth development in the nation that produced 1994 Ballon d’Or winner Hristo Stoichkov.
Berbatov played in two Champions League finals — for Leverkusen in 2002 and United in 2009 — yet the current national team squad has no player at a top club in one of Europe’s big five leagues.
“We need to make sure that our academies have one philosophy of playing football,” he said. “It’s not working for so many years because everyone is working independently and nobody is listening.”
Berbatov cites Croatia, the 2018 World Cup finalist whose population is a little more than half of Bulgaria’s almost 7 million, as an example to follow.
Bulgaria plays Croatia next week in a friendly in Qatar, two days before FIFA’s 211 member federations gather there for their annual congress.
“I have fully the right to go to Doha as well to represent my country,” Berbatov said of the uncertainty, “but of course nobody wants something like this to happen.”
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