Inspired by Ferguson, Berbatov aims to lead Bulgarian football

GENEVA (AP) – As a player at Manchester United, Dimitar Berbatov’s curiosity about leadership was fueled by books in manager Alex Ferguson’s office.

The biography of Napoleon Bonaparte made an impression on one of Bulgaria’s greatest forwards, who is now leading a campaign to lead its national football federation – whose recent history has been chaotic.

“It was the first book that caught my attention,” Berbatov told the Associated Press in an interview.

“I was like, ‘Boss, what’s with all the autobiographies?’ And he’s like, ‘Okay, Baraba, I’m kind of leading the army. If I can take something from all the books I’ve read I can apply it to your philosophy of leadership. ‘”

Berbatov has clear ideas about how he will get Bulgarian football out of a prolonged slump. The national team was once dominant in the World Cup – qualifying for seven of the 10 editions until 1998 – and reached the semi-finals in 1994.

Actually getting the keys of the Presidential Office of the Federation is the current issue.

Berbatov won a vote by clubs in Bulgaria last week, an hour after the cancellation of an official Bulgarian football federation assembly. The current chairman, Borislav Mihailov, was the goalkeeper in that team from 1994.

The federation reacted on Wednesday by suspending dozens of clubs participating in the meeting.

The legal standoff is “ridiculous”, Berbatov said, and he has asked football governing bodies FIFA and UEFA to help build the 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.”

Bulgarian football’s decline on the field has been evident since its last appearance in a major tournament, the 2004 European Championship, which had Berbatov as Bayer Leverkusen’s star striker.

Off the field, problems were broadcast to the world in October 2019 when England toured Sofia for the Euro 2020 qualifying game. England won 6–0 but the game was halted twice as Bulgarian fans saluted the Nazis and aimed the sound of monkeys at black players.

“This is something that should never happen in the world of football,” said Berbatov.

Mihailov, who led the federation for 14 years, resigned the next day under pressure from the then prime minister of the country. The police raided the offices of the Federation.

Mikhailov returned after 18 months, the day after Berbatov had launched his campaign.

Mihailov’s election victory last October was recognized by FIFA and UEFA, but this has been disputed in court. The result did not deter Berbatov’s campaign team, which includes two more Euro 2004 stars, Stylian Petrov and Martin Petrov.

“I’ve gathered a really good team around me that follows my way of looking at things,” Berbatov said. “An honest way, according to the laws of Bulgaria.”

FIFA and UEFA wrote to the federation this week that they are “seriously concerned about the state of Bulgarian football” and acknowledged “an ongoing legal process” regarding the election last year.

While the future is uncertain, Berbatov plans a 10-year strategy to revive the youth development in the country that produced 1994 Ballon d’Or winner Histo Stoichkov.

Berbatov played in two Champions League finals – for Leverkusen in 2002 and United in 2009 – yet the current national team squad does not have a player from a top club in Europe’s major five leagues.

“We need to make sure that our academies have a philosophy of playing football,” he said. “It hasn’t been working for so many years because everyone is working independently and no one is listening.”

Berbatov cited 2018 World Cup finalist Croatia, which has a population of slightly more than half of Bulgaria’s nearly 7 million, as an example to follow.

Bulgaria plays Croatia in a friendly in Qatar next week, two days before FIFA’s 211 member association gathers there for their annual convention.

“I have every right to go to Doha as well as represent my country,” Berbatov said of the uncertainty, “but of course no one wants anything like that.”


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