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Sunday, 14 September 2008

Berbatov Is A Man After My Own Heart With Generosity For Children

From: The Daily Mirror

At three and a half, little Dimitar practises keepy-uppys with a basketball outside his parents' apartment - they could not afford a football.

Inside the modest two bedroom council flat where Manchester United striker Dimitar Berbatov was born, his mother Margarita winces when she recalls life in grim communist-era 1980s Bulgaria.

"When Dimitar was very small he broke the cabinet by accident because he used to kick a basketball around the apartment," she said. "We couldn't afford to buy him a football.

"When he grew up we had a tough life but he never complained.

Dimitar always had enough to eat and was happy playing football."

The picture above shows Berbatov, then three, playing football with an outsized basketball in a dusty, cratered backyard.

The new star of Old Trafford recognises how hard life was in his early days, even having to queue for bread for up to eight hours: "We would get in line at six in the morning, and if you lost your place you had to go to the back."

Berbatov showed a single-minded approach to the game from an early age. His mum said: "Dimitar has no interest in a fancy lifestyle.

His life is football, family and friends. He can travel anywhere in the world, but he tells me he prefers Bulgaria to Barbados."

The £30.75million striker admitted: "I miss it in some ways. I had my friends, and the conditions united and strengthened you. My personality has been shaped by my upbringing.

"I know what a crisis is. I appreciate life and I never take anything for granted."

Many of Bulgaria's new rich show off their wealth with a gangster-style chic of gold chains, black Cherokee jeeps and garishly coloured villas.

Berbatov shuns this bling culture. Home means Blagoevgrad, a depressed former mining town in western Bulgaria.

When he visits his mum he sleeps on the battered blue sofa in the lounge like he always has.

His mother self-consciously nods at the shiny new Honda Civic parked in the yard outside, a recent birthday present from her son.

"I am very proud of him. What makes me really happy is we always talk after every game. I text him during the match, maybe when he's scored a great goal.

"That waymy message is waiting for him when he finishes. He tells me I am the world's greatest mum."

Off the pitch Berbatov is well known as a sponsor of childrens' charities. At the Blagoevgrad children's home, director Yevgenia Yordanova says Berbatov's donations feed and clothe their 74 underprivileged kids.

"His help means these children eat properly. Without him we would struggle. He's a role model," she said.

Berbatov supports five care homes. And in a country where a specialist children's hospital was closed down because the council couldn't afford to cover the electricity bill, private donations are a lifeline to Bulgaria's estimated 30,000 forgotten children.

Even as an up-and coming player in 2001, Berbatov covered the cost of a life-saving liver transplant for a sick girl. And he recently paid out for 500 pairs of trainers so deprived kids didn't go barefoot.

It is ironic given Berbatov's first transfer fee in 1998 when he moved from local team FC Pirin to CSKA Sofia in 1997 was part-funded by 20 pairs of football boots.

Margarita says Berbatov finds strength from his belief in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

"When he left for England he carried a Bible I gave him. I pray for him before every game."

Berbatov is an artist off the pitch as well as on it. He once painted a mural of his football idols across the ceiling of his bedroom.

"Dimitar spent hours to complete the paintings. He was obsessed with showing all his favourite players from Pele to Michael Owen."

Berbatov spent childhood holidays in the desperately poor farming village of Marikostinovo on the Bulgaria-Greek border. Every summer he returns there. His proud grandparents Dimitar and Verka, 76, have turned their single storey cottage into a virtual shrine, their home's bare stone walls are covered with press cuttings and posters.

Dimitar senior, a footballer in his youth, is a close confidante of his grandson. They chat and dig the vegetable garden together when his grandson drops by to sample a bowl of his grandmother's homemade potato soup.

"Dimitar told me his future is in England," he said. "He believes he deserves to play Champions League football because that is his level of talent."

School-mate Mario Bekov said: "We wanted Dimitar as goalkeeper.

It was our attempt to stop him controlling the game. It failed - like a ghost he would appear everywhere! We called him the magician."

Berbatov plans to open a foot ball academy in his hometown to give youngsters a chance of a better life in the EU's poorest country, where the average wage is £160 a month.

It also offers a chance for Premier League scouts to save their clubs a fortune if they find the next Berbatov.

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