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Wednesday, June 29

Berbatov Supports Bulgarian Nurses in Lybia

Updated on: 06.06.2007, 15:46

Published on: 06.06.2007, 15:18

Author: Gary Jacob, Times Online

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As well as spearheading Tottenham Hotspur's attack, Dimitar Berbatov has been at the front of another campaign - to release five Bulgarian nurses sentenced to death in Libya.

The forward has been wearing an armband with the slogan "You are not alone", which has come to symbolise their plight as they seek to overturn their conviction in December on charges of injecting hundreds of children in the city of Benghazi with the HIV virus in the 1990s. They have been detained for the past eight years.

The verdict was greeted with widespread international condemnation, with the United States and European Union protesting the innocence of the medical workers, and demonstrations took place in Bulgaria, Berbatov's homeland.

Bianca Jagger and George Michael are among the celebrities who supported a campaign to free the nurses and a Palestinian doctor, who claim that their testimony was given under torture.

But their plight is more poignant for Berbatov, 26, because his mother is a senior nurse at the Blagoevgrad town hospital. Margarita Berbatov has become prominent for leading rallies against the imprisonment, just as her son has become the pin-up boy of Bulgarian football. "She has helped people all her life and I would really like her to continue that," Berbatov said. "Maybe I can change things, too."

In an age in which football players are sometimes accused of being self-centred, Berbatov's involvement stems in part from his memories of the end of communism and accompanying uncertain political and economic times. The experience moulded his character and led him to become the country's goodwill ambassador for Unicef.

Berbatov comes from a sporting family. His mother was a handball player and his father, Ivan, played football for Pirin Blagoevgrad and CSKA Sofia. His brother, Asen, also used to play in Bulgaria.

Berbatov's father has never stopped offering advice. He taught his young son how to make clever runs, steal the ball from defenders and finish. Nowadays, he appraises Berbatov's performances in phone conversations.

"We discuss how not to make the same mistakes," Berbatov said. "For example, when I miss, don't control the ball, shoot or pass. I listen to him. I try to do the best not to disappoint him. If I can make my parents proud, I am a successful man. He tells me good things, too.

"When I was younger, sometimes I thought, Why is he talking like that? But as time went by I started to realise he was right. When he wanted to be critical, he did not say, You stupid this or that'. He encouraged me - Try to do this next time'." But for all his appreciation of their sacrifices and encouragement, Berbatov feels uncomfortable about his parents being in the crowd when he plays for Bulgaria. "Maybe I am strange in that way," he said.

Berbatov's talent was spotted by Dimitar Penev, who coached Bulgaria to the World Cup semi-finals in 1994. Penev took him, at 17, to CSKA Sofia, where the forward had to share a dormitory with five other players. Berbatov acquired a silky touch and predatory instinct to ghost into space and create and score goals.

He managed a goal every other game in two seasons and enjoyed a similar record in five years with Bayer Leverkusen. His strike-rate of 33 goals in 56 appearances for Bulgaria is even more impressive. "I am born for football," Berbatov said. "God gave me a talent and I try to show it. Maybe when I can't run fast I will become a defender."

After an indifferent start, with four goals in his opening 12 matches for Tottenham, Berbatov has scored 22 this season to become their leading scorer, helping to repay the 10.9 million fee that the London club paid Leverkusen last summer.

"I could not have imagined the way that it has gone," he said. "It was really difficult at the beginning. I have my own style and don't like the comparison with how other players do in their first season. I believe in myself. When you fight and don't put your head down, you can achieve a lot."

He has been linked with Chelsea and Manchester United, who must be kicking themselves. Sir Alex Ferguson, the United manager, told Berbatov last summer that he could finance a move for him once he had sold Ruud van Nistelrooy.

Tottenham nipped in and Berbatov decided that it was better not to lose out twice. He also felt that he would better adapt to the English game at White Hart Lane rather than the intense microscope he would have faced at Old Trafford.

Tottenham, who today will unveil their kit for next season - inspired by past designs - to mark their 125th anniversary, have told him that he will not be allowed to move this summer and there have been talks about improving his contract, which has three years left. It is possible they will come to a gentlemen's agreement for him to leave for a large fee at the end of next season, if Tottenham have not qualified for the Champions League.

"When you score goals, everyone is watching you," he said. "The top four teams, [including] Manchester and Chelsea, take an interest. I am happy at Tottenham now, but you don't know what will happen. If you want to continue playing well, you have to shut the speculation out and try to concentrate on your game.

"No one will know what will happen in the future. It is a big challenge for me to develop, to be at a high level. I am not a hero. I am an ordinary guy who plays football and entertains the fans. I am thankful for their support." The nurses are grateful, too.

Table - Bulgaria

1 Levski 39
2 CSKA 37
3 Lokomotiv Sofia 33
4 Litex 29
5 Cherno more 24
6 Slavia 23
7 Botev Plovdiv 22
8 Beroe 20
9 Vihren 20
10 Spartak Varna 19
11 Lokomotiv Plovdiv 18
12 Marek 16
13 Belasitza 15
14 Rilski Sportist 15
15 Rodopa Smolyan 10
16 Chernomoretz Burgas -2