The first in a (hopefully) regular feature, profiling some of the best players of the last 20 years…
Footballers become defined by a few brief moments. As our brains struggle to retain the sheer volume of football data we are continuously absorbing, it becomes inevitable that even the greatest should be remembered (but not reduced) to a few seconds, sometimes spread over decades. Gordon Banks is the save from Pele, Cristiano Ronaldo the strutted celebration, Bobby Moore held aloft by his England team-mates.
With Dennis Bergkamp, there could only be two moments. The first is his goal against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup quarter-final, the second his flick around Nikos Dabizas against Newcastle in March 2002. Both displayed the technical ability and awareness present only in an elite few in every generation. Both made very good players look like footballing fools. Both were carried out with an insouciance that masked the hard work and commitment at their root.
At his best, Bergkamp boasted a rare ability shared only by the game’s best players – the capacity to slow down the game around him. It was not mythical, either. The sense that Bergkamp had more time on the ball to produce moments of the sublime is not a trick of the mind, more an indication of his skill. Bergkamp’s touch and awareness combined to afford him an extra half-second ahead of almost every opponent. His technique exploited that time to the maximum. Zinedine Zidane was the master of this art.
In a sport increasingly obsessed by records and milestones, Bergkamp sticks out as one of the most artistic players in recent memory. You would pay to watch him, not necessarily to see him score or assist a goal, but just to watch him play. Like Eric Cantona before him, this was football of feelings, not figures.
Bergkamp was one of the most technically gifted players of the Premier League era. At a time when foreigners in English football still had an air of mystery, this was like something from another world. His first touch deserves its own wing in a hall of fame. Paul Gascoigne was arguably England’s finest touch player of the 20th century, but here was a player with the abilities of a maverick and without the ‘but’. The Dutchman’s fear of flying was his only flaw.
Ian Wright tells an anecdote of Bergkamp’s first touch, reminiscing about a goal he scored against Tottenham in his first season in England. “It was one touch, one touch! We’re talking about a ball that has just travelled 40 yards in the air and he’s killed it dead,” Wright said. “I knew that if I get the ball over in his general direction there’s a chance he’ll do something I haven’t even thought of.” Arsenal’s second-highest goalscorer of all time, reduced to wide-eyed fan.
It almost goes without saying that Bergkamp possessed immense trickery and flair, but his was an elevated type of skill. Modern (and largely social) media has promoted tricks and skills into their own sport, ‘tekkers’ worthy of praise in isolation. Football freestyling is now a thing.
We assume that Dennis does not approve. For him, skills were not affectations or accessories, but a vital part of the game. A trick was utilised, not performed, used not for its own end but simply to help his team succeed.
Take that Newcastle goal, for example. “I thought the ball was a little too much behind me so I had to turn to control it,” Bergkamp said. “The quickest way to turn the ball was going that way. It looked a bit special or strange or nice but for me it was the quickest way to the goal. The finish was about just trying to get it past the goalkeeper in such a way he cannot reach it.”
The impudence and brilliance of the goal is played down to an almost parodical level. Efficiency has rarely been so sexy.
Yet the focus on Bergkamp’s technical ability overshadows his greatest attribute: commitment. At a time when foreign imports were (sometimes fairly) accused of clambering aboard the Premier League bus for the money and a last hurrah, Bergkamp demonstrated the total determination that would ensure his natural ability was maximised.
If Bergkamp was one part artist, he was at least another part fighter, a drive to succeed described perfectly by Thierry Henry. “Everything had to be perfect, even in training. Everything at one hundred per cent. He’s a very funny guy but when he was working there was no joking.” Bergkamp required aggression to assimilate into an English game which was still stylistically similar to the old First Division. You needed to be physical to succeed.
It is this total commitment which saw Bergkamp thrive in England. The Dutchman’s Arsenal career was born under Bruce Rioch, but he developed under Arsene Wenger.
The Dutch have a word, liefhebber, which Bergkamp uses in his book Stillness and Speed. It translates as ‘love-haver’, and he utilises it purposefully to describe his dedication to the game. This is a player happy to treat football as religion, to sacrifice his time and total effort for the cause. He is football’s equivalent to a Zen monk living in a cave for six years. “Behind every kick of the ball there has to be a thought,” is one of Bergkamp’s more famous quotes. Wenger is a staunch believer in this philosophy.
“I believe Dennis was one of those who had such a high idea of the game that he wanted that to be above everything,” Wenger says. It was as if Bergkamp wanted to improve not to make himself better (and certainly not richer), but to improve the game as a whole through his performances, even if only by a small margin. On a more micro level, he was the ultimate team player, lacking in all selfishness and ego. This was about football and Arsenal, not individual accolades.
For Bergkamp, this commitment is the most vital part of excellence. The first chapter of his autobiography is entitled ‘The Wall’, where he details his infatuation with the detail. “Most of the time I was by myself, just kicking the ball against the wall, seeing how it bounces, how it comes back, just controlling it,” Bergkamp says of his childhood years.
“I was just very intrigued by how the ball moves, how the spin worked, what you could do with spin,” Bergkamp concludes. He claims not to be a football obsessive, but one thinks he doth protest too much. Among students of the game, Dennis is the grandmaster.
As modern football has become business, difference has been suffocated. Managers prefer reliability over distinction. To be enigmatic is now steeped in negative connotation, synonymous with being undependable and erratic. You control the controllables, and shun the non-compliant. Football’s mavericks are an endangered species.
Bergkamp showed that there is a third way, that enigma and dependability need not be mutually exclusive. He was a mass of contradictions: passion and grace, calmness and aggression, stillness and speed. Only the best can manage such potential imbalance and yet channel it in the perfect way; Bergkamp was indeed one of the best.