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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Dennis Bergkamp: Close to God

Arsenal unveil a statue to honour Dennis Bergkamp today. I pay tribute to my favourite footballer of all time whilst part reviewing his biography published last year. 

People tend to get immortalized in death. This doesn’t apply to Dennis Bergkamp because he’s borderline perfect. The man known as ‘God’ to Arsenal fans is my favorite footballer of all time. At a time when British football was the enclave of a generation of working class lads who spent their spare time at the pub undoing all the work they had done at training by downing pints accompanied with fish, chips and deep fried Mars bars and the over arching premise was that the best footballer was the strongest and most passionate in the mould of a Terry Butcher or Paul Ince, Bergkamp was the antithesis. Middle class background. Success at football built on his ability to apply a thinking man’s perspective. (something that is honed at the Ajax academy where players are trained in multiple  positions so that their tactical understanding of the requirements of positions are greatly enhanced)

The intelligence Bergkamp espoused in his football overlaps in the way in which his biography is structured. This isn’t a Paul Merson guide on how not  to be a footballer. This is a love story of some sort in that it is evidently borne out of that great football  theorem espoused by that great Dutchman, Johan Cryuff who happens to mentor Bergkamp. Just like Guillem Balague’s biography of Pep Guardiola, we get to see why Cryuff is probably the greatest teacher in modern day football.  It was Cryuff who gave him his debut as a teenager at Ajax. It was also Cryuff who recruited him as a key component of his present day Ajax coup d’état to restore the club to its glory days when it won the Champions League with a predominantly home grown side. This is an ode to Total Football, the close to perfect way of football that the Dutch and Arsenal sides which Bergkamp was part of brought to life. The book is written in part narrative style and part interview style by David Winner, the lauded writer of ‘Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch football’. This is great in the sense that it gives us a double narrative as we get Bergkamp’s take on a certain period or event  in his career and the take of some other key players. Martin Keown, Patrick Vieira, Tony Adams, Ian Wright, Thierry Henry  Ray Parlour and Arsene Wenger provide the backdrop for his Arsenal career. Osvaldo Bagnoli, Riccardo Ferri, Tommaso Pellizzari and Wim Jonk help in highlighting the shortcomings of his ill fated Serie A spell.

Bergkamp is proof that there is more to football than 22 fit men chasing a ball. Watching Bergkamps’ highlight reel shows football is an art. A science. Like the meticulous cardiologist staking out the heart he is about to operate on, Dennis was the quiet genius who studied the movements and attributes of his strike partners and tailored his game to suit their strengths. Bergkamp is an idol to me for one reason; he was a key factor in making my childhood years some of the most enjoyable of my football watching life. It was because of him, I went to class in Primary 5 and proclaimed Arsene Wenger a greater manager than a certain fiery, red nosed Scotsman. I probably went as far as to proclaim him the greatest manager ever. It was because of him I got FIFA 2005 and spent all my time on it trying to get a hang of the first touch feature so that I could recreate his famous Newcastle goal.


Ian Wright was the first to benefit on these shores from Bergkamp’s genius. The sulking Frenchman,  Nicolas Anelka  was next before buggering off to Real Madrid earning the Gunners enough money to build a new training ground and buy Thierry Henry in the process. Henry became record goal scorer overtaking Wright. Bergkamp was the constant. For the national side, Patrick Kluivert was the biggest winner. Until Robin van Persie scored a hat trick against the Hungarians late last year, Kluivert was the Dutch record goal scorer. The non Flying Dutchman wasn’t particularly pacy but his speed of thought showed up defenders. And when they tried to bully him? He would sharpen his elbows and show he wasn’t a light touch. No player scored more beautiful goals than Dennis. (His locker of beautiful goals rivaled only by Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s) No player generated assists like Bergkamp. He didn’t talk much but still held a leadership berth. The “technical leader” is what Wenger calls him. He wasn’t going to be the one shouting “How much do you want it?” in the dressing room but when it was game time he was the one his teammates would look to for direction. The  goals came through him. And he made the rest of the team sit up. When his teammates saw that despite his introverted nature, he put his all into the football they felt a need not to let him down. They rose to his level. They wanted to prove that they were worthy to share a place in the same line up. People like Ray Parlour and Freddie Ljungberg who might have been technically inferior spent extra hours at training honing their talents and the result was the most complete, dominant and technically fluid side of modern day English football. This is reminiscent of the impact Mesut Özil, who strikes me as the lovechild of Dennis and Bobby Pires had on the present day Arsenal team in the first half of the season.  Letting him down was never an option.

Wenger calls him “a perfectionist” who “until the last session of his training” would not be caught dead slacking off . Robin van Persie, a mentee tells of watching Bergkamp train whilst he lay feet up in the Jacuzzi in the latter years of his career and marveling at the precision and intensity he trained with. This legend in every sense of the word with nothing to prove was training like he was playing for his first contract. The idea that Bergkamp was the catalyst for the modern Arsenal is not a view that should be taken lightly. A side that was famed for its strong defence evolved to one that specialized in champagne football. People like Wright and Adams are unequivocal in their views that he’s the best signing the club ever made. Thierry Henry has said a million and one times that Bergkamp is the greatest player he ever played with. Something even made more amazing when one remembers he played with Zidane, Messi, Zlatan and Ronaldinho. What Bergkamp did was lay down a marker.

Simon Kuper highlights the greatness of Bergkamp when he writes ” One night last year some legends of Dutch football gathered for dinner in an Amsterdam house. Around midnight conversation turned to an old question: who was the best Dutch footballer ever? Dutchmen have been voted European Footballer of the Year seven times, more than any other nationality except Germans. Yet Jan Mulder, a great centre-forward turned writer, chose a player who had never even threatened to win the award nor, at the time, a Champions League: “Bergkamp.” He had the finest technique, said Mulder. Guus Hiddink, the great Dutch manager, nodded, and so the matter was settled.

Originally published by Culture Custodian

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