Not many footballers simply fall into the habit of kicking a ball around a patch of grass for a living. It might not seem that way sometimes with play-acting, cynicism and the odd lazy performance peppering the beautiful game, but the continued pursuit of one of the most universal dreams around requires an almost unfathomable amount of hard work, gritty determination, inner-belief and self-discipline.
Becoming a truly great star requires a great deal of so many variants to join together in attempted harmony. Of course, it helps when the aspiring performer has a natural connection with the ball and can manipulate it with the right moves in sync with carefree ease, but perhaps the most important attribute of all is that of ardent passion.
Growing up, Dennis Bergkamp possessed the very same innocent dream so many young boys and girls do. He loved football and watched it with a keen interest in his family home, often tuning in to view Dutch, German and English football on their living room television set.
He played it with regularity wherever he could and as often as he was able to, and a wishful thought that no doubt brewed in his mind night and day was that he might emulate the stars he spent hours looking up to. Fortunately for the spirit of the game, he managed to tap into that hopefulness to become one of the greatest players anyone has ever seen.
He certainly didn’t tumble into the professional game, but that’s not to say he wasn’t viewed as a fallen football angel sent back to earth to spread the voetbal gospel by so many.
Spread it he did with a wonderful career that encapsulated the spirit of childish football played in back gardens big or small, puddle-strewn streets and truncated household hallways. Watching him was like seeing a kid trapped inside a man’s body – he saw it through the multi-coloured, youthful lense that we all do as vivacious youngsters, and that manifested itself in the apparently effortless, languid style the very best of the best tend to possess.
Outside the Emirates Stadium in London lies a statue of Bergkamp in the middle of a typically eye-catching pose – controlling a ball. It speaks volumes about the Dutch man’s cachet among the Arsenal fans that he remains a part of the club’s culture, embedded in the surrounds of their 60,000-seater stadium; their former striker acts as a constant reminder of the net-shaking riches that once sat in their goal-frame bank account.
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These days, however, the disputed genius of Arsène Wenger has many questioning why the north London club haven’t managed to source a reliable, classy, clinical forward in recent seasons. The fact of the matter is that the style of play which has hovered over the club since the mid-1990s has been that of one connected with the spirit of stylish, haute-couture football; it’s one that attempts to create the successful collaboration of aesthetics with consistently good results.
In short, it’s a pursuit of idealistic perfection that has enchanted so many – both supporters and neutrals alike. That Wenger seems to have become overly enchanted with his own sorcery, there is certainly a case to be made for. Indeed, it’s arguable that he has lost sight of evolving beyond his single-minded philosophy because it seems to fall down on one key aspect.
As with any football reasoning, Wenger’s relies heavily on having the right type of goalscorer – and the memory of Bergkamp is one that clearly, and literally, continues to haunt the club long after he has hung up his boots.
His ghost lingers in the minds of every true Gunner, both new and old alike, because it is fair to say that they never truly replaced him. Finding a player who could do his job was never going to be an easy task when the non-flying Dutchman eventually departed. Had the technology to clone a younger version of him been possible, they might well have jumped at the opportunity.
Then again, this is Arsenal we’re talking about and engaging in the complicated, futuristic practice of fabricating a duplicate would probably cost a heck of a lot of money. They’d probably haggle a cut-price deal with a dodgy molecular scientist down some back-alley near the old Highbury Stadium and wind up with another Nicklas Bendtner.
On a serious note, though, replacing him would never have been a realistic plan. He was too unique a player, too special a talent and too prestigious an icon to even consider trying to find someone who could fill the remarkable mould he hammered out for himself in the red and white of Arsenal. He oozed swagger in a way that was far from cocky.
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On the field, he shone with a godlike sheen, producing touches of magisterial brilliance at the best of times, and although some were frustrated by his mercurial nature that saw him unable to fly to continental away games, he more than made up for it with the way he elevated their attack to a whole other level.
He did it for the Londoners with perpetual ease, often stroking the ball past opposition goalkeepers in a manner that saw him control time, casting spells on his markers with every shimmy, pirouette and pivot he produced, home and away. For defenders attempting to pin him down and stop him from weaving his way through cover, he was Dennis the Menace – always a tricky stride ahead, always looking to not only see gaps and weaknesses that weren’t there, but attempting to crowbar apart the ones that were with the dexterity of a seasoned thief.
Everyone remembers the outlandishly brilliant goal he scored against Newcastle United back in his heydey; it was a thing of beauty that transcends football. Even for those who don’t really buy into what the game has become or represents today, that manoeuvre was a thing of sheer beauty that forces us all to admire it. Bergkamp was, in that moment, as flexible and adroit as the most accomplished of gymnasts and as quick-in-thought as the most forward-thinking of philosophers.
Watch it again (and again, and again) and you’ll still see it in a hypno-mesmerised state. It’s almost impossible to regard it without being enchanted by its complexity, its rationale, its stunning absurdity. There hasn’t been a goal quite like it at such a high level. That is to say, it is unique in the technique he employs to not only get Robert Pires’ drilled diagonal pass under control but to manipulate the power and pace of it with an outrageous flick and swivel around his marker. It is football at its grandest, but also at its most instinctive – Bergkamp simply does the extraordinary to bamboozle Nikos Dabizas and the goalkeeper, and it is precisely his fluidity, reflex and silky savvy that makes it all possible.
That goal collided worlds, fused disciplines and took our breaths away. It really is one of the greatest goals ever scored, but the most impressive thing about it is that it was – arguably – not even the magnum opus of his astonishingly captivating oeuvre.
There is also his outstanding goal in the 1998 World Cup finals against Argentina which stands out so prominently in the mind. In fact, it almost defies description because, like his goal against the Magpies, it had more than a whiff of incredulity about it. His record of 37 goals in 79 matches for the Dutch national team only goes a short way toward illuminating just how important an icon he truly was because he inspired and catapulted his country to immense heights more than those numbers can tell.
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He wasn’t simply a marksman, either. Sure, he scored some sublime goals that will never be forgotten, but he also knew how to tee-up his teammates in the most magical of ways. In short, he was the magician and the assistant, and it was this omnipotence which saw him prevail as a legend who was admired by so many people – and not simply die-hard Arsenal fans. In total, he nabbed 94 Premier League assists which, along with his 120 English top-flight strikes, has cemented his status as one of the most creative players the country has ever borne witness to.
On the pitch, his position often shifted from being the focal point of their attack to a deep-lying playmaker who acted as a stylish inventor for others, and it underlined his versatility, commitment to the cause and eagerness to put the team ahead of himself. Seeing the Dutch maestro produce twinkling dribbles, fleet-footed movements and astonishingly pinpoint passes was nearly always a treat on matchday, but it was nevertheless something of a rarity at the time in the way a striker could be as focused on creating goals as he was on finishing them.
His positional unselfishness told an even bigger story, too, because it reminded us just how willing he was to fit into a plan that hadn’t necessarily been implemented with him in mind. Having been drafted in by Bruce Rioch, the arrival of Wenger could well have scuppered Bergkamp’s long-term involvement, but he fought incredibly hard to convince the French connoisseur that he was the perfect player to have in a system that would go on to value the acquired taste of blending style with practicality. Moreover, he shrugged off any doubts anyone might have had about his ability to make a smooth landing on English soil after transferring from Inter Milan.
To talk about what Bergkamp symbolises is to talk about what makes football so enticing, enthralling and, at its most basic, what can lend beauty to the sport. The symmetry of his play, the architecture of his passing, the curves and angles of all the shots he passed or rifled into the back of the net – all of these components helped build the now retired kingpin into an establishment of his own in world football.
The notion of legendary footballers as artists is one that is often bandied around with nonchalance these days, and so it seems unfair to open the same umbrella over the career of Bergkamp.
Yes, he created art with his football, but if anything he was too humble and too rooted in the natural innocence of football as a boyish pastime to see it as something as pretentious as high-art or poetry. Bergkamp is, and was, purely a master of a game who knew all the right moves, all the perfect combinations and had a perfect view of the entire pitch in his mind’s eye. He played it as if he was watching from a plateau. He’ll always be on another level.
By Trevor Murray @TrevorM90