The defenders who became accessories and admirers to Cruyff and Bergkamp’s greatest individual skills

The defenders who became accessories and admirers to Cruyff and Bergkamp’s greatest individual skills

Imagine yourself in the place of a retired actor. The curtain has fallen on your 20 years spent gracing the silver screen and, in your reposeful retirement, you pause to contemplate the grandeur of your life’s work. You recall the countless movies embellished by your presence – some great, some not-so – and, though never welcomed as Hollywood’s leading man, few dispute your ascension to the pinnacle of your field or dare doubt the merits of your presence in an industry renowned for gobbling up and spitting out even the boldest of men.

Yet, despite every plaudit earned by your finest performances, of which there were many, there is no denying the reality by which your career is, and shall forever be, defined; a legacy that optimists will recall as being ‘encapsulated by’ but pessimists will reference as being ‘reduced to’ one single moment: the scene in which you, cast as the movie’s bit-part antagonist, were bested with embarrassing ease, outwitted and outfought by the legendary lead whose unforgettable performance in that very scene would earn, for them alone, an Oscar.

Ponder this: would you rage against the enduring will of the watching world? Would you grow to detest the defining moment of your career; wishing for a chance to go back and scratch from living memory the credit that reduces your legacy to a mere footnote tacked to that of an objectively greater contemporary? Or would you embrace your role in helping to create a cinematic masterpiece, and be beholden to the legendary escapade upon which your career is made to stand so much taller, even if it meant you being irrevocably eclipsed?

 

1974

 

June 19, 1974, at the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund. Brought together by the second of their three group stage fixtures at the World Cup in Germany, Georg Ericson’s Sweden were intent on making their Dutch opponents work hard for any spoils they may ultimately emerge with from their encounter, all the while remaining notably fearful of a quite spectacular array of Oranje talent. Understandably so, Rinus Michels’ Netherlands were among the favourites to be in possession of the trophy come the evening of 7 July.

Into the game’s 24th minute, the scoresheet unblemished, and a little way into his opponents’ half, Arie Haan spotted Johan Cruyff in space on the left flank. He pinged in his direction a swift diagonal pass. Cruyff’s velvet touch killed the ball, dead on arrival, but the playmaker was soon apprehended by Swedish full-back Jan Olsson.

Unwilling to surrender possession, the Dutchman instinctively swivelled to block the Swede, positioning his back and an outstretched arm between his opponent and the ball. Cruyff twitched, making to swing the ball infield with his right foot, causing Olsson to shift his weight onto his trailing foot and turn his body slightly in anticipation of blocking the attempted cross. As history will tell you, the cross never came.

In an instant, Cruyff had gently swept the ball back the way he was last facing, behind his standing leg with the instep of his right foot and into space, leaving Olsson grasping at thin air. In the blink of an eye, the defender’s touch-tight marking had been dismantled and repurposed into two yards of fresh green grass into which Cruyff could forge onwards in attack. Dummies and feints were relatively commonplace in the game, but the world had rarely seen anything quite like this.

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Cruyff’s turn, which would later become rightfully known as the Cruyff turn, proved to be the highlight of both the match and its tournament and forged a legacy all of its own. The Netherlands were held to a 0-0 draw by the Swedes and, though Cruyff’s Totaalvoetbal-toters would march triumphantly on to the competition’s last stage, they would be defeated by West Germany in a legendary showpiece finale that still finds routine dissection more than four decades on.

Olsson, of course, could have come to detest Cruyff for making him look the fool before so many millions of eyes; for the rest of his days, regretting the moment his Dutch adversary sewed the Swede’s name into the thriving fabric of the sport and with it an enduring reminder of the occasion he was so patently and so publicly thwarted. But Olsson, a fan of the beautiful game before all else, could hardly have been more joyous in the nature of his greatest personal defeat.

Interviewing with The Guardian many years after the game that famously brought the world its inventor’s first public Cruyff turn, the man the move was tormented on the field did nothing of the kind beyond it. Instead, he reminisced fondly on the events of that day. “My teammates after the game; we looked at each other, they started to laugh and I do the same. I laughed then and I laugh now. It was very funny.”

Far from being bitter or embarrassed for having been beaten so memorably, Olsson spoke of his gratitude for his part in the skill. “[Cruyff] was a world-class player. I do my best but I was not a world-class player. I do not understand how he did it. It was a fantastic sequence. I thought I was going to take the ball. I still cannot understand, now, when I see the video, every time I think I have got the ball. When he is about to kick the ball I am sure I am going to take it, but every time he surprises me. I loved everything about this moment,” he recalled.

“After the game I thanked him for the match and said ‘congratulations’, even though it was 0-0, it was right to say ‘congratulations’. I am very proud to have been there,” Olsson said. “My parents remembered this sequence. I played football at the top for 18 years and never experienced anything like it. Everything from that match is in my mind and my heart. I have the memory. It is a moment I remember every day. Every day I think about football, I think about Cruyff.”

 

2002

 

March 2, 2002 at St. James’ Park in Newcastle. A little shy of 30 years after one daring Dutchman had left his indelible mark on the beautiful game, a compatriot of his served to craft a similarly revered turn. With Arsène Wenger’s Gunners chasing down Manchester United at the summit of the Premier League, Arsenal travelled to the north-east to take on a talented Newcastle team.

With possession in his own half, Dennis Bergkamp raked the ball wide to Robert Pires and careered upfield to remain in tune with the speed and direction of play. Pires strode into the Newcastle half, fronted by a handful of retreating defenders, and, upon spotting the Dutchman’s expectant raised arm, fed a return pass to him. Played just slightly behind him, Bergkamp paused his run to receive Pires’ pass and, sensing he had Nikos Dabizas for company, welcomed it with a cordial kiss of his left instep.

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The ball flicked up and span to the right, around the front of Bergkamp, as Bergkamp pivoted and darted to the left, around the front of Dabizas, before reconvening at the back of the Greek defender. It all happened so swiftly, with Bergkamp and ball together, then apart, then suddenly together again, to the naked eye it seemed implausible; inevitably cut together by clever editing or fabricated by special effects.

But thousands saw it in the flesh and gasped. The Dutchman pawed away Dabizas’ attempted interception, leaving him strewn on the turf, before seating Shay Given as he calmly rolled his shot into the far corner of the goal.

Bergkamp’s opener would later be followed by a goal from the head of Sol Campbell, ensuring all three points followed the Arsenal back to north London. In the remaining weeks of the Premier League, Arsenal would dismantle Manchester United’s tentative lead and surge clear, winning the league title by virtue of some seven points. Meanwhile, Bergkamp’s moment of divine inspiration would immediately assume an eminence all of its own, fated to be remembered as one of the finest skills ever witnessed on a football field, in England or otherwise.

Not unlike the manner in which Olsson so relished the opportunity to do battle with a force of football like Cruyff – even if, he knew, it meant hurtling down a path that could only ever end with his own sporting demise – and who subsequently came to grow deeply appreciative of the moment and all its artistic elegance and athletic prowess, Dabizas, too, came to adore the sword that Bergkamp plunged so deeply into his chest that decades later audiences of the day would still be stumbling over themselves in attempts to do justice to in doomed recollection.

In a candid interview with So Foot, Dabizas was asked if it was difficult knowing so many fans were aware of his name, and subsequently of his career, only as a result of his being beaten by Bergkamp. The Greek, though, opposed the dissentious connotation and recalled the moment Bergkamp evaded him with a disarming fondness: “I totally understand, many people have told me about this game since; they think I’m embarrassed, pissed off – but not at all. I’ll tell you one thing: I’m very proud,” Dabizas said.

Though he may not have known just how similarly he echoed the way in which Olsson so treasured his role in being perplexed by Cruyff, Dabizas said: “I took part in a work of art because this action is unique, a true work of art. It was performed by a genius. Bergkamp was a genius and I was unfortunately in this position. We lost the match because of this gesture but, at the same time, I tell myself that I am lucky to have participated in that, perhaps in a negative way, but I will always remain an actor of this work of art.

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“It’s something you have to hold in your open hands saying, ‘Wow, it’s pure beauty.’ I will stay in the story for that. It’s one of the most beautiful goals in football history and you just have to admire it as such, just that. No shame, nothing. It’s part of life, it’s part of football.”

 

Accessories

 

As spectators, we inherently perceive Olsson and Cruyff, Dabizas and Bergkamp, as opposites simply because they are opponents – where one’s objective win is another’s objective loss – and this intrinsic polarity leaves no grey area in between wherein any emotion besides the joy of a win or the dejection of a loss can exist. But footballers are not robots programmed to execute athletic obligations without subjective emotion. They are, of course, humans, before and above all else.

There is, therefore, surely a moment for some when the animal instinct that drives the necessity to win makes way to the impulse to simply applaud as the sublime is summoned into existence by the wand-like feet of magicians. We know this moment is not simply theoretical as it is known well by both Olsson and Dabizas. 

In the grand scheme of things, despite being defeated in both instances, the necessity of the role of both defenders is undeniable. Without the close attention of Olsson, it is not unreasonable to assume Cruyff would have simply crossed the ball a moment earlier or, if so inspired, invaded the open space of the Swedish penalty area in search of a more direct pass across the goalface.

Equally, without Dabizas on his back, Bergkamp would have had no defender to turn and therefore would likely have elected to shoot early, picking hit spot from the edge of the box, or instead sought to draw the goalkeeper out with a couple unchallenged strides towards his goal before finding the net behind him with a simple finish.

At the very best, unmarked and free to progress as they wished, both attacks would have ended as so many do – as goals. Just goals. Wonderful but ultimately forgettable goals. Yet the history of the game remembers those moments among its very fondest and, though it is at the feet of the ingenuity of their Dutch masters those moments belong, without Olsson and Dabizas they simply would not exist.

To become professional footballers at all, internationally-capped footballers no less, Olsson and Dabizas were seemingly blessed with an astonishing amount of talent and undoubtedly aided by a healthy sprinkling of good fortune. However, they would have known that outside of the minds of their loved ones or, if especially fortunate, the hearts of the supporters devoted to the teams or nations to which they belonged, they weren’t superheroes. They were good defenders – but little more. If one can only be made to seem ordinary when compared to the greats, they are surely not ordinary in any way. 

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By the time they were each being bamboozled by the likes of Cruyff and Bergkamp, Olsson and Dabizas were 32 and 29 and thus, barring the most dramatic of transformations, the plots of their respective careers had long since been written, with both confident and content knowing how they were to be remembered by their fans.

Were they to have been accosted on their way onto the field and either asked if they wished to be defeated by their opponents in the following match, as devoted, talented professionals, they’d each certainly have said no. But when outclassed by their own generational talent, wherein each was invited by their newborn-nemesis to become a part of something far greater, both later spoke of their joy at having been offered the opportunity to join their opponents on the ride of a lifetime.

Through their exploits, Cruyff and Bergkamp forged legacies unmatched by most players; legacies built upon the foundations of extraordinary physical and mental powers. Ironically, for Olsson and Dabizas, it was by embracing their own mortality – acknowledging the limits of their own powers and holding their hands up to having simply been bested by superior athletes – that the two defenders both found an antidote to their inevitable mortality and rose above it in a way so few fallen comrades do.

Having been beaten in such enduringly bewildering fashion, Olsson and Dabizas were always destined to be remembered, much in the same way the losers of every final are remembered for the tragedy of their last-hurdle loss, but by accepting their defeats so valiantly, and in so openly acknowledging the splendour of their successors and the moves employed to defeat them, Olsson and Dabizas ensured that not only will they accompany those two legendary Dutchman on their journey through the ages – earning a creative symbolic immortality, to borrow a philosopher’s parlance – but will do so willingly and joyously, delighting in experiencing the game’s sublimity just as we the fans do.

For writer Jamie Hamilton, the ‘football as drama’ analogy is far more than a passing parallel drawn between two prevailing forms of entertainment. “I believe that football is actually drama first, sport second. I think that’s why it’s so popular,” he said, in conversation on this very topic. “So then you might ask ‘in what way is it a drama?’ Well, the great writers are able to project various individual psychologies into their stories, these are their characters. When we engage with the story we identify with certain characters more than others and this is because of who we are as individuals. Some people love the outlaw, some love the noble, the everyman, etc. But we see in the characters something that is part of us all.

“There is an idea in psychology that each individual is actually a panoply of all possible characters. Imagine a stage inside your head. Your personality is the representation of how you cast these characters. Some are given more airtime than others; some aspects are repressed, but they’re always there. No one is only good or only bad, it just depends which parts have been given centre stage. I believe when we watch football we see aspects of our own identity manifested in front of us. All characters are present in football; heroes, villains, cowards. I think Olsson and Dabizas realise this: when you’re onstage with a genius it’s a privilege to even be there.”

It should, therefore, come as little surprise that Olsson and Dabizas would bow before the audience, just as Cruyff and Bergkamp would be expected to for their roles in the immutable exhibitions so famously featuring them. Only on a stage befitting the irreplicable game of football could two vanquished antagonists be so thankful for the scripts that rendered them at their least effectual, and spend their days lauding the execution of their fated protagonists for the sake of the legacy of the stunning story they, together, were blessed to have been able to perform for the masses.

By Will Sharp @shillwarp

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