Sunday, July 30, 2006


The Graceful One

I have no particular European club affiliations, and as a result I tend to follow players, rather than teams, in the world’s most prestigious leagues. Perhaps my favourite player of the last ten years has recently hung up his boots, and been honoured by a testimonial match. When I mention that he has played for Ajax, Internazionale and Arsenal, and suffers from a pathological fear of flying, you’ll probably know who I’m referring to.

Many adjectives have been used to describe Dennis Bergkamp on the pitch, but for me the one that fits best is graceful. Although there was (we must, sadly, refer to his career in the past tense now) plenty of urgency to his game, he never gave the impression of being in a hurry, and he managed to find space in the tightest of situations.

Although he was never a great goalscorer, some of his goals are among the best of recent years. His unforgettable decider against Argentina, in that magnificent game from the 1998 World Cup. “That” goal against Newcastle a few years ago.

But Bergkamp’s job was never merely to score goals – except at Inter, where he was mistakenly used as a target man. He was the prompter supreme, the king of the instinctive pass; his contributions in this respect often went unnoticed.

Take that 1998 match against Argentina. Everyone, now, talks about Bergkamp’s goal. Few remember Bergkamp’s assist for Patrick Kluivert’s opener, one of the cleverest you are ever likely to see.

Our hero had peeled out to the left, with Kluivert remaining in the centre. The ball was played out to Bergkamp chest-high, hard and flat. Not an ideal pass, under the circumstances, and certainly difficult to bring under control. Bergkamp declined to do so; instead, he stooped, off-balance, and played a sublime, cushioned, first-time header into the path of Kluivert, who ran on to score.

Just as good a goal as the famous second, in its way.

Bergkamp teamed up with Kluivert again to good effect two years later, in another quarter-final; this time, it was in the European Championship, against Yugoslavia. The Dutch were stupendous that day, putting six past a defence considered one of the toughest in the event. It was Kluivert who scored the first four, and naturally he received most of the plaudits afterwards. Yet Bergkamp, just behind him, was the chief provider, supplying the deft touches and accurate passes that allowed Kluivert to run riot.

The other Dutch goalscorer that day was Marc Overmars, the lightning-quick winger who had formed such a devastating partnership with Bergkamp at Arsenal. Towards the end of the 1997/98 season, when Arsenal took off on an inspired run to reel in Manchester United and make off with the Premiership title, Arsene Wenger’s team were playing some of the best football I’ve ever witnessed. With two greyhounds in Overmars and Nicolas Anelka chasing the rabbit-balls knocked their way by Bergkamp, Arsenal were unstoppable.

Overmars was there for Bergkamp’s testimonial match, held last week at Arsenal’s new Ashburton Grove stadium. As were such greats of the Dutch game as Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten, and Frank Rijkaard.

Bergkamp, at his very best, stood comparison with any of them.

The link in my name is probably, besides certain recent Socceroo achievements, my favourite 'live' moment in football since I've been a fan of the game. It's a bit hard to see on that clip, but I love seeing the Dutch fans behind that goal absolutely lose it on my France '98 DVD. What an great way to win and end that match.

Something about Bergkamp I've always wondered about was his performance in the 1998 semi-final. From memory (and it's admittedly scratchy), he didn't have much of an influence, and he was still played in an ideal role as the second striker. Did a full 90 minutes in the summer Marseille sun in the quarter-final take its tole?
To tell the truth, I don't remember too well. I actually taped that match (Holland v. Brazil) and watched it early the next morning, still half-asleep and not aware of very much ;-) - that's the only time I've seen it.

I remember watching the Argentina game live, though, with a Canadian guy (another football nut) who was my flatmate at the time. We nearly hit the roof when he scored that winner...
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