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Twenty years ago this autumn Dennis Bergkamp played his first professional football match for Ajax Amsterdam. He was, he later recalled,“dead nervous. Not about the match but because I didn’t know anyone in the team.” The skinny schoolboy played outside-right. In the showers afterwards his teammate Frank Rijkaard asked him his age. “Seventeen,” said Bergkamp. “Then you have a golden future,” said Rijkaard.
On May 17 Bergkamp hopes to play his last match: the Champions League final in Paris, for Arsenal against the Barcelona team now managed by Rijkaard. It would be the biggest game of Bergkamp’s career, an appropriate exit for a footballer who created moments that people will remember decades from now.
Bergkamp was raised in a flat in western Amsterdam, one of four sons of a Catholic plumber. “A super-decent family,” recalls Johan Cruyff, Bergkamp’s first manager, in the Dutch football journal Hard Gras this month. “People who were concerned with finishing your studies, with behaving decently.” When Bergkamp appeared as a substitute in the Cup Winners’ Cup final 19 years ago – Ajax beat Lokomotiv Leipzig of East Germany 1-0 – he was still taking homework on away trips. He played for Holland while still living at home. He has never socialised much outside his family.
The early Bergkamp was a goalscorer. With his hunched run, his head thrusting about to clock everyone else’s position, he could hit the ball with any spin. His goals attracted Inter Milan. His two years there were a disaster. Bergkamp, nicknamed “Beavis” in Italy after the cartoon character with the blond candyfloss hair, lacked the glamour that Italian fans expected of a superstar. Nor did he score much. His rival at Inter, Rubén Sosa, undermined the introvert in the changing room. Bergkamp was then also silently wrestling with his terror of flying. During away matches his mind would sometimes drift back to that evening’s flight back to Milan.
Arsenal saved him. On his debut at Highbury in August 1995, a friendly against Inter, the difference between the two clubs became apparent. At Inter, Bergkamp had been the dressing room geek. That night at Highbury, Inter’s midfielder Nicola Berti continued the treatment, talking trash at him. Bergkamp jogged away. Berti chased him. Too late he realised that Bergkamp was leading him straight to Arsenal’s giant captain Tony Adams, who ordered Berti to disappear. Berti ran away, so humiliated that minutes later he slapped a ballboy. After the match I sneaked into Highbury’s marble halls. Bergkamp’s parents and a brother were waiting for their boy to finish changing. The father, an Anglophile football nut, was standing with hands clasped behind his back admiring pictures of Arsenal’s former greats.
The Bergkamps loved Arsenal at first sight. On Bergkamp’s first day at training his teammates had bowed before him and chanted, “We are not worthy!” They were right. Arsenal had never had a footballer like Bergkamp.
In a decade he transformed the club. “Boring, boring, Arsenal” became, briefly, the most beautiful football team in English history.
Bergkamp transformed too. The Bergkamp of the late 1990s, his mature phase, was a “footballer of moments”. He would sometimes play a terrible match but do one thing that no footballer had ever done before. There was his instant flick with back to the goal and then full-circle spin around Nikos Dabizas, of Newcastle United; the loblet that placed Fredrik Ljungberg alone in front of Juventus’s goal; or his outside-of-the-foot strike against Argentina. Bergkamp was a master of space. He found openings that even spectators high up hadn’t spotted. It was as if he could see another dimension. Sometimes you had to rewind a move several times to work out what he had done. “Does Bergkamp have three feet?” asked Nick Hornby, novelist and Arsenal fan, during Bergkamp’s creative flowering in autumn 1997.
“Walking in a Burgcamp Wonderland,” became a Highbury anthem. Whereas Italian fans had judged Bergkamp primarily on goals, the English realised he was a more exotic animal. Bergkamp also liked the way the English experience football: with love, but not as a matter of life and death. Told about the replica shirts bearing his number and the name “God”, the pious Christian remarked: “Luckily in England there’s irony behind it. In Italy they really believe it.” None of this is to say that he was a great player. He often wasted matches playing moral arbiter, fouling defenders because he thought they deserved it. Adams, Patrick Vieira, even Ray Parlour probably won more matches for the club. Bergkamp’s mode was l’art pour l’art.
When the cliché of “Flying Dutchman” had to be discarded, the British tabloids tended to prefer “Dutch Master”. But which Dutch master? In 20 years of watching Bergkamp from Amsterdam to London and soon for the last time in Paris I have concluded that he is most like Vermeer: the precise brushstrokes, the restrained emotions, and above all, the very small oeuvre.
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.