BY MATT MASON / @MattMason_
I met God 14 years ago. We sat alone in a hotel conference room and he told me about his work. Being God, he was quite humble about his achievements. Gently clasping his long fingers together on the table between us, he spoke so impassively about The Miracle Of Marseille that his description dulled the otherworldly magic of his deeds.
Fifteen months earlier, on a warm Saturday evening in the south of France, God was sprinting along the grass inside Stade Vélodrome, watching a football drop from the sky towards him. What happened next was an incredible display of skill and nerve. Although the way God described it, it wasn’t anything special. “On the last moment before the ball reached my foot, I decided to take it inside,” he told me. “After that I just hit it.”
He hadn’t “just hit it”. After taming the dropping ball with one touch, he’d brushed it past panicked Argentinian defender Roberto Ayala with his next before calmly arcing a precise volley into the top corner with the outside of his right foot. Three beautiful, daring touches made all the more thrilling because they’d come in the final seconds of a deadlocked World Cup quarter-final.
If God was typically modest about the moment, Dutch radio commmentator Jack van Gelder captured the wide-eyed disbelief within the stadium at the time. Breathlessly commentating like a man whose fingertips were slipping from a cliff’s edge, van Gelder repeatedly screamed God’s birth name until his vocal chords twisted into a strangled cry: “Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp! Ayyyyyyyyaaaaaaaaachhhhh!”
It was goals like this that had prompted Arsenal fans to proclaim Dennis Bergkamp as “God”. By the time of that 2-1 win over Argentina, memories of the Dutchman’s sluggish start to English football – and the sneering hyperbole blown up around it by some of the national press – had been obliterated by his keystone role in Arsenal’s 97-98 Double season. The North Bank had seen some brilliant footballers in the preceding 20 years – Liam Brady, Vladimir Petrovic, Charlie Nicholas, David Rocastle, Ian Wright – but none had the supernatural aura of the Dutchman. According to Wright, Bergkamp’s Arsenal team-mates would often greet him at training with, “The Messiah! Lead us, Dennis!” during that Double season.
Bergkamp, a religious man, seemed uneasy with the comparison. I reminded him that in 1991 he’d told a Dutch journalist that he sometimes felt like his god, the Christian God, was controlling his boots. Bergkmap’s eyebrows lifted in surprise. “Normally, I wouldn’t say that sort of thing,” he said. “But sometimes everything just goes so easily and if it is form or more than that I don’t know. Sometimes you just don’t know why you are in that position on the pitch, why you are scoring a goal or why you are there in the first place. Then, you think, ‘Yeah, maybe it’s something else’, you know?”
Dennis Bergkamp is not the Messiah, he’s a very ordinary man. In the hour I spent with him, it became clear that, aside from a breathtaking natural talent for moving a ball with his feet, his humility is the key to his genius.
It was late 1999, and I’d been commissioned to write about Bergkamp for Total Sport magazine. Arsenal’s Number 10 didn’t do much press but, urged by his boot sponsor Rebook, he’d agreed to give us an hour of his time for a photoshoot and interview.
At Sopwell House, the stately St Albans hotel Arsenal were using as their post-training base, I was lead into a conference room where the magazine’s photographer set up his lights and backdrop. Eventually, the door opened and Reebok’s publicist walked in, smiling and busily waving her diary at us in greeting. Behind her a tall, blond man stepped in quietly. His hands were jammed into the pockets of a grey hoodie and he silently scanned the room before introducing himself. Dennis Bergkamp’s handshake was not much firmer than the gentle “Hello” and mild smile that accompanied it, and he carried none of the Olympian swagger the afflicted the Premiership’s other great footballers. He did without Eric Cantona’s posturing or Ruud Gullit’s self-importance. He looked more like an oversized teenager reluctantly following his mum around the shops. It was easy to see why some of the coaching staff at Ajax had initially worried that the teenage Bergkamp was too shy to ever make it as a professional before Johann Cruyff spotted something in his modesty and gave him a first-team debut at 17 “because he was such a pleasant boy”.
Putting on a Reebok-branded bodywarmer for the pictures, Bergkamp caught sight of himself in the mirror. “I look ridiculous,” he said. “You look fine!” lied the photographer. Bergkamp looked down at the postbox-red piping running across the chest of the navy blue jacket. “No,” he chuckled. “I look like a mailman.” Nevertheless, he happily zipped up his Royal Mail-inspired leisurewear and stepped in front of the lights. Patiently and quietly, he followed the photographer’s every instruction.
With the shoot done, he sat down to consider my chief question: how does he do it? If that goal against Argentina had underlined his skill for the spectacular, his selfless instinct for unbuttoning back-fours with a precise pass had been equally important to the evolution of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal. Bergkamp’s through-balls had revitalized Ian Wright, helped make Nicolas Anelka a £23.5million player and, by then, were prompting Thierry Henry towards becoming the club’s greatest goalscorer. Bergkamp did things few other men could and, more importantly, saw things no-one else did. The Dutchman stared down at the table, stirring this idea around his head for a few seconds.
“Yeah, I don’t know,” he said softly, holding my attention with blue eyes opponents found so difficult to read. “I think I always see a lot, a lot of opportunities. But it is always very difficult for the defender. They have to make a decision sometimes and they might say to themselves, ‘OK, I know he is going to pass it there but if I go there, the other side is open.’ It’s easier for the player in possession. He can decide at the last moment where he is going to put it. It looks unexpected – even though the defender has seen it coming.”
Bergkamp didn’t revel in being Arsenal’s almighty. He was driven by a modesty that wouldn’t let him admire his own work. He never stopped in quiet moments to replay his best strikes in his head because he was too busy stewing about his misses.
“I think more about that than the great goals,” he said. “Missed chances stay in mind for days. Hopefully, the next game will come very, very quickly so I can play again and try to forget about it.”
At this point, a few months after Arsenal had relinquished their Premiership and FA Cup titles to Man United, one miss had been haunting him more than most. At Villa Park in April, Arsenal’s FA Cup semi-final replay with Sir Alex Ferguson’s side had reached injury time with the score at 1-1 when Phil Neville cut down Ray Parlour in the box. Had the resultant penalty gone in, British football history would be very different. United would not have won the treble and who knows what the psychological effects of that defeat would have done to their Premiership and Champions League challenges. It was a moot point though: Bergkamp’s kick was comfortably pushed away by Peter Schmeichel and half-forgotten in the wake of Ryan Giggs’ remarkable extra-time winner.
“I was very critical of myself over that penalty miss,” said Bergkamp looking back. “But in the end I don’t think I did a lot wrong. It was a good save. But, yeah, you should score a penalty. “I don’t know how misses happen. It’s maybe a matter of confidence. At some stage of the game, when you’re physically not right, you start thinking of that. Maybe you’re just missing the slight strength to put it in.”
Despite the abundance of Arsenal shirts bearing the legend “God 10” on their backs that passed through Highbury’s turnstiles every matchday, Bergkamp believed forwards were more easily exposed as mere mortals than other players. “I think everyone realizes that you can’t be in form for 10 months a season,” he said, perhaps underestimating the hopes of the average Gooner. “But it’s very difficult for strikers because a lot of what we do is based on all or nothing. When you are not in form, you are nothing. When you are in form you know where the goal is, where the goalie is, where the defenders are. But when you are not in form, you have to look up and it takes longer to control the ball. It’s only one or two seconds but it can decide a game.
“You look at such a player and think, ‘Jesus, he is terrible today.’ But a midfield player or a defender, even when they are not in form, can still work, still do their jobs and have a good game.”
If we're going to accept that Bergkamp is actually mortal, it helps to remember he was not always without sin on the pitch. “What people miss is Dennis’ aggression,” his Arsenal team-mate Matthew Upson later told me. “He’s a very aggressive player, passionate about winning.” Occasionally that aggression boiled over into petulance – a stray elbow here, a foot left in there. Bergkamp learnt his trade alongside Marco van Basten, a master of using dark arts to unsettle his markers: treading on toes and dishing out sly kicks and ankle taps. Had some of that rubbed off?
“No, not in England. I think you would do that easier and quicker in Italy because it would happen to you,” Bergkamp said, recalling his two seasons with Inter Milan. “It is just the little things with corners and free-kicks. Over there, a defender will pinch you or stand on your toes. You learn that, you pick it up and start doing that yourself. In England there is no need, there is more space just to try your own game.”
Bergkamp did bring some lessons from his Dutch elders to England though. Recalling his Ajax debut he said, “After the game Frank Rijkaard said to me, ‘You’ve got a big future ahead of you.’ Coming from that type of player, that sort of thing really helps. I try to do the same for the players who are coming through at Arsenal.
“You realise what sort of players they are though. If they are full of themselves, really like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to make it’ then you’re not going to give them a compliment that easily. But if they’re really up for it and they really want to succeed or achieve something, you’ll support them all the way.
“You must have talent but it takes a lot of work as well. And every other thing like motivation, concentration and the will to win. You put those sort of things together in your whole game. The talent starts at a young age, and from there you can develop yourself. Somehow, at some stage, you can become a good player.”
It’s stirring to read those words again. They’re a reminder of Bergkamp’s insight into coaching young players just a few months after Liam Brady stepped down as Arsenal’s Head Of Youth Development. With five seasons of coaching accrued at Ajax, Bergkamp, now assistant manger of the Amsterdam side, has already talked of returning to English football. “I would, yes,” he told FATV in January. “If I could fulfill a similar role [to his position at Ajax] abroad, especially at Arsenal, that would be one of the things I would like to achieve in the future. But not in the near future because we just started [at Ajax].” The smile that accompanied that final sentence will have done nothing to dampen hope that a return to N5 could happen sooner rather than later.
Seven years earlier, in 2006, it seemed appropriate that Bergkamp was retiring from playing at the same time Highbury was locking its turnstiles for good. It was here, off the Gillespie Road, that he found a spiritual home after failing to settle in Milan. Highbury was a place where he could perform his alchemy on the grandest of stages, against top-level opponents, playing for by the far the greatest team the world has ever seen. And it really did feel like home to him. “It didn’t come off for him with Inter Milan,” Don Howe told me in 1999. “Sometimes a player’s got to have his chemistry right at a team, he’s got to have a good feeling about it. He enjoys playing for The Arsenal and I think he enjoys living here. I think it suits him.
“Outside of football, he’s a very down-to-earth sort of person. He likes to do ordinary things. Over here people don’t pester you. You can go out in the afternoon to Sainsbury’s with your wife and people will take no notice of you.”
In many senses Bergkamp was the perfect Arsenal player: he combined skill and passion with evident pride at wearing the cannon on his chest. Discovering that he was polite, modest and grounded only confirmed that he was a footballer who upheld The Arsenal Way. He hadn’t jumped straight from the North Bank and into the first team like Charlie George, but the Dutch boy who grew up idolizing Glenn Hoddle came to love and understand Arsenal like a local.
Even if he doesn’t return in person, the club has announced a statue of Bergkamp will be erected outside the Emirates before the new season starts. There’s no doubt he’ll accept the honour with humility. When our interview came to an end, I asked him the one thing I’d wanted to know since I was six: What’s it like to hear the North Bank singing your name? “It’s amazing”, he said, his eyes widening. “Even if you don’t have a good period, they’re still shouting your name and singing the song. I really appreciate that, it gives you something inside, extra motivation. It’s tradition at the start of every game now, it’s part of the ritual as you prepare for the match.”
He paused and laughed. “Without it, I feel like, ‘Is there something wrong?’”
Injuries, dips in form and the quality of competition kept Bergkamp from ever being anointed by official channels like the FIFA Ballon D’Or, but in brilliant moments – the goal against Argentina, the hat-trick at Filbert Street, the spin and finish against Newcastle – Dennis Bergkamp was The Best Player In The World. And he was ours. When football’s cycles and tides inevitably bring disappointment and defeat upon the Emirates, that statue will be a reminder of a staggering privilege afforded to us: for 11 seasons we were able to chant, “We’ve got Dennis Bergkamp! We’ve got Dennis Bergkamp! We’ve got Dennis Bergkamp!” Like the Miracle In Marseille, it doesn’t get any better than that.