A legend for club and country, Dennis Bergkamp seemed capable of manipulating both time and space with effortless cool. The Dutchman is our latest inductee to The Cult. You can read previous entries here.
Cult Grade: The Beauty Of Ice
100 Years of Solitude, the widely acclaimed novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, opens thus: 'Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.' This being a novel of magic realism, one cannot discount the possibility that, despite being written two years before Dennis Bergkamp was born, it was the Dutchman that the Colonel was put in mind of as he faced his death. There are probably Arsenal fans who would happily trade their own life flashing before their eyes for a video of the stuff Bergkamp did at Highbury.
How Dennis Bergkamp played football is inconceivable to me. For example, as the ball is lofted up towards you by Frank de Boer in the last minute of the World Cup quarter-final against Argentina, you would know that this was it – your chance to do it. And yet, instead of every muscle in your body starting to helplessly speed up, the reverse happens. You just break it down, like you were drawing it in stages on a flipchart: one touch to get it, another to move it a million miles away from Ayala, one more to stick it in the corner. Why overcomplicate?
I'm probably not the only person it's inconceivable to, if the Dutch commentary by Jack van Gelder is anything to go by. That's if by 'commentary' you mean repeating Bergkamp's name five times at increasing volume, and then crying out in a way I'd be surprised if anyone but his life-partner ever heard before. But, in the way that makes football what it is – among other things, an artform that levels everyone that likes it – I still get that goal. Mark Lawrenson gets it. Stephen Hawking gets it. No one feels any inferiority about the degree to which they get it. One of Dennis Berkgamp's middle names is Maria, by the way.
Entry Point: High
In the real world, you might have to spare an ear for the case of the defence: that Dennis Bergkamp doesn't belong in the highest echelon of football. Not enough trophies, see. He was unlucky to leave Ajax the year before they won the Champions League, and though he added another UEFA Cup at Inter to the one he'd already won in Holland, elite club and international honours are a noticeable gap on his shelf.
But in The Cult immortality is the currency, rather than the polished pieces of silver that Djimi Traore or Alain Boghossian have in their front rooms. Anyone who knows an Arsenal fan will understand that Berkgamp played a part in an achievement they're not particularly inclined to let go of, when the Premier League only consisted of teams to be beaten by Arsenal, plus a handful who had drawn with them. Few teams get an eternal moniker. Busby Babes. The Crazy Gang. The Invincibles.
The beauty of what Bergkamp does is in the insouciance. During the fractional seconds in which he's preparing to create another mind-altering assist, there's always an air to his body language of Reckon I can put the ball there? Okay, I'll put it there. And another defence is dissected by the line a mathematician would draw to demonstrate the most numerically efficient path. The hallmark of a Berkgamp assist is that the goalscorer always finds himself with about half an hour to decide on a finish, given the ruthlessness with which the defenders have been taken out of the game.
The hallmark of a Berkgamp goal, meanwhile, is the irrelevance of the goalkeeper. 'Despairing' is how you'd describe the goalie's efforts in most of them. These were not shots designed to get past you; these were shots designed to see if they could pick out a small pocket of net in the top corner, and you, as the goalkeeper, could do as you pleased. Nothing speaks of elite football more than seeing scoring goals as a given, something to then hone to immaculacy. I can guarantee you that's not how it works in Emile Heskey's mind. As a tangent, could anyone, once you've cut through the Talksport bluster, deny that in the whole scheme of football Heskey belongs in the elite part of it? Of course not. And yet they also know – we all also know – that the gap between the elite of Heskey and the elite of Bergkamp is oceans wide. I can't think of anything but sport, and football particularly, where its subtlety is so available to anyone with more than a passing interest.
Still, it's pitiful that Bergkamp never won the Champions League with Arsenal – there was a point when in he, Vieira and Henry the club had three of the 10 best players in Europe, and I'd have Ashley Cole, Robert Pires and Sol Campbell at least in the top 10 in their respective positions. That should have been enough. Had they done it in 2003-04, the year of a 5-1 victory over Inter at the San Siro, in addition to what they did domestically, then you couldn't really begrudge them the title of greatest side in the history of English football. Instead, bloody Wayne Bridge of all people scores to knock them out in the quarter-final, and they were left to concentrate on not losing to anyone in the league. Much has been said about Wenger's lack of planning and wilful refusal to surrender ideals as a hinderance in the Champions League; given that Mourinho does the complete opposite and has two of them, they might have a point.
The Moment: Assisting Freddy Ljungberg, vs Juventus, 2001
This is silly, obviously. To pick a Bergkamp moment means omitting a world of exquisite moments. What he did against Newcastle, with the dink and the pirouette swerve, or the cushion of his header to set Kluivert up in the World Cup, or against Leicester – not that one, actually, the first one when from Marc Overmars' short corner he produced one of those finishes that demonstrated he wasn't interested in goalkeepers.
So I pick this one with the highest compliment I can pay – that choosing it over any of the others is arbitrary. It contains the unimaginable beauty of ice, the ability in the 90th minute to go one way and then drag back the other so swiftly that suddenly you have space; and one of those assists that first splits three players, then leaves Ljungberg alone with the goalkeeper. And it happened at Highbury, where all beautiful things happened.
Simply to enjoy how the French have incorporated 'caviar' – the unmissable chance – into their football language: "I've never seen a player like Dennis Berkgamp. I moved right, a caviar; I moved left, a caviar; I was squeezed by two defenders, another caviar. Moving deep, another one." ––Thierry Henry