When you’re a kid, everyone’s first measure of how good a footballer is comes down to one thing: keepie-uppies. Before thinking about the game as a whole, the best player at school is always the one who can do the most. Thus it has always been, and always will remain. But the keepie-uppie is an act of vanity, with almost no practical application in a football match.
Amsterdam’s Leidseplein Square is a coming together of artists, musicians, and street performers pirouetting on the outer edge of the city’s canal ring. It’s a magnet for tourists beginning the day clumsily unfolding maps on outdoor tables, trying to figure out where Vondelpark is, and at the end ordering Heinekens and trying to decide which strain of exotically named weed to cut their teeth on. Gilded, wrought iron streetlamps dot the square, and more often than not, Abdellah Belabbas will be climbing up one of them, football balanced on his head, crowd amassing below. When he gets to the top, he rolls the ball down his body and proceeds to do keepie-uppies as he pulls himself up and down the pole. He can stay up there for a minute, maybe even two or three, manipulating the ball like a coin magician running a quid through his knuckles before it inevitably falls to the ground followed by a bathetic sigh from the audience. Attracted by Holland’s liberal culture, Abdellah moved there from working in a lemon-processing factory in Alicante, to pursue his dream of being a professional footballer. I guess he sort of is, though he doesn’t actually play the game. In fact, watching people keep the ball up is watching them engage in a game against the ball, forever trying to catch up to where the ball is, and where it’s going to be, until eventually, the ball wins—it falls in an awkward spot, you slice it, you don’t get enough power, you get too much. From the youngest kid to professionals to entertainers like Belabbas, the ball always wins.
Dennis Bergkamp never started like this. Growing up beside the A10 motorway in West Amsterdam, Bergkamp’s childhood introversion didn’t lend itself to the inherent boastfulness of the keepie-uppie: instead, his enjoyment of mathematics transposed itself to another form of idle practice. As a kid, Bergkamp would kick the ball against a wall repeatedly, watching how it behaved as he used different strengths, different feet, different touches—hard, soft, looped, poked. The attribute he was drawn to most as a kid wasn’t the explosiveness of pace or brute strength, but instead his touch and feel for the ball. He loved Glenn Hoddle, the way he could pick the ball out of the air and take command of the game in an instant. And at school, playing the Dutch game paaltjesvoetbal—in which players would try and defend a stick from the ball—Dennis fashioned his stick after Diego Maradona, filing the wood to make a body, painting him blue and white, giving him the number 10. Before Ajax, before Inter, before Arsenal, before playing the game, Bergkamp’s introduction to football was individual, neurotic, and all about control. The ball wasn’t Bergkamp’s opponent; it was his instrument. He was learning how it worked.
A Bergkamp highlight reel isn’t loaded with towering headers or even many mazy runs—it is instead a litany of deft, precise, practised touches by a player who knows exactly what the ball is about to do next. When we talk about control, we relate it to proximity and to time. If a player can keep the ball close, and for a long time, then his control is better. When you’re a kid juggling the ball with your feet you try and hit the ball deftly, sharply, so that it doesn’t move too far away from you—the further away it gets, the less in control you are in and the more likely it is to fall. In Bergkamp’s case, it’s more than that. Receiving a long pass, where another striker’s first instinct would be to kill it dead, bringing it close to shield the ball and hold up play, Bergkamp’s first touches keep it moving, pushing the ball away from him, and as a result, away from the defender, creating space then exploiting it. No matter how far away Bergkamp was from the ball, it was always under his spell.
My first introduction to football came in 1996. Being born in a town almost the dead centre of Wales meant that every Welsh team was just that bit too far away to claim allegiance to, and indeed, to be taken to see play—Wrexham too far north, Cardiff and Swansea too far south, the strangely named teams of the League of Wales (Total Network Solutions, Connah’s Quay Nomads, Inter CableTel) too invisible from where I sat. What I had instead was a VHS called Race For The Title, which detailed the previous year’s Premier League campaign that Manchester United had won without too much challenge. I seem to recall being dissuaded from following them, at the risk of being labelled a glory hunter in the playground. A few of my brother’s friends supported Arsenal, so I was led that way, although subconsciously perhaps that was the team that made perfect sense—back when Arsenal were south of the river, Woolwich Arsenal’s first ever international player was a Welshman named Caesar Augustus Llewellyn Jenkyns, born in my hometown of Builth Wells.
(You can read more about Caesar Augustus Llewellyn Jenkyns by buying Issue 17 here)
Understandably, given they finished 5th and therefore were never really involved in said race, Arsenal didn’t feature in that video all that much, but they were given an optimistic epilogue at the end. Arsène Wenger was mentioned as taking over from Bruce Rioch, described as kind of a strange, professorial foreign oddity flown in from Japan, who wore glasses, but also, there was a sense that Dennis Bergkamp was beginning to find his feet, illustrated with a beautiful shot from range he scored against Bolton on the final day of the season. He, along with David Platt, were Rioch’s big signings the summer before and despite two largely disappointing years at Inter Milan there was still a sense that he was a big player and that his signing was a bit of a coup for Arsenal, given the previous year they briefly flirted with relegation, before eventually finishing 12th. His move to North London reinvigorated him and not uncoincidentally he made another decision that summer, one which would also help him find his best form—never to fly again.
Ah, yes, The Non-Flying Dutchman. Being one of the Premier League’s first foreign imports, Bergkamp’s refusal to get on a plane was wrapped up as a kind of exotic quirk, rather than say an actual anxiety lots of people suffer from. It was after World Cup ‘94 in America that his aversion to flying began. A flight home was delayed due to a hoax bomb threat, and another during the tournament had to make an emergency landing. The following season at Inter, where Bergkamp scored just four goals, the anxiety followed him. Inter travelled everywhere by plane, tiny little boneshaker propeller jets that would white-knuckle in the clouds for a few hours between stops. He would get distracted by weather conditions during games, thinking about how they would affect the journey back. Post-flight panic attacks would leave him exhausted, only for him to then have to undertake Inter’s punishing training regime.
The great irony of Bergkamp’s refusal to fly was that, of course, he did fly. Nobody would ever call Bergkamp a ‘target man’, but some of his best moments came from long balls, taken down while poised in mid-air, body contorted as if on strings, right leg almost perpendicular to his body, left leg trailing behind him. Think of that final goal in a wonderful hat-trick against Leicester in ‘97; that one touch against Newcastle, now immortalised in a statue outside the Emirates; that winner against Argentina in ‘98. When it was on his own terms, Bergkamp was never shy about getting off the ground: the sky above him was just more space which he could use to his advantage.
The move to Arsenal gave Bergkamp room not only in which to play, but also, having eliminated major anxieties from his life, in which to think. Dutch football, and indeed, Dutch culture, has a preoccupation with the concept of space, partly down to the fact that they don’t have a great deal of it to go about. Rudi Fuchs, director of the Stedelijk Modern Art Museum in Amsterdam, notes: “[The Dutch] measure space very quietly, very precisely, and then order it in detail. That is the Dutch way of seeing, the Dutch approach to space: selective detail. It’s a natural, instinctive thing for us to do. You see it in our paintings, our architecture, and our football too.”
In Holland, space is a magic trick. Like a rabbit pulled from a hat, vast, flat lands were pulled from the sea, neatly ordered and divided, survival ensured by a complex system of dikes and canals. This is not the boundless, quixotic space of the American West, the kind that inspires endless possibility and religious fervour. For the Dutch, space is at a premium, and so when you get some, you have to use it well. Bergkamp embodies this ideation of Dutch space—the ability to create it from nothing or see it where others can’t. For his goal in the 1996 North London derby, he executes this magic trick perfectly: Ian Wright, having taken the ball to the corner to run down time, before deciding he’d rather put Clive Wilson on his arse with a neat stepover instead, absolutely wellies a cross into the box. He admits as much himself, it’s a hoof, to get it into an area where Dennis might be, where he might do something. As it was, Dennis was on the penalty spot; the ball overshot him by a couple of yards, but as soon as Wright hits it, Bergkamp knows this, and he’s on the run, followed by his defender. All of a sudden, behind him, space, as if pulled from the water. Not much, but some. Enough. Bergkamp then does what you’re taught not to do—he lets the ball bounce. Just. And hits it with his left as soon as it has. By the time the ball comes to a near rest, he’s almost one-on-one with the keeper, where before there were two defenders blocking his way. He calmly slots it past a despairing Ian Walker.
As Bergkamp “regained his freedom”—as he describes it—Arsenal were going through a similar transition to the one he thought he was stepping into in Milan. Italian sports journalist Tommaso Pellizzari described the Serie A that Bergkamp arrived into as being in the middle of a religious war fought between the swashbuckling, dynamic, Dutch-influenced football of the late 80s Milan team, inspired by Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, and Marco Van Basten, and the traditional Italian catenaccio defence—a back four harrying strikers, marking tightly, tackling hard, with a deeper libero sweeping up through balls and launching quick, direct counterattacks, leaving huge gaps between the defence and the attack. Inter played the latter, and despite Bergkamp receiving promises to the contrary, were unwilling to change for the sake of one striker who wasn’t one for socialising with the rest of the team. The Arsenal Bergkamp arrived into weren’t catenaccio, but they weren’t Total Football by any means. These were the days of Boring, boring Arsenal. Solid back four, industrious midfielders, very little flair. However, to them, Bergkamp was someone to learn from. When Arsène Wenger arrived the following season, Bergkamp was the keystone around which this new Arsenal was built. If you want to boil this down to stats: in his first four seasons, Bergkamp either scored or assisted around half of Arsenal’s goals. He made everyone around him better, and when Wenger began to build a more technically-minded team, Bergkamp allowed them to fulfil their potential. When people, mostly Arsenal fans, talk about what Arsenal need now, the common consensus is often a ball winner, some metal in the middle, a tenacious defensive midfielder. But it’s not. It’s Bergkamp. Someone who saw dead ends and turned them to desire lines. The only attempt Arsenal have really made to even try and replicate Bergkamp’s role was the signing of Mesut Özil, with comparisons made between their respective vision and touch, as well as the sense that both signings could be galvanising to the club as a whole, but it hasn’t come to pass. Özil didn’t come with the goals in his game that Bergkamp did, and hasn’t looked like adding them since. Though known as a second striker, Bergkamp wasn’t shy of getting in the box, nor was he prone to wandering deep to pick up possession as Özil is, and while Bergkamp’s scoring did ease off later in his career, his assists only increased.
Also, Özil’s languid style on the pitch is in contrast to something that often gets overlooked is Bergkamp’s dynamism, cunning, and mastery of the dark arts—introducing West Ham’s Steve Lomas to the sharp end of his left elbow in the 1997/98 FA Cup quarterfinal, stamping on Yugoslavia’s Siniša Mihajlović at France ‘98, raising his hand to Sheffield United’s Danny Cullip’s throat in the FA Cup in 2004. But as well as the transgressions, his physicality could manifest itself in moments of beauty too. Against Juventus at Highbury in 2001, when he held off two defenders before dinking the ball through the gap for the oncoming Freddie Ljungberg to score, or the one he scored against Sunderland in the FA Cup in 1997, where he easily shrugs off another two defenders before curving one into the top corner. Before Arsenal, one of the main criticisms levied against Bergkamp was that he was too soft. If moving to England changed his game in one way more than others, then his increasing brutishness on the ball was it, marshalled by Tony Adams, Martin Keown, and Steve Bould’s didactic cries of “How much do you want it?” This bullying, Sergeant Major-style of leadership seems quite out of date in 2018, but it no doubt resonated with a player who clearly felt he had something to prove.
Even during those tough years at Inter, he continued to flourish for Holland. There is a moment in the 1994 World Cup, Holland playing Republic of Ireland, where a corner is driven into a crowded area, straight at Bergkamp, stood this side of the six-yard box. Pre-empting the Irish defensive press, Bergkamp pirouettes and almost allows the ball to land on his right foot. He hardly moves at all, just a tiny raise of his foot and a shift of his body weight. Somehow, he takes enough sting out of the ball, changing the direction of it with such precision, that it arcs up towards the penalty spot, where Ronald De Boer stands back to goal, about to perform an overhead kick. He does. And he misses. The ball is cleared. The thing about players whose genius is as much about the collective as their individual brilliance is that it works both ways. Sometimes the passes don’t come off through no fault of Bergkamp’s own. Sometimes, as with Inter, pieces don’t click into place.
Being a football fan with no direct connection to a club is an odd thing to try and explain. It’s like one of those nature shows where an abandoned animal gets brought up by the first thing it sees, like a bear cub raised by a gorilla or something. Maybe if I was born in Islington rather than mid-Wales, if my football team was a genetic inheritance rather than an airborne bug that had managed to travel down the Wye and transmitted via the magnetic stripes of a VHS tape, if going to Arsenal was a fixture of my childhood, if I had no choice in the matter, rather than having picked the club like I picked my first pair of boots, my relationship with the team, with Bergkamp, would be different. They’d be my real family then, wouldn’t they? Prone to frustrate and annoy as much as inspire and encourage. As it is, they’re this faraway surrogate that I don’t quite recognise, but love, all the same. I used to have those little figurines of Arsenal players, the ones with the tiny bodies and the big heads, which eventually came free with Power Pods (“Football crazy! Chocolate mad!”).
And all the images of Bergkamp I can recall don’t seem like real people, or like, how real people move. You can pick apart his footwork, give evidence for his control, talk about his drive, his professionalism, and judge him by all the metrics you would use to judge any player—but then you see his assist for Patrick Kluivert in that game against Argentina, somehow slowly falling backwards to head the ball across goal and into his path. Then you see him casually using the inside of his right foot while jumping backwards to ease the ball into the path of an overlapping Ashley Cole against Aston Villa. Then you see his countless, perfect lobs, against Vitesse Arnhem, Sheffield Wednesday, Bayer Leverkusen, even in 2009, aged 40, playing in an Ajax veterans match, he still does it, that innate ability to put a ball just out of a keeper’s reach, still giving it time to drop. “It’s the best way,” he says. “There’s a lot of space above the goalkeeper.”
OTD in 2002, Dennis Bergkamp with one of the greatest first touches ever.pic.twitter.com/sTXUaLge9a— MUNDIAL (@MundialMag) March 2, 2019
And then you see Robert Pirès send him a ball at St James’ Park, and he does something. He’s done something there, what’s he done? He’s flicked the ball with his right, pivoted the other way, shoved Dabizas, and—no, that’s not it. He’s flicked it with his left, then turned, and then—no, it’s not that either. He’s not flicked it at all. When players do that move, it’s on the laces, an imperceptible movement that gives the ball enough backspin to come back on itself. The ball doesn’t come back on itself, does it? Rewind it. Pirès sends him the ball, he moves his left leg back and lets it hit on the inside, and—pause it right there. He’s turning as he’s kicking it, he’s turned 90 degree before the ball’s even gone past Dabizas, and he doesn’t push him over so much as Dabizas crumbles to the floor, and—no. No. What’s he’s done is he’s invited Nikos Dabizas up onto the stage, in front of all his mates. And Nikos Dabizas doesn’t really believe in magic. He thinks it’s all fake. Thinks it’s not real. And Bergkamp’s said “Okay then, pick a card. Pick any card.” And so Dabizas plays along, picks one, memorises it, and he’s allowed to put it back into the pack himself, and Bergkamp lets him cut the deck even, and Dabizas tries really hard, and—yes!—he thinks he’s got him. And then Bergkamp gives the deck back. And then Bergkamp looks at him, and says: “Nikos… Check your back pocket.” And the card was there all along.