Walking in a Bergkamp wonderland

If you lived in the James Rosskade in the 70’s you probably saw a young man who night after night would kick a ball off a wall. You might watch for five minutes or so before getting bored. Bored of watching this kid do what seems to you like the same thing over and over.

But for the boy he’s discovering a whole new world. He watches the spin of the ball and in one motion moves his body to hit the ball back into the wall with the opposite foot, putting a new spin on the ball. He does this over and over, hitting the ball as hard as he can each time, and each time nailing the exact spot he’s picked out on the wall – the one line of bricks that looks slightly different from the others. He’s watching the ball, subtle changes in the flight, and he’s trying to control those changes. He’s learning to control those changes.

Maybe this story is apocryphal but this is the story of Dennis Bergkamp’s youth. Bergkamp was what people now call an auto-didact. In other words he was self-taught. He spent hours, days, and years hitting that ball off that wall over and over again. I can relate, I’m also an auto-didact. I first discovered this when I was 15 and taught myself how to play guitar. I sat down with the Cult album Love, plugged in my cheap electric guitar, and played along with the music over and over again until my father yelled at me to “play something different”. I wonder if some parents yelled down to Dennis on the James Rosskade.

Like Bergkamp, I wasn’t just plucking strings. I was feeling the vibration of the strings under my fingers, I was discovering vibrato, I was bending, plucking, pulling of, hammering on, I was discovering a whole new world. I am still self-taught at almost everything I do. But I’m nowhere near the level of Dennis Bergkamp on the guitar or at anything I try to do.

It’s a common misconception to think that the act of hitting the ball off the wall was what made Bergkamp great. I hear it from parents all the time: “you want to be good at soccer, find a wall and kick the ball off it a million times”. If a million kids kicked a million balls off a million walls there would still only be one Dennis Bergkamp.

The difference is that first he has the aptitude to become great. Maybe 1,000 of those imaginary kids have the aptitude. The second difference is that he has the attitude. There is something inside him that makes him obsessed with the ball. And the third difference is that he did it. That obsession drove him to kick the ball over and over again. There may be 10 kids in a million who have all of those things inside them, and there’s still only one Dennis Bergkamp, because in each of those kids there’s something unique, some experience or genetic difference, that makes them the way that they are.

“Later I’d say: “With every pass, there needs to be a message or a thought behind it.” But that was there from very early, in my body and my mind. When I was kicking the ball against the wall I’d be trying to hit a certain brick or trying to control the ball in a certain way. You play around with the possibilities, with bounces, for example. You hit the wall and the ball comes back with one bounce. Then you say, “Let’s try to do it with two bounces,” so you hit it against the wall a little softer, a little bit higher. With two bounces, it means probably that both bounces are a little bit higher, so you have to control it again, in a different way. You’re always playing around. I wasn’t obsessed. I was just very intrigued by how the ball moves, how the spin worked, what you could do with spin.”

Dennis Bergkamp might not like the word “obsessed” – and I admit that “intrigued” is a much more classy way to put it – but from the outsider’s viewpoint Dennis looked obsessed. In that same opening chapter on what made Dennis there’s an interview with Robin van Persie where he recalls watching Bergkamp practice. Dennis was returning from injury and was practicing with some kids and a fitness coach. He was hitting every ball full strength and was running every drill at 100% speed. Van Persie was sitting in the hot tub and watching all this unfold. He said to himself that he would get out as soon as Dennis made a mistake. Dennis never made a mistake. Not a single mistake for 45 minutes. Van Persie was so inspired by that practice session that he vowed to make himself as good as Dennis – he never did.

Stillness and Speed is about one man’s obsession with football but it’s also about our obsession with that man. Each chapter is organized as interviews with others and then an interview with Dennis about what the other people said. There aren’t many controversies, despite the format, but there isn’t a boring moment in the book. It doesn’t need controversy to be a good read, unlike so many other footballer’s books, because Dennis Bergkamp is a fascinating man. Part footballer, part philosopher, and 100% servant to the ideals of the game.

“It is a spiritual thing. I am convinced of that.” Wenger says when asked about Bergkamp’s love for the game. “I believe you have two kinds of players who play football. Those who want to serve football like you serve God, and they put fooball so high that everything that is not close to what football should be is a little bit non-acceptable. And then you have those who use football to serve their ego.”

Wenger continues, describing a player who chose to shoot a difficult shot rather than pass the ball to the open man for the easy goal, “If he really loves the game he’ll go home and worry about it. He’ll know he really should have passed to set up an easy chance for someone else but he was selfish and got lucky. If he doesn’t care about the game he’ll go home and think: “That was great. I’ll do the same next time.” That’s why you have to teach the kids to respect the game. And treat the game a little bit like a religion, that is above you, where you want to serve the game.”

Wayne Rooney scored a goal from 60 yards yesterday. It was the kind of goal that only a handful of players have scored in a Premier League match. Guys like Charlie Adam and David Beckham and Wayne Rooney. Bergkamp never scored a goal like that but if he had, I have no doubt he would have gone home after that match and said “never again”.

It was fortunate that Dennis and Arsene worked together. Dennis describes his time at Milan with displeasure. He talks about the dossiers people would compile for him which would tell him how to play, what to look out for in the opposite players. But he largely ignored that stuff and said “I’m just going to do what I do best.”

This fits perfectly with Arsene and with the team that he had built and I can’t imagine the Invincibles without Bergkamp. He was the leader on and off the pitch, but not a leader in the Tony Adams way – that “HOW MUCH YOU WANT IT, SON?? (Smashes beer can on his head)”. He was the technical leader. He was the organizing figure that team was built around.

As Vieira put it “Dennis was our inspiration, he was the leader. We knew that Thierry would score, and we knew that Dennis would make something happen, and we knew that Sol Campbell would be the one who leads at the back and we knew that in midfield I would be the one who got the red card.” He continues, “but I think what was really good as well was that they brought in a manager who has got the same philosophy. You couldn’t have in your team Dennis Bergkamp and a manager who would want to play kick and rush.”

Bergkamp describes his leadership style as well. “In my day,” Bergkamp says “everyone coached each other. That’s what I did. I was constantly coaching and I led players, too. I never hid. I always demanded the ball. I always tried to play a prominent role, to be the best. I was never satisfied. I always wanted to try harder. As a trainer I’m like that too. If one of our strikers misses a chance, I start thinking about it. What can I do to make sure he scores next time? I want to be such a good trainer that I can teach a striker to avoid missing any chances. I want to be good at what I do and I want to be important but I’m not after fame. That’s why I have no ambition to be a manager.”

After reading Stillness and Speed, I wonder what people would think of Bergkamp in the Twitter era or if he’d joined the club in 2006 rather than 1995. For this experiment we would have to divorce ourselves from the Bergkamp who won trophies with Arsenal, from the player who was an integral part of the Invincibles, and look at his skills and flaws.

He refused to fly with the team – which he refutes as cause for Arsenal never winning the Champions League. He averaged just 38 games a season over 11 years over all competitions for Arsenal. In his last 7 years at the club he switched from being a goal-scorer to being an assist man and averaged just 7 goals a season, with just two seasons of more than 10 goals. I have a feeling that the Arsenal fanbase would be deeply divided over Bergkamp. That the press would hate him. That he would be called a bad teammate and maybe even be criticized for his aloofness or even worse, his hard edge.

I say this not to hate Bergkamp but rather to pull into the light how fans treat Ramsey, Ozil, and Alexis right now. Bergkamp was a treasure. I would take Bergkamp at Arsenal today. He doesn’t want to be a coach but I would let him do whatever he wants: running training sessions for the youth, pitching in as the forward’s coach, just hanging out at the club, being Bergkamp, passing on his knowledge. His philosophy about football, his love for the game, the way he is simply intrigued by the spin of the ball, teaching players that every pass must have a thought behind it, these things make Bergkamp unique.

A million kids could kick a ball a million times against a wall and there would still only be one Dennis Bergkamp. I’m glad I got to see him play, to walk in his Bergkamp wonderland, and that he shared himself with us on the field and in this book.


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