As Dennis Bergkamp was asked to choose his personal favourite from his impressive array of goals, many expected him to choose his otherworldly first touch and exquisite finish against Newcastle United. Instead the non-flying Dutchman named his stellar goal against Argentina, in the quarter-final at the 1998 World Cup. Coincidently, that Bergkamp-effort is also my personal favourite from the golden-haired wonder.
“The ball’s in possession of Frank de Boer. Frank de Boer plays the ball, very well, to Dennis Bergkamp. Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp takes a first touch… DENNIS BERGKAMP! DENNIS BERGKAMP! DENNIS BERGKAMP! DENNIS BERGKAMP! DENNIS BERGKAMP! OOOOHHHHWWWOOOOHHHOOO!” These words, by Dutch commentator Jack van Gelder, have entered my brain on the 4th of July 1998 and haven’t left it since. Not only was it a magic goal though. It also came at a magic moment, in the dying seconds of the match.
Dennis Bergkamp was born in Amsterdam, in the working-class family of electrician Wim Bergkamp, as the fourth and youngest son, and was named after Scottish football legend Denis Law. At the age of four, the ball first met his feet on the streets and since then, Dennis and the ball have shared a close relationship.
At the age of 11, young right-winger Bergkamp joined Ajax. A move that didn’t really make sense, as his parents did not like the posh image of the Amsterdam-side. “I didn’t like the mentality there, at the time. I remember playing against Ajax with my side Wilskracht SNL, as a kid. At half time, the score was 1-1; a bad result for Ajax. As a form of punishment, the kids on their side didn’t get to drink tea in the dressing room. They all came back onto the field extremely thirsty.” But Bergkamp wanted to progress in football and knew his chances of doing so were very limited at Wilskracht.
On a cold, rainy Monday night, his team suddenly received their usual training routine from a different man. On the sideline, bathing in the artificial light, stood senior squad manager Johan Cruyff. The man that’d change yet another Ajax career soon. “At that very moment, we didn’t realise what was taking place. But weeks later, I couldn’t help but think about Cruyff training us all the time. Since that day, I’ve always felt a connection with him.”
14 December 1986. With 11.000 people watching on at De Meer, a young Bergkamp was given his debut by Cruyff against Roda JC. With a 2-0 lead on the scoreboard, he replaced Richard Witschge in the 66th minute; marking the start of his senior professional career. Despite the fact that the legendary number 14 left the club two years later, Bergkamp’s time at Ajax was marked by El Salvador. “I owe him (Cruyff red.) a lot. He protected me. I remember a game against The Hague. The first half, I played out on the right. The infamous The Hague-crowd was seated on the other side, normally I would’ve played the second half in front of them. But Cruyff substituted me at half time. While I didn’t even play that badly.” Financially, Cruyff also took care of Dennis. “In my first season with the senior squad, I didn’t have a contract. Whilst I did have to show up at a lot of national and European games. He (Cruyff red.) made sure than when I signed my first contract, the following year, it contained a clause that entitled me to receiving all payments from the year before. Cruyff might have been the manager, but he thought like a captain, like a player.”
In 1988, the most influential man in Dutch football left Ajax for Barcelona and a managerial carousel started at the club, with Kohn, Linder, Haarms and Hulshoff all taking over in a single season. Leo Beenhakker then took over at the Amsterdam-side and in his second season under Don Leo, 1990-1991, Bergkamp finally broke through as a regular goalscorer, netting 25 goals in 33 games. He continued his goalscoring record under Louis van Gaal and scored 24 and 26 goals respectively, functioning as the main striker in Van Gaal’s famous Christmas tree formation.
When the summer of 1993 arrived in Holland, it was time for Bergkamp to wave goodbye to his beloved Ajax and pack his bags for Milan, Italy. He and Wim Jonk had signed for Inter Milan in January, with the Italian club eyeing Bergkamp as their next, big striker. Their moves left a sour taste in Louis van Gaal’s mouth and he openly criticised them after their departures. “He (Van Gaal red.) was critical about the way the negotiation talks had been held. They were somewhere in January that year. Wim (Jonk red.) and I wanted to get it done really badly, so we could focus on the rest of the season afterwards. That seemed the best for all parties. Two days after the talks, we lost to PSV. In the eyes of Van Gaal we had lost the title that day and he saw a connection between the talks and our loss. I never really understood that. I knew I had made the right choice, personally. I never spoke with Van Gaal after that day.”
Against Italy, on the 26th of September 1990, Bergkamp made his debut for Oranje. The start of a prosperous international career, which was livened up with the striker scoring his first goal a few months later against Greece. From 1990 till 2000, Bergkamp wore the orange jersey 79 times and scored 37 goals, an all-time goalscoring record prior to Patrick Kluivert’s arrival in the national team. Dennis’ time in Oranje has been one of waste, though, as they never played a final. “We Dutch play a different style. We’re not Italians. We like to win things, but only with good football. Maybe that’s what caused it. It’s very frustrating though. It’s a real bummer. But I know I’ve done everything I can, personally. I can’t judge about others.”
There is, however, one moment he’ll never forget. The goal against Argentina, the legendary first touch and finish that made the world go crazy. The moment he put Holland in the semi-final against Brazil. “That goal was unique to me, so beautiful. The ultimate moment for a football player.”
Nowadays, Bergkamp is back at his old nest in Amsterdam, as an assistant-manager to Frank de Boer. A role that fits the quiet yet intelligent man like no other. After a career packed with big achievements and fine moments for both club and country, he now teaches the youngsters how it’s done. Just like Cruyff taught him. But to me, Bergkamp will never be a coach or assistant-manager. To me, he’s the golden-haired wonder that made me feel invincible in 1998.
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