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Book Review: Dennis Bergkamp's Stillness and Speed

Dutch former international football players Dennis Bergkamp (R) poses with Johan Cruijff as they hold copies of Dennis Bergkamp's biography Stillness and Speed
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Given the increased presence of athletes in TV commentary and panel discussions nowadays, you might think that a higher profile and improved communication skills would lead to better autobiographies. Sadly, that is still rare. Few memoirs are genuinely good reads, or furnish any insights into what goes on behind the scenes.

Which is a pity because, if done properly, sports books can be incredibly illuminating. MC Mary Kom’s Unbreakable gives a bird’s eye view of life in the North-East, women in boxing and sporting success in India – three relatively unexplored topics. Similarly, Keane: the Autobiography was as intelligent and brutally honest as its subject. But a bad book can permanently corrupt your view of the person: Rafael Nadal’s Rafa: My Story was a disappointment, and Ashley Cole’s My Defence is, to put it mildly, a third-class rag.

Of course, Dennis Bergkamp has too much pedigree for that, which is why Stillness and Speed is every bit as riveting as you’d expect. Written in second person, it discusses Bergkamp’s life, career and football philosophy in minute detail – his self-taught dribbling skills; the Ajax schooling that instilled in him the principles of Total Football; the concept of a ‘thought’ behind every pass; and the famous fear of flying that caused him to be titled ‘The Non-Flying Dutchman’. He was part of a golden generation of Dutch footballers (Kluivert, Davids, Overmars) who broke through in the early ‘90s. Arsenal at the time were renowned for hoofing the ball long and snatching 1-0 victories to chants of “Boring, Boring Arsenal” – a very different side from the one he would power to 7 trophies in 11 seasons.

Bruce Rioch rescued him from a troubled spell at Inter Milan, but the Arsenal Bergkamp entered was in decline. Its best players were heavy drinkers, there was no concept of sports diets, and England as a whole was disconnected from practices in the continent. Three years later, under Arsene Wenger’s guidance, he had won the club a Double and himself the Golden Boot. That was Bergkamp’s most productive phase: a wonder-goal against Argentina and another against Newcastle granted him immortality in both national and club pantheons. 

He could never reconcile to that form subsiding. When Wenger began benching him, Bergkamp confronted him but both were too gentlemanly to fight it out. “[He'd] say: 'You run less in the last 30 minutes and you're more at risk of getting injured, and your pace is dropping.' He used statistics on me. I replied, ‘Where in your statistics does it say that I changed the game with a killer pass?'” The hurt has since mellowed, although it still rankles to have watched from the bench as Arsenal lost the 2006 Champions League final to Barcelona – the last match of his career. 

Elsewhere, the book is peppered with chronicles of his ability. Robin van Persie recounts, “I once finished my training early, and was watching him from the Jacuzzi. He had just come back from injury and was doing an exercise involving passing and shooting, with boards and mannequins. I sat and waited for him to make a mistake – but he never did. I got wrinkly hands from the bathtub! He did that exercise for over 45 minutes and he didn’t make one single error. To me it was art.”

There is the incident of Bergkamp being demoted to a lower age group at Ajax so that he could toughen up mentally. As expected he flourished, later to make his mark as one of the most consistently brilliant players of his generation. 

Written in a conversational, breezy style, Stillness and Speed is a classy read. A very special book about a very special player.

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