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Dennis Bergkamp: Remembering a true legend

“If Ryan Giggs is worth 20 millions, Bergkamp is worth a hundred.”

–Marco Van Basten

“He’s(Dennis Bergkamp)the messiah. We told him to get us into Europe when he joined and that’s exactly what he did.”

–Ian Wright

“Intelligence and class. Class is of course, most of the time linked to what you can do with the ball, but the intelligence makes you use the technique in an efficient way. It’s like somebody who has a big vocabulary but he doesn’t say intelligent words, and somebody who has a big vocabulary but he can talk intelligently, and that’s what Dennis is all about. What he does, there’s always a head and always a brain. And his technique allows him to do what he sees, and what he decides to do.”

–Arsene Wenger

“Dennis is the best player I have ever played with as a partner. It is a dream for a striker to have him in the team with you.”

–Thierry Henry

“When Dennis Bergkamp scores, it’s not a common goal, it’s always what we call ‘a Dennis Bergkamp goal’.”

–Thierry Henry

Bergkamp: one of Arsenal's favourite sons

Bergkamp: one of Arsenal's favourite sons

Quotes like the ones above number in hundreds and thousands when it comes to paying tribute to a glittering 20-year career(including 10 years at Arsenal)of former Dutch striker Dennis Bergkamp. Retired in 2006, head proudly held high in front of 60,000 Arsenal fans at the new Emirates stadium for a testimonial, Dennis Bergkamp’s legendary exploits in the lush green fields of Highbury are still engraved in the memories of many fans, Arsenal fans and neutrals.

Bought for a bargaining price of 7.5 million pounds from Italian giants Internazionale of Milan in the summer of 1995 by the then Arsenal manager Bruce Rioch, Bergkamp’s arrival to a mid-table mediocre North London side raised a few eyebrows. Yet his best days lied ahead in the English capital with the coincidental arrival of Arsene Wenger to the club and the blonde Dutch was instrumental in bringing Arsenal to the pinnacle of domestic football as well as inspire many other foreign talents to ply their trade in the English Premier League.

Born in Amsterdam on May 10, 1969, Bergkamp owes his first name to the fact that his parents were Manchester United supporters and they named their son after the United and Scotland legend Denis Law although Dutch regulations forced the Bergkamps to spell the name as ‘Dennis’ instead of ‘Denis’. A young Dennis Bergkamp was a fan of Glenn Hoddle though and he was famously quoted as saying, “Maybe I was….maybe I am a little different from other players. They will tell you that Pele, Maradona, Cruyff are their idols and I will say Glenn Hoddle.”

Bergkamp joined the famed Ajax Amsterdam youth academy at the age of twelve but for years he had to struggle in the youth team as the Ajax coaches thought he was too lightweight to be a football player yet the young Dennis kept on working hard. In his biography, Dennis Bergkamp was quoted as saying about his very early life at the Ajax academy, “The normal things for professional players now, I already did when I was 12 years old. I didn’t have time to go out. If we had a game on Saturday, I would stay in on Friday night. I didn’t smoke, I didn’t drink. I stayed in on Saturday nights and Sunday to do my homework so I could train two or three times a week.”

Well, this sort of exposure to the hard reality of life as a professional footballer at such a young age sowed the seeds of greatness in the destinty of Dennis Bergkamp. His hard work paid off when Dutch stalwart and legend Johan Cruyff returned to Ajax Amsterdam as the manager and his sharp scouting was never going to miss the talents on show by a teenager by the name of Dennis Bergkamp. Cruyff wasted no time and he brought him into his first team and Bergkamp was handed his Ajax debut at the age of 17 on December 1986 against Roda JC. From that moment little Dennis never looked back and instead became ‘Dennis the menace’ for Ajax Amsterdam’s Eredivisie and European opponents. During the season of his debut, Bergkamp went on to make 14 appearances and he also featured in the 1987 European Cup Winners Cup final, as a substitute, against Lokomotive Leipzig that Ajax ultimately won.

At Ajax, the role of Dennis Bergkamp was to operate behind two forwards and he relished his natural role by creating innumerable chances for his teammates and also scoring himself given his attacking mindset in addition to his visionary instincts up front. Since his debut in the 1986 season, Bergkamp became a regular at his hometown club winning the Dutch League in 1990, the UEFA Cup in 1992 and the KNVB Cup in 1993. From 1991 to 1993, Dennis Bergkamp was the top scorer in Holland and in one of the seasons he set a record for scoring in ten consecutive matches. He was selected the Player of the Year for two seasons running in 1992 and 1993. Overall, from 1987-1993, Dennis Bergkamp scored a staggering 122 goals in 239 games for his beloved Ajax Amsterdam and creating much more for his teammates.

Not surprisingly, his terrific form at Ajax and his eye-catching performances with the Netherlands in Euro 92 captured the attentions of many a club in Europe’s bigger leagues. AC Milan, Barcelona were some of his suitors but when Inter Milan came knocking on his door, Bergkamp made a blatant mistake by accepting the Nerazzuri’s offer. Johan Cruyff, his manager at Ajax, never wanted him to sign for Inter as the legend thought that the Italian team’s stifling defensive football culture would greatly nullify the attacking instincts of Bergkamp and destroy his fluency and flair. Yet the new Dutch national team hero wanted a new challenge and left his home for Milan in the summer of 1993 as the Italians signed him for 12 million pounds making him the second most expensive player in the world at that time. Soon he realized his mistake and life in Italy seemed so meaningless for him during the two years of his stay in the northern city of Milan. Although Bergkamp did win a second UEFA Cup with the Italians in 1994, he was finding it extremely difficult to settle into the SerieA partly because of the club’s defensive mentality and partly because of his frosty relationship with the Italian press and some of his Inter teammates. Dennis Bergkamp scored just 11 goals in 50 appearances during his two-year stay in Italy.

The Dutch forward was given a lifeline by England’s Arsenal football club when the then manager Bruce Rioch signed him for 7.5 million pounds from Inter in 1995. It was a high profile signing by a mediocre English side at a bargaining price that made Europe sit up and look. Many thought that Dennis was just trying to escape from Italy at all costs and Arsenal’s modest offer was just a way out for him. Even in one of his press conferences, the Dutchman himself hinted at his relief of just being out of Italy. He said at that time, “The decision I made was to leave Italy and the first team that knocked on the door was Arsenal. They were a solid team and that’s what you want, a base where you can fit in before you try to add something. Straight away I thought ‘This could work’ and I didn’t know anything about ‘Boring Boring Arsenal’ at that time.”

Dennis Bergkamp knew that it would be pressure right from the start and he needed to adapt to the physicality of the English game as soon as possible. He made his debut against Middlesborough on August 19, 1995. He took the pitch with the words of the Inter President still ringing in his ears when he left Milan for London. Massimo Moratti was quoted as saying that, “They(Arsenal)will be lucky if he scores 10 goals this season.” An utterly false judgement by a man who bought Bergkamp promising change of team playing style but restricting the Dutchman’s flair by maintaining the same Italian defensive mentality. Yet, with each passing game at Arsenal pressure grew on Bergkamp to score although the pressure was increased by some unfair media attention on the player’s playing style. In fact Dennis Bergkamp was not a target man at Arsenal and his main role was to link with his forward and create chances for his teammates, similar to the football he used to play at Ajax under Cruyff. For the first seven matches, stats showed that Bergkamp was involved in 75% of Arsenal goals but the Netherlands international silenced his critics with two stunning goals in his eighth game as an Arsenal player against Southampton at Highbury to kickstart a wonderful career at the North London side.

Looking back to the first goals he scored for Arsenal, Dennis Bergkamp told BBC, “You could call it a bad start if you compare it to everything that came after. It took time to get used to the change from Italy, but I enjoyed it and once that first goal went in it took the pressure off.”

Nicknamed the Iceman, Dennis Bergkamp hit the best form of his life after the arrival of Frenchman Arsene Wenger to the club in September 1996. Mr.Wenger’s unique attacking concept made life a lot easier for the non-flying Dutchman as he was able to use flair, vision, talent and intelligence to the fullest under him. Playing just behind striker and friend Ian Wright, the two formed one of the deadliest striking partnerships in the Premier League. Under Arsene Wenger Dennis Bergkamp was back to his best and both plotted one of the biggest coups in the Premier League history since its inception by capturing the domestic title, stopping Manchester United’s monopoly on the competition during the 1997-1998 season. During the same season the Gunners made the double by winning the FA Cup final although Bergkamp missed it through injury. Dennis Bergkamp’s heroics for Arsenal and Arsene Wenger’s aggressive managerial style flooded the North London side with talented overseas players like Patrick Viera, Marc Overmars, Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, to name a few. The 1997-1998 season saw Bergkamp awarded the PFA player of the year award for his sixteen goals in the season and his amazing creativity that helped his teammates score many goals that made such a successful season.

Although Bergkamp failed to match his spectacular 1997-1998 season in the successive seasons, he was the main man in the Arsenal side that suffered from inconsistencies time and again. Yet silverwares and success kept coming the Dutchman’s way as he was involved with the team that again did the double in 2002, courtesy of Begkamp and Thierry Henry. He won the FA Cup 2003 and was an integral member of the Arsenal side that went the whole season unbeaten in the 2003-2004 season and were duly nicknamed ‘invincibles’.

Dennis Bergkamp would have surely tasted more success and goals in his Arsenal career but for his fear of flying. The player developed this aviophobia during the 1994 world cup in the US when the Dutch team was involved in a hoax plane accident incident that reminded Bergkamp of a plane crash that killed Surinamese Dutch players on their way to Suriname. The fear was so acute that Dennis either missed Arsenal’s European games or drived overland to play in mainland Europe. The journeys were so tiring that he had to miss domestic games preceding and following the respective European game. A Champions League medal always remained elusive for such a great player as Arsenal lost the 2006 final to Barcelona and the Dutchman brought curtains down to his glittering career immediately after that.

Dennis Bergkamp retired from all forms of football in the summer of 2006. Coincidentally the last game he played for Arsenal against Wigan on May 7, 2006 was also the club’s last game at Highbury and after a decade of success in London, in which the Dutch maestro scored 120 goals in 423 matches and made 166 assists(a Premier League record)Arsenal looked forward to a new life at the brand new Emirates stadium without the services of one of their favourite sons.

Later on the master himself looked back into the events that made his career so unique at such a modest club and said this, “I feel I had a contribution to Arsenal’s attacking style but there are so many other factors. I was part of the start and then the boss came, Patrick Viera, Emmanuel Petit, Marc Overmars and then on to this team where they’re basically all world-class players. Maybe 15 years ago they wouldn’t have played for Arsenal, but they do now and I helped that.”

Dennis Bergkamp’s international career was as glittering as his club career although more at a personal point of view. He was part of various Dutch teams that on paper looked favourites in any tournament they played in yet at the most important hours, those highly talented teams failed to deliver as infighting and ill-luck devastated the Dutch at the wrong hours.

The Iceman made his debut for Holland against Italy in September 1990 and a couple of months later scored his first goal against Greece. Having scored 37 goals in 79 internationals, Dennis Bergkamp retired from international football after Holland’s exit from the EURO 2000 finals when they lost to Italy at home on penalties. The highlight of Bergkamp’s international career came at the 1998 world cup in France when he guided the team to a semi final finish that included the famous quarter final win over favourites Argentina in Marseille. The goal that proved to be the winner was probably the best Dennis Bergkamp had ever scored in his life and was the result of his weeks of success that he achieved at Arsenal. It was a truly memorable moment both for him and the Dutch supporters as the Arsenal man produced a moment of genius in the dying minutes of the clash of the titans. Having expertly received a 60-yard long pass from Frank De Boer, Bergkamp controlled the ball through Roberto Ayala’s legs and with the outside of his right foot unleashed a fearsome shot that rattled the Argentinian net and with it took Holland to the next round only to lose to Brazil, again on penalties.

A true legend indeed.

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