A beautiful mind: Dennis Bergkamp's perfect moment
Exactly how do you score the greatest goal in Premier League history? What level of genius do you need to even dream of, let alone execute, the goal that Dennis Bergkamp scored against Newcastle United?
The vast majority of goals slot neatly into well-defined genres. The long-ranger, the team goal, the solo effort, the booming header, even the rasping volley which pings off the underside of the bar before bouncing back up off the turf and into the roof of the net with a satisfying rustle. But very occasionally a goal is scored which defies categorisation; so far is it outside the normal experience it establishes a new genre all of its own. It requires technical and mental skills which exceed that of the average player. A goal that has only been scored by one person; indeed, could only have been scored by one person.
Fifteen years ago - on March 2, 2002, to be precise - such a goal was scored. Dennis Bergkamp’s pirouette and planted finish against Newcastle was an instant classic, spawned from a special mind. It was also the product of a quest for perfection which took Bergkamp from the streets of Holland to North London, and the pinnacle of football; a quest for perfection which enabled him to transform a club in his image; a quest for perfection which culminated in a perfect moment. Even if, as a true perfectionist, Bergkamp doesn't recognise it as such.
How does someone create something that is unique to human experience? Is it intuitive brilliance? Is it extreme dedication to an art? Is it a special collaborative process with other like-minded souls? Is it some inherent genius which pushes a person just beyond the human frame of reference and towards the ethereal and mystical? Do they even have any control over it?
1. The Free Will Conundrum
Arsenal's Dennis Bergkamp (l) jumps to control the ball as Newcastle United's Andy O'Brien (r) looks on, in 2003PA Photos
" It was already known that electrical activity builds up in a person’s brain before she, for example, moves her hand; [physiologist Benjamin] Libet showed that this buildup occurs before the person consciously makes a decision to move. The conscious experience of deciding to act, which we usually associate with free will, appears to be an add-on, a post hoc reconstruction of events that occurs after the brain has already set the act in motion. The 20th-century nature-nurture debate prepared us to think of ourselves as shaped by influences beyond our control. But it left some room, at least in the popular imagination, for the possibility that we could overcome our circumstances or our genes to become the author of our own destiny. The challenge posed by neuroscience is more radical: It describes the brain as a physical system like any other, and suggests that we no more will it to operate in a particular way than we will our heart to beat."
It is not a theory that is likely to appeal to Dennis Bergkamp. In his best moments, and there were no shortage of those across one of the great European football careers, he was a shining example of the power of the human imagination and the clarity of advanced thought. He envisaged exactly what he was going to do, and how to do it, mapping out some of football’s great goals in his head. When he had to improvise, as he did against Newcastle, he recalculated the geometry and physics of the situation at speed.
Regarding the goal that was scored 15 years ago this Wednesday, Bergkamp explains in ‘Stillness and Speed’, his autobiography: “My first thought was: ‘I want to go to the goal and I’m going to do whatever it takes to go to the goal, no matter how the ball comes to me’. Ten yards before the ball arrived I made my decision: ‘I’m going to turn him’.”
Even if the brain is a dictator, imposing on us our every action through minute chemical transactions, then Bergkamp still possesses one of the most abundant football has ever seen; his goals, assists and passes decorated the game for more than 20 years. But there is an argument that, despite his impressive oeuvre, the Newcastle goal was the quintessential Bergkamp moment, above any other, pulling together all the threads which made him so special: the intimate understanding of control and creation, the way he experimented with spin and touch, his appreciation of space and the perfectionism which underpinned his whole career. This was the moment when everything came together.
The move didn’t start when Pires played a slightly overhit pass to a player who had just charged through the Newcastle midfield. It didn’t even start when Patrick Vieira won possession for Arsenal in his own half and played in Bergkamp for the first time. It really started on a street just off the main ring road which encircles the capital of Holland.
2. The Amsterdam Years
Dennis Bergkamp in action for Ajax in 1990Eurosport
" Most of the time I was by myself, just kicking the ball against the wall, seeing how it bounces, how it comes back, just controlling it. I found that so interesting! Trying it different ways: first one foot, then the other foot, looking for new things: inside of the foot, outside of the foot, laces… getting a sort of rhythm going, speeding it up, slowing it down. Sometimes I’d aim at a certain brick, or at the crossbar. Left foot, right foot, making the ball spin. Again and again… Much later, you could give me a pass in a game and you could maybe look back and see: ‘oh wait a minute, I know where that touch comes from’. But as a kid you’re just kicking a ball against the wall. You’re not thinking of a pass. You’re just enjoying the mechanics of it, the pleasure of doing it… 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, Stillness and Speed"
John Lennon (L) and his wife Yoko Ono receiving journalists in the bedroom of the Hilton hotel in AmsterdamAFP
It was into this restless and creative cultural milieu that Dennis Bergkamp was born, less than six weeks after Lennon and his new wife packed up their white pyjamas and moved on to Vienna. With a mother who was an amateur gymnast and father who was a craftsman, the young Bergkamp began to meld the athletic and creative, playing football with his brothers on the streets, practicing over and over again on the same wall, perfecting his mastery of spin and control.
Born a year before Ajax won the first of three consecutive European Cups, Bergkamp was a true child of Total Football, learning the game in the shadow of Johan Cruyff the player, and then being given his debut in the Ajax team by Cruyff the coach in 1986. He could not have wished for a more suitable mentor, another genius who wanted to bring those same traits out in him.
Bergkamp once said of Cruyff, in Brian Glanville’s ‘The Real Arsenal’:
" For all that he knows and teaches, it’s a blessing from heaven for the youngsters to have him as manager. He let us do things on the field that other managers, because of the pressure, would never have allowed. He didn’t care about what journalists, directors and the public said. He did what he thought was right. More than that, he has the formidable merit of going against the current. When everyone else worked on reinforcing the defence, Johan went for taking risks and for spectacular football."
Cruyff’s deep influence on football spreads across international boundaries and spans decades but at home in Amsterdam, right at the outset of Cruyff’s coaching career, a 16-year-old Bergkamp was one of the earliest beneficiaries of his genius. He only spent two years playing for Cruyff, but it was a formative period. The great man’s successor had been anointed.
To look back now at Bergkamp’s best Ajax goals – he scored 122 in 237 games – is to almost be transported to another place. The willowy forward with the blond hair seems to be playing football in a different way, scoring otherworldly goals. A perfectly judged finish soaring past an onrushing keeper, like a golfer chipping in from a bunker; a stepover and shimmy to fool the keeper and a dink over the defender; a lob; another lob; so many lobs; and then a chip delivered piping hot from heaven. For someone who famously refuses to fly, Bergkamp certainly condemned the ball to spending excessive amounts of time in the air.
The instinct was with him from a young age. As a child, Bergkamp liked to lift the ball over the keeper because it was the easiest way to score against kids in over-sized goals. It was a trait which endured when he graduated from the fields of Holland to the pitches of the Eredivisie. It made him distinct.
Bergkamp says in Stillness and Speed: “I really love that Federer way of playing. To have such control that you can trick a goalkeeper, trick the opponent. Like Federer’s drop volleys, the little disguised lob. To be able to do something like that, yeah… to do something that others don’t do or are not capable of doing. That’s my interest; not following, but creating your own thing.”
The environment was ideal for a mind like Bergkamp’s. It was in Amsterdam, during a period when the city was being reinvented, that he first started to learn how to find new solutions to old problems and to utilise his prodigious touch in unique ways. Growing up, he sharpened his thought processes, and his skills, in a permissive atmosphere at Ajax, which for the most part subscribed to Cruyffian ideals. Then, after winning the league title in 1989-90 and the UEFA Cup in 1991-92, it was time to step up.
3. Practice Makes Perfect
Arsenal's Dennis Bergkamp celebrates with the FA Carling Premiership trophy in 1998PA Photos
" Dennis is a perfectionist. Until the last session of his training he was absolutely never neglecting a control, or a pass. And when it was not perfect, he was unhappy - Arsene Wenger"
“I can’t ever see us spending £7m on a player, I really can’t,” said Alan Sugar, owner of Tottenham. Even amid the Arsenal ranks there was dissent, with some shareholders concerned the club had paid over the odds. At a stormy AGM in 1996, as recounted in Myles Palmer’s book ‘The Professor’, vice-chairman David Dein had to deal with heckles and shouts in a prickly exchange with his audience, telling them: “If anybody here would like us not to have bought Dennis Bergkamp for £7.5m they should say so now. We could sell him for twice as much.” In addition, the player was also confronted by the challenges posed by Arsenal’s infamous dressing room culture. As he told Martin Keown in an interview in 2013:
" First of all, I didn’t know about the ‘boring Arsenal’, I only realised that once I was playing there. It was totally different from the professional, Italian culture. It was like a free style, you know. It wasn’t that professional, every time I went to the hotel the mini-bar was full with all sorts of drinks and the pre-match meal was, in my opinion, not professional enough. The training sessions weren’t hard and long enough, so I was a little bit surprised... Soon enough after we realised that there was a plan at Arsenal, Arsene Wenger got involved, and I realised what was happening."
Wenger’s appointment was the second critical moment in the recasting of Arsenal, Bergkamp’s signing being the first. Together, the two kindred spirits went about redefining the aesthetic of the club and propelling the team on to new sporting heights, winning three Premier League titles and four FA Cups. It was a collaborative process that extracted the best of each man and played to their strengths. But it started with Bergkamp. As Amy Lawrence writes in ‘Invincible’, her story of the 2003-04 unbeaten season:
" The rebirth of Arsenal, from a stylistic point of view, began with Bergkamp. He played the orchestra’s first note. He was the oboist, whose clear, pitch-perfect A tunes every other musician around him. He starts, the rest respond. In terms of creating a new identity, he arrived, he elevated the standard, he embodied a nod to the Dutch ideal of total football – technical, inventive, collective – and he was a joy to watch. Within a year of his arrival, everything began to flourish as strong personalities came who could take this idea, and effectively turn the solo into a symphony."
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger (l) watches Dennis Bergkamp (r) training in 2000Eurosport
This hard work was the platform for Arsenal’s stylistic transformation, as George Graham's defensive inheritance gradually gave way to Wenger’s vision of how the game should be played, with Bergkamp as the conduit. “I think Arsenal took on a new aura when Dennis Bergkamp arrived,” said former keeper Bob Wilson. According to strike partner Ian Wright, “Dennis changed the DNA of what our game was about.” Patrick Vieira, also in conversation with Lawrence for ‘Invincible’, said: “It all started with Dennis, to be honest.”
Graham had been successful in winning trophies, but a team immortalised in The Full Monty for the synchronicity and efficiency of their offside trap wanted to make a different kind of impression on the public consciousness. Under Wenger, with Bergkamp as his muse, football became an art form in its own right, and never was that more beautifully expressed than at St James’ Park at the start of March, 2002.
4. The Goal
Bergkamp's wonder goal against Newcastle Eurosport
" A lot of people have spoken to me about that game since. They think I’m embarrassed, annoyed… Not at all! I’m going to tell you: I’m very proud. I was part of a work of art because that move is one, a real work of art. It was done by a genius. I’ll go down in history for that – Nikos Dabizas"
Manchester United were top of the table and on course for a fourth title in a row, a run which would have had Arsenal's double triumph 1997-98 receding far into the distance. Newcastle, managed by Sir Bobby Robson, were also challengers but it only took 11 minutes for Bergkamp to set Arsenal on their way to a third consecutive league win - a run which would eventually extend all the way to 13 and the final day of the season - with one of the great Premier League goals.
The move begins deep in Arsenal’s half when Patrick Vieira robs an opponent of possession and looks, as he so often did, for his No. 10. Bergkamp's first touch knocks the ball gently forward and he sprays a pass out wide to Pires, stationed on the left wing. Bergkamp jogs forward as Pires takes the ball on, but then puts on a spurt of pace like a sprinter coming off the bend and raises his right arm as he charges towards the penalty area, demanding the return ball. “I want the pass from Pires to my feet, but it comes behind me,” says Bergkamp in Stillness and Speed. “It’s not what I expect, so I think, ‘I need another idea here’… the ball came in a certain way, so I turned and twisted and did this and that.”
With one immaculate touch and simultaneous balletic turn, the space is transformed. From having his back to goal, with four Newcastle players on the edge of the box and barely a team-mate in sight, Bergkamp flips the script and, in one glorious motion, turns one side of Dabizas as the ball travels the other to open up the penalty box. “You know where the defender will be and that his knees will be bent a little, and that he will be standing a little wide, so he can’t turn,” Bergkamp explained. “The thought was: ‘I’ll just flick the ball and see what happens’.” What happens is that Bergkamp then inserts his body in the way of Dabizas, holding him off with a whiff of brute force to accompany the beauty that is unfolding, before depositing the ball in the bottom corner with a clinical finish.
Stunning. And yet, for many, the full majesty of the move was only fully realised in retrospect. As Arsenal’s makeshift midfielder on the day, Lauren, tells Eurosport:
" I had to go home and watch it and repeat it. Then you realise what he did. It was unbelievable… When you play with those kinds of special players, you always know that there is a fraction of a second that they think ahead of someone else. They are touched by the Gods, you know. Football is about decisions. Sometimes you decide whether to attack the defender, whether to give a good pass or whether to dribble. So those players are ahead of everybody else because they think a fraction of a second before the ball arrives and make a decision. They are special."
“One of my chief regrets in all of the matches that I have attended is this goal, because I could not see what had happened at all,” says Stillman. “The away enclosure is very high up at St. James’ and Bergkamp scored the goal at the Gallowgate End. I was probably around half a mile away from the actual piece of skill itself. I had no idea what had happened; from where I was, I thought he had been the recipient of a fortunate ricochet. We didn’t get home in time for Match of the Day so I didn’t actually see the goal properly until Goals on Sunday the next morning - which I only made a point of watching because this apparent act of genius had passed me by.”
Bergkamp's goal demanded your full and considered attention, like any piece of art. If you visit the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid and glance at Guernica, you immediately know it is a work of genius and importance. But it’s only by keeping your eyes fixed on the 3.49m x 7.7m canvas, absorbing every fresh detail in every corner, that you really see the whole picture. Bergkamp’s goal was a little like that. It was thrilling in the moment, but its true beauty unfolded after the act, when you revisited it again and again. “It was magical from a magic player in a magic situation,” says Lauren, and it looks no less so 15 years on.
5. Interlude: A Conversation With David Winner
Dennis Bergkamp and Johan CruyffEurosport
Do you remember where you were when you saw the goal?
I was in Holland watching, as his games were shown live there, and I think I yelped, I cried out in my little apartment in Holland, because it was obviously extraordinary. And the next day I happened to be setting up an interview…. I had to call Ruud Krol and I asked him about the goal, ‘did you see it?’, and he said, ‘yes, it was a fantastic goal, and he is such a nice guy’, which struck me as a very sweet thing to say but kind of irrelevant to the art. But my conception of Dutch football was all confirmed over that 24-hour period. They weren’t only geniuses, but they were so nice and so emotionally generous with each other.
There are many kinds of goals and even a goal which seems unique at the time, like Mkhitaryan’s scorpion kick, you see Giroud score one a week later. But this one still stands out as unique, 15 years on…
That’s the way I judge great goals, I must say. It’s not just the imagination and dexterity and all of that, it’s have you ever seen anything like it before? I think that is his best goal, but he doesn’t, interestingly, because it’s not perfect, because if Dabizas had known what he was going to do then he could have stopped it, which again is an extraordinary thing to say and an extraordinary insight. That is why at the last World Cup, Van Persie’s flying lob header was much better than the James Rodriguez goal which was voted the best goal of the tournament. We had seen loads of goal like Rodriguez’s, but we had never seen, and probably never will for a very long time, the goal of Van Persie’s. It was an extraordinary invention.
I wrote a piece the morning after that goal, saying that we talk about the Panenka penalty and the Cruyff turn, and this is now the Van Persie diving lob header. It is so much better when it is something completely unique. Do you think only Bergkamp could have scored the goal against Newcastle and that it is impossible to replicate?
As with all these inventions, in other spheres as well, once you have been shown how to do it, you can do it. Other people can do it now, but it was the divine spark where muscle memory and imagination and split-second creativity all combined and produced something new and breathtaking. Presumably someone will do it and score a goal as well, the same way that Lionel Messi against Getafe exactly replicates Maradona’s goal [against England in 1986]; it’s uncanny. Messi would have seen that goal hundreds of times, known it by heart. The Giroud goal is more difficult but is inferior to the Mkhitaryan one because he is only doing it because he saw it the week before. It wouldn’t have occurred to him to do it, so that is the way I judge these things.
Bergkamp talks about not being interested in art for art’s sake; there has to be a function to it, otherwise what is the point? I think that’s what we see in the Newcastle goal. You don’t see Bergkamp doing this in the centre-circle, trying to show-off.
He never did that. The other thing about that goal is the aggression. This is sometimes forgotten. Everybody thinks of him as a very mild-mannered, gentle, frail, ethereal artist, but he wasn’t. He was 6ft of pure muscle and intent. He said that for him, the most important psychological element was the desire to do everything, almost a fanaticism to get to goal. Van Basten said the same thing about the volley in the 1988 [European Championship] final, it’s actually a very bad ball from Muhren, and if he’s not aggressive he doesn’t take on the shot. Nobody would criticise Dennis if when the ball from Pires comes he touches it and then lays it off to somebody; you wouldn’t even notice it; it wouldn’t occur to you that it was a mistake. So you have got this crazy passion to keep moving forwards and do something aggressive; you are not content to just sit back and do the easy thing, you are pushing yourself all the time.
It happens with artists in all fields, and probably people in all fields. When you push yourself - and you live in a way where pushing yourself is just normal, that’s your way of being - then every now and again these kind of peak breakthrough moments can happen. It is a moment of supreme human creativity. I would put it on a level with a great piece of music or a great piece of cinema. James Stewart, one of my favourite actors, talked in an interview once about how the point of doing movies was that every so often you had these moments, sublime moments, breakthrough moments, where nobody has planned it. Film is very considered and planned but the things that are really extraordinary happen in front of camera when nobody knew they were going to happen. Like Robert De Niro doing his ‘you talking to me?’ speech; that’s not in the script, he just did it. There’s an ecstasy of the moment somehow that comes in; when very talented geniuses are in their peak moments, this is what can happen.
In the book, Bergkamp talks about how he used to lob keepers when he was a kid: not because he wanted to humiliate them, but because in big goals it was the easiest way to score. You look back at his best goals for Ajax, and these amazing lobs and perfectly judged chips which float just over the goalie. Again, it’s not showing off, it’s because it’s the best way he can score, and it’s the same with the Newcastle goal…
It’s the best solution. This is one of Cruyff’s teachings: the simplest solution is the best solution, but the idea of thinking about things on the field as requiring a solution, already you are into a way of thinking which is new to us. When I was young I had never heard of anyone talking about football like that.
That’s what really strikes me. For someone who has that kind of mind, all that matters is the outcome and this is just the best outcome, whereas 99% of players couldn’t even envisage doing it in the first place. It’s a total difference in mindset.
I feel myself almost welling up talking about this stuff, actually, because you are at that moment, it’s on the Sistine Chapel isn’t it, where God is reaching out to Adam, and there is this little gap between the two fingers, and we are in that gap, when we talk about Bergkamp’s goal.
6. The End
A fan looks at the statue of Dennis Bergkamp erected outside Emirates StadiumAFP
In the end there were only three goals in his final season, 2005-06 - by then Bergkamp was far more interested in assists from a withdrawn position - but he still managed to conjure up a final goal in Arsenal colours which had deep emotional resonance. Highbury was awash with Dutch orange on April 15 on what was a designated ‘Dennis Bergkamp day’, just the latest festivity to mark Arsenal’s final season at the old stadium. He came on to the pitch on 72 minutes and, with a minute left, located a pocket of space a few yards outside the box from where he guided a perfectly-judged curling effort into the corner of the net. The angles and the spin had been calculated perfectly one last time.
Arsenal's Dennis Bergkamp (R) scores past West Bromwich Albion's (L-R) Curtis Davies, Martin Albrechtsen and Junichi InamotoReuters
He only played three more games for the club, his career winding down on the bench at the Stade de France as Arsenal lost 2-1 to Barcelona in the Champions League final. Within weeks, the builders were in to demolish most of Highbury, but Bergkamp’s role in creating the modern Arsenal was consecrated when his testimonial - against Ajax, naturally - was the first ever game played at Emirates Stadium, and his last in the red and white.
Arsenal ultimately attempted the leap to super-club status without Bergkamp in tow, but they could not have done it without him. As Wenger explained when a statue of the forward was unveiled outside Emirates Stadium in 2014:
" I believe that Dennis Bergkamp first personalises the qualities of the club, the values of the club. Because he is class, as a player, as a person, and because of his immense contribution to the success of the club, and the world-known reputation of the club he has personally contributed a lot."
Whether it was the result of chemical processes in the deep recess of his grey matter, his cultural upbringing, the power of human thought, the influence of those who inspired him, an incredible work ethic or, as Lauren hints at, divine inspiration, Bergkamp was one of a kind. The perfectionist who turned a club just as surely as he turned Nikos Dabizas has never really been replaced - the Bergkamp-sized hole in the soul of Arsenal remains - and his crowning moment has never been matched. Perhaps it never will.