Every youngster needs a coach willing to believe in their potential. And all the better if that person was once a footballing great whose opinions command respect by virtue of his achievements in the game.
Dutch star Dennis Bergkamp was lucky enough to receive such support from none other than Johan Cruyff - arguably the greatest player to have represented the Oranje. Their paths first crossed in Amsterdam in 1986 when the Ajax coach placed his trust in Bergkamp despite doubts surrounding the player’s ability.
“He’ll make it, don’t you worry about that,” said Cruyff in response to criticism of his decision to include the 17-year-old Bergkamp in the capital club’s first-team squad at such a tender age. The doubts surrounding the teenager were not exactly unfounded. The slight youngster, who was named after the legendary Scotland striker Dennis Law by his Manchester United-mad father Wim, did very little to stand out from the crowd at the famous football academy ran by Dutch record champions Ajax in Amsterdam.
Not ready for Real Madrid
Cruyff, though, was convinced of his compatriot’s talent, even if others were not. He showed his faith in the youngster by using him as a substitute in the second half of the 1987 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup final, which Ajax won 1-0 against Lok Leipzig. Two years on, his performances had ensured that King Johan was vindicated.
Sports journalists in the Netherlands crowned him the Young Player of the Year, while German football magazine kicker christened him the “baby-faced assassin” due to his striking prowess. His 25 goals in the 1991 season saw him finish as joint top scorer in the Dutch Eredivisie with Brazilian Romario, a feat which made him one of the hottest prospects in Europe. Real Madrid soon stepped in with an offer, but Bergkamp turned it down. “I’m not ready to live alone in a foreign city yet,” said the 21-year-old of his decision.
After another two seasons as the top goalscorer in his homeland, a UEFA Cup winner’s medal and two Dutch Footballer of the Year awards, clubs all over Europe were fighting it out for the forward’s signature. Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus, AC Milan – Bergkamp was the most coveted player on the continent and was now ready to make the move abroad. He ultimately opted to join Inter in 1993, linking up with countryman Wim Jonk in what was to be a new-look Nerazzurri. But Bergkamp failed to adapt to life in Milan and completed a transfer to London outfit Arsenal in 1995.
The non-flying Dutchman
It was a marriage made in heaven for Bergkamp, who went on to become an Arsenal legend. He spent eleven years with the Gunners, scoring 120 goals in 423 appearances and winning nine titles with the English giants. “Everyone knows that I love Arsenal. I had an absolutely wonderful time here,” said an emotional Bergkamp in February 2014 as a statue was unveiled in his honour outside the Emirates Stadium, where the club play their home games. “I feel honoured and this day has made me very proud.”
Known for his outstanding technical qualities, Bergkamp first appeared for Arsenal on the wing before later featuring as a centre forward and eventually operating just behind the strikers.
His performances for the Netherlands were equally spectacular - this in spite of a lack of titles. Bergkamp’s debut in a 1-0 defeat by Italy just after the 1990 World Cup marked the start of a stellar international career which saw him participate at two FIFA World Cups™ and three European Championships. He scored 37 goals in 79 matches to overtake Faas Wilkes as his country’s all-time top scorer – a record later broken by Patrick Kluivert. “If Bergkamp plays well, so do Holland. If Bergkamp plays better, so do Holland,” wrote the Suddeutsche Zeitung. It was high praise at a time when Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard - some of the greatest Dutchmen to grace the game – were still playing.
Curiously, Bergkamp asked national team coach Guus Hiddink not to be selected for the World Cup qualifiers in Turkey and San Marino at the beginning of 1997. Hiddink accepted. The reason behind the request was the Dutchman’s acute fear of flying, which regularly saw him travel to Arsenal’s away matches by car, train or even bus. His reluctance to board a plane soon earned him the nickname 'The non-flying Dutchman'.
Dream goal against Argentina
Bergkamp’s winner in his country’s 2-1 victory over Argentina in the 1998 World Cup quarter-final will live long in the memory as one of the greatest goals in the competition’s history. Moreover, it remains the forward’s favourite career goal. With the 90 minutes almost up, he skilfully controlled a long diagonal pass from Frank de Boer in the opposition penalty area, nudged the ball through the legs of Argentinian centre-back Roberto Ayala, then fired it past goalkeeper Carlos Roa into the top left-hand corner from a narrow angle with the outside of his right boot. “Dennis wasn’t having his best game that day, but we all know that he’s capable of producing spectacular moments like that,” said defender De Boer in tribute to his countryman.
He announced his retirement from international football at the age of 31 after a disappointing semi-final exit from UEFA EURO 2000 in order to concentrate on his club career in England.
The ideal strike partner
Bergkamp won over 30 titles and personal accolades during his long career. However, he has not just made an impression on the pitch, with his friendly and reserved manner winning him many admirers off the field too. The former Gunner is currently the only Dutchman to feature in the English Football Hall of Fame and was undoubtedly one of the most technically gifted players to grace the world stage in the 1990s.
“He’s the best I’ve ever played with,” said Thierry Henry, a World Cup winner in 1998 and Bergkamp’s former team-mate. High praise indeed considering the Frenchman played alongside the likes of Alessandro del Piero and Zinedine Zidane.
Despite not winning an international trophy, Bergkamp’s brilliance has secured his place in history as one of the greatest players to pull on the orange jersey.