I've been reading Stillness and Speed, Dennis Bergkamp's autobiography. It's been a fascinating read so far. (I'm about 6 chapters into the book). I've just finished reading about Bergkamp's stint at Inter, and I wanted to share this with you all:
[Inter ex-teammate:] What we are discussing here is the difference between the top, top level and the merely outstanding. That’s the difference. Dennis was a big player, but not an outstanding one. With a different mentality and a different character, he could have been top top.’
[Interviewer:] At Arsenal he was. They loved and admired him. The French guys at Arsenal who played in their national team said Dennis was equal to or better than Zidane.
‘Well, he was faster than Zidane. But Zidane was more open-minded. Dennis was a top player technically, but his character was not. He was too quiet. Too closed. Narrow-minded. Not like Zidane.’
Closed culturally, or as an individual?
‘I don’t know. But he had everything to be a top, top player like Zidane. But he needed to be stronger, more open-minded.’
Yet in London Dennis is seen as this sort of great philosopher king who opens the English culture. He unlocks and opens the door to something much bigger. He changes English football! He gives it another vision.
‘Yes, OK. In England. But not here. And in the Holland national team, how was he?’
‘No. Normal. A normal player.’
All through the 1990s Holland are great and strong. Then Dennis retires in 2000, and Holland go straight down.
‘OK, but for me I don’t remember him being decisive. When I think of Holland and I think of the decisive players, I think of Koeman, Seedorf . . . Cruyff years ago. Bergkamp? No. Not like Zidane. He should have been decisive because he had the same talent as Zidane. Dennis was not as decisive for Holland as he was for Arsenal.’
Well, Holland should have won the World Cup in 1998 and Euro 2000. They were the best team in both.
‘They needed different players, with different talents. Dennis had to be a bigger star, like Zidane was for France. Zidane was the dominant player at Juventus, Real Madrid, France. Wherever he played he dominated. Always. Always the leader, the obvious leader. But Dennis . . . the difference is that Zidane led more and was more . . . manifested than Dennis. But Dennis Bergkamp has very great qualities.’
The old Arsenal players said the fans, media, even the TV couldn’t see everything Dennis did. He didn’t draw attention to himself, but for them he was absolutely the technical leader. You couldn’t even see the perfection of his passes, for example. They weren’t just good but perfect. The curve, the timing, the pace . . . every pass a ‘caviar’, as Thierry Henry said. Perfect.
‘Yes, yes Dennis was technically brilliant. His quality is not for discussion. Extraordinary! Extraordinary! But his personality was problematic.’
Later on, Dennis gets to give his take on the Inter years:
I guess it comes down to this idea that they see the striker is an individualist. Ferri said it very strongly that you’re not a Ronaldo. They wanted you to be like him. When Van der Sar went to Juventus he had to stop playing like a Dutch goalkeeper. They made him stick on his line like an Italian. He went along with that and felt later that he’d betrayed his principles. He felt he should have said: ‘Actually I’m not doing that, I think my way is better.’ He had to come to England, to Fulham, to find himself again. After you left, [the Brazilian] Ronaldo arrived. He was happy to play catenaccio style as the lone striker. He adapted and they loved him for it. You never did that. You could have tried to be Italian, like Ronaldo, be a dribbler. You could have thought of that as adding some skills. But you seemed to see it more as losing something, not developing your art as you needed to, or not fulfilling your destiny or something. Any thoughts?
‘I need other players around me. That’s when I become a good player, because I need them to perform like me, and I need them to be moving for me. I did learn from the Italian league. At home [Ajax] the vibe is more playful: "Oh look how good I am, I can do this . . . and even this!" And in Italy it’s more a job. You’ve got one chance, and you’ve got to make sure you score that goal. I learned a lot from that. I learned what professional football is. They do two training sessions a day. You come in at nine, you rest there in the middle of the day and train again in the afternoon. Every minute of the day, you’re a football player. That’s what I learned there, but I would never do different than what I’m good at. I’m not a dribbler, so I’m not going to dribble. After that conversation on the plane, I understood they wanted me to run around more, work harder. No problem. I can do that. It didn’t help, though. I still wanted to make a difference, to score a goal or make a fantastic pass. But I’ve got no one around me. I’m frustrated, but they just didn’t care. If I was working for the team, making space, making runs, they were happy. I could do that easily, but it wouldn’t win games. It wouldn’t make me a better player. But they’d expect it of me. OK. I’ll do that. I’m open-minded.’
But would it actually have damaged you, trying to play their way? Would you have lost something in your game? Or added something?
‘It wasn’t my strength, but I was willing to put that in my game, and later it helped me. That sort of stuff helped me in England, where I was one hundred per cent in the game every time. I became more business-like in winning the ball, or scoring goals, or finishing or passing. I learned the mentality: this pass has to be right, because you really only have one chance. Or this shot has to be on target . . . that sort of stuff. That’s what I learned in Italy, but I would not have accepted them making that my game, running around. With all due respect to Italian strikers, most of them – not all of them – are just working for the team in the four-four-two system. Just running, holding the ball, passing, getting into the box. It’s similar to some English strikers as well, but I’ve never felt that to be my game. If I’d made the decision: "OK, I’m going to adapt to Italian football," I would have been a lesser player. I would have been there longer, and they would have been happier with me. But I would never have been the player I became in the end.’
Interviewer: You stuck to your vision?
‘No. It was more a feeling. What was I comfortable with? I thought: "This is not me." How do you want to play football? How do you approach football? What do you feel happy – or happier – with? What can you do? It comes down to my intention of being a better player today than yesterday, and always looking for possibilities and opportunities. I was looking for quality instead of quantity. Higher and higher. OK, I can do this for twenty years, and at a certain pace. If I just do what they expect of me, I will be appreciated, but I will be one of . . . many. And in my mind, I want to be different. That’s why I made the choice for Inter instead of other teams. Other teams would have been easier. I don’t want it easy. At Milan, they would have understood immediately. I could have followed Marco, but I wouldn’t make a name for myself. I didn’t want to be a follower. I didn’t want to be "the new Van Basten" or "the new player from Cruyff" at Barcelona. I wanted to follow my own path, my own way. I wanted to be Dennis Bergkamp, basically.’
So why am I posting these excerpts? Why do I find this section of the book so fascinating?
Well, we currently have a player at Arsenal who is criticized for "not being decisive enough" or for "disappearing during games". This despite the fact that he leads the charts in assists.
Yes, that player is Mesut Ozil.
Seriously, in reading this biography, there's sooo many parallels between Bergkamp and Ozil. From their introverted personalities, to the criticism they received, to the way Bergkamp describes his own style of play as trying to find space between the lines, to his love of team football, and also in his fascinating descriptions of the way Wenger sees football, it's so clear to see why Ozil picked Arsenal as his next step after Real Madrid to develop into becoming a better footballer.
Heck, there are even similarities in their pyjamas:
For Ian [Wright], the pleasure of playing alongside a footballer he hugely admired was soon doubled by the delight of rooming with his new friend. On their first night together, Dennis is in the bathroom getting ready for bed. The door swings open, Dennis walks into the room and Ian is shocked: ‘I’d never seen a footballer wearing pyjamas before! Normally a player will have nothing on. And Dennis comes out in full pyjamas! That stands out more than anything else. It was so lovely. PYJAMAS!! It was so sweet, and so family and so genuinely the right thing to do. He did that all the time with me. I’m not sure if I went out and bought pyjamas because I wanted to copy him. I don’t think I did but I certainly thought of it.
An Arsenal striker loving his teammate's pyjamas? Hrm... why does that sound familiar:
Anyway, Stillness and Speed is a great read, for both insights into the great Dennis Bergkamp, as well as the glimpses of Arsene Wenger that you see. And of course, the lingering feeling that there are many, many parallels between Bergkamp and a current Arsenal player...
In Bergkamp's own words, after his spell at Inter, he was so jaded that he thought of retiring early, at 28 years old or so. And then he came to Arsenal, and he found his home. In his own words, he never expected that he'd be here for 11 years.
I have no doubts whatsoever that at Arsenal, Ozil has found his home. And I have no doubts whatsoever that Wenger is the man to get the best out of him.