THE PORTRAIT OF ARSENAL AS DENNIS BERGKAMP

Arsenal Legends *** image courtesy of zimbio ***
Arsenal Legends *** image courtesy of zimbio.com ***

A statue of Dennis Bergkamp will stand outside the Emirates stadium.

Alongside the bronze cast immortalisations of Herbert Chapman, Tony Adams and Thierry Henry, the figure of this majestic non-flying Dutchman will forever be grounded. Ultimately, it is as appropriate as it is symbolic to have Bergkamp’s statue. For a club like Arsenal, beyond the early years of English pragmatism and 1-0 to the Arsenal regime of George Graham, Bergkamp may very well epitomise evidently the new Arsenal. The Arsenal whose history changed on that day in November 1996 when Arsene Wenger walked through Highbury’s gates.

It also, inadvertedly, epitomises much more than that.

For even now, there is a little of Bergkamp in Arsenal. He may have left a long time ago, but the symbol of his character remains firmly stamped.

Bergkamp was a master. And a genius. He could handle a ball like no other. He could pass the ball through tight spaces that nobody had seen. He could score with a feather like touch. His grace and beauty was a sight to behold. Made you drop a jaw, lift it, then drop it back again with your brain still adjusting to the state of disbelief. This was a man whose genius presence graced the most brilliant of occasions.

He did, however, never decide them.

For his genius had a flaw, in that it failed to show itself on the most grand of occasions.

Yes, what a peach of a goal against Newcastle United in 2002. The ball comes in from Robert Pires, Bergkamp flicks it to one side of Nikos Dabizas, runs the other side of Dabizas, and calmly, cooly, gently slides it past the goalkeeper. Oh my! Did he just do that? He did. It is an outrageous piece of skill. A goal worthy of winning any game.

But that came in a game in early March, with Arsenal firmly on their way to a League and Cup double. It did not have any major effect in the overall outcome. It did, just like Carlos Alberto’s fourth goal at the World Cup final in 1970, decorate further an otherwise already decorated occasion.

And that summarises Bergkamp. A master who graced with his brilliance, but did nothing more.  No Cup final will ever be remembered for what Bergkamp did in the way the 2012 Champions League will be remembered for Didier Drogba, or the 1998 World Cup for Zinedine Zidane.. No League title ultimately bears his name in the manner the one of 2003-2004 bears Henry’s, or the one of 2007-2008 has Cristiano Ronaldo’s. For a player of such grand quality, that will forever be missing from any mantelpiece or masterpiece ever presented of him.

Ideally, it should have in that tournament when Zinedine Zidane’s name clung onto the lips of many a football lover. In 1998, long before Ronaldo’s demons would leave him an unwilling passenger as Brazil suffered the fate of the stars aligning for the sake of France, in France, under the French skies, Bergkamp had his moment.

The 90th minute of an enthralling quarter final between Argentina and Holland. Fan fare, colour, delight, fantasy football, red cards, but all as the game was still deadlocked at 1-1 and heading for extra time. No winner looked anywhere near in the present horizons, and if one was to appear, it needed something special.

It got it in the form of Bergkamp.

For right then, Frank De Boer unleashed a perilous long pass, halfway between a powerful hoof upfront and a weighted pass. It seemed, like one of those passes unleashed by quarter-backs in that game of football played by Americans. As such, it usually requires a teammate to catch it with his hands in the end zone to earn the points of a touchdown.

Bergkamp caught it with his foot. He plucked it from the heavens with his right boot in what was seemingly impossible. His laces dropped it dead. Then, with his instep, halfway still in mid air, halfway on the ground but still perfectly balanced, he turned inside of Roberto Ayala to leave the Argentine center back for dead.

He’d killed two birds with one stone. Then he buried it. With the outside of the boot, he curved it round the Argentine goalkeeper. The ball curved as if outside the post, but turned inside of it. Into the back of the net. The quarter final was won. The semi final was at hand.

At that moment, the semi-final with Brazil was billed as Bergkamp vs Ronaldo (Luis Nazario). It however turned into one of Patrick Kluivert vs Ronaldo. Bergkamp was nowhere to be seen. Maybe if he had been, it would have been the Dutch facing France in the final, and not the Brazilians.

He failed to deliver when it mattered most. That would forever define his career.

It is probably why Dutch legend Johnny Rep described him thus.

“… he lacks the hardness to win. Bergkamp is a very big player, but he doesn’t have the character in his body.”

Of course, it is too simplistic to define him by his World Cup exploits. Certainly, not when for Arsenal, he helped them win three Premier Leagues and four FA Cups. Not when he won the PFA Player’s Player of the Year Award in the 1997-1998 season.  And certainly not with that hat-trick against Leicester City in that season.

A hat-trick that was finished off with a goal much like the one in France. Three movements, drop it, turn inside, bury it. But then again, think about it. It was against (and with all due respect to them) Leicester City.

Indeed, Bergkamp was the silky skilled player, but he was always a capable assistant to first Ian Wright and Tony Adams, then to Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira as Arsenal went in battle season in season out for the Premier League title with Manchester United. He was never main man. And even now, he reprises his role, functioning as capable assistant manager to Frank De Boer at a resurgent Ajax.

As such, this should never take  away from just how good he was. There is nothing wrong with being assistant. Football is after all a team sport, and it requires each individual to make a team that much better in their own unique way. Some are lead vocalists, others are bass guitarists. Not everyone can conduct the orchestra.

Bergkamp probably helped more than most as Arsenal escalated into the heights of football heaven. That is his lasting legacy.

The Arsenal side that we now witness weak in week out is very much an image of Bergkamp. Grace, beauty, elegance, technical  perfection, passing brilliance, easy on the eye — but nothing ultimately decisive to show for it. Like Bergkamp, when Arsenal should be at their peak, they stumble. Much like in that semi-final in 1998, or when he failed to lead the Dutch to the summit of Euro 200 on home soil (again, they failed at the semi-final stage). It almost seems as if it is something mental. A block exists that almost brings them to defy themselves. To not do it. Out of fear.

Yet another semi-final episode exists, this time, the 1999 FA Cup semi-final replay. What is remembered most is Ryan Giggs picking up a misplaced Vieira pass in extra-time and tearing down the Arsenal team to finish and seal a place in the FA Cup final for Man United. The confidence gained from this would form the basis of a season that eventually ended in the Red Devils as treble winners.

But within the complex narratives of that semi-final game lies a moment in the last minute of normal time when Bergkamp had the chance to win it for the Gunners. Tied at 1-1, Phil Neville produced a moment of madness as he brought down Ray Parlour in the penalty area and a penalty was awarded. Bergkamp stepped up, surely to win the game.

He missed.

And since then, he took a vow never to take a penalty again. That he could not overcome this points to a certain mental character that locks itself within the thinking of the fear of losing. It could be that Arsenal themselves find themselves in the same situation. Season in, season out, a desire to win is surpassed by a fear of losing that is so strong that it leads to multiple exits in cup competitions within a matter of weeks. Even in the League Cup Finals that they have reached since they last won a trophy in 2005, it has been surprising that they lost on both occasions from winning positions. Both times, they took the lead, only for it to be reversed.

A mental block since Vieira’s last kick in 2005 has to be done away with if Arsenal is to win a trophy again.

But, just as the similarities abide with Bergkamp, it should also be noted that both still do arouse the great joys that make football what it is. That winning is not everything, simply enjoying the ride also matters. That beyond the logic that goes into the pragmatic preparations that lead to the desired result, a sense of aesthetics should never be lost. It does, in some quarters, even matter more than anything else.

Football, after all, is about much more than the stats, trophies and the so called decisive moments. Not everything is quantifiable or explainable.

That is why a statue of Bergkamp will be appropriate. As such, it does compound the pillars of Arsenal. Leadership via Adams, innovation with Chapman, decisiveness from Henry, now aesthetics in the form of Bergkamp. All that is missing now, is for a statue of Wenger to be commissioned. That would complete the jigsaw.

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