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Oct 30, 2013

Stillness and Speed: Dennis Bergkamp's autobiography

Dennis Bergkam: Football genius.
Dennis Bergkam: Football genius.
Rating:

Anyone lucky enough to have watched Dennis Bergkamp grace a football pitch, regardless of where their allegiances lay, knew they were witnessing something special. His vision, control and awareness; his ability to read how the game would unfold seconds before anybody else -- the man was a genius.

And anyone who is lucky enough to get their hands on his new book, regardless of where their allegiances lie, will be left thinking exactly the same thing. Stillness and Speed is a homage to his genius -- a piece of work that allows you to understand the creative process of one of the most creative footballers the game has ever seen.

While there is plenty in this book for Arsenal fans to love and cherish -- be it old anecdotes, or an insight into the way Arsene Wenger works and how the club is run -- there is also plenty that any true football fan can take from this, as Bergkamp's love for the game in its purest form is simply so infectious.

If you're expecting to read a headline-making, warts-and-all story of a footballer, then you won't find it here. What you will find, however, is a refreshingly new spin on a genre that has often become stale in its old age. You see, Bergkamp is joined for the journey by writer and Dutch football expert, David Winner, who takes you on his own tour of the player's life, with the man himself alongside to help guide the ship.

This makes for an omnipresent voice, but one that never loses its personal touch. Winner effectively spends the book's 269 pages tapping into the mind of Bergkamp, and via a conversational structure between the two -- and at times an almost rigid Q $amp; A format -- he provides the perfect platform for the former Netherlands international to deliver his philosophies on how the game should be played to the reader.

Those philosophies stem from him being Dutch. Via Winner, we are soon well versed in the history and culture of Dutch football -- think Johan Cruyff, Total Football, the Ajax and Netherlands teams of the 1970s -- themes that helped make Bergkamp the player he was, and the man he still is today.

While his time at boyhood club Ajax was mostly a rosy affair, bringing about a European Cup Winners' Cup medal while he was still in school, his spell in Italy was not so. Yet the chapter on his doomed Inter Milan days speaks volumes about the Dutchman. In a twist that is so typical of the book, a vast proportion of this Milanese tragedy is told by Bergkamp's former teammates and coaches.

Ex-Inter centre-back Riccardo Ferri, for example, delivers his verdict that Bergkamp's inability to be a game-changer, in the way that Diego Maradona or Ronaldo (who both had success in Italy) were, meant that he was always destined for failure in the land of Catenaccio -- about as far removed from Total Football as you can get. However, in what makes for gripping reading, Bergkamp explains how he refused to conform to the Italian way of playing, which meant lessening himself. Italy was a country, he feels, where he was unable to develop his art, and ultimately achieve his aim of achieving perfection.

That goal is a constant that has run throughout his whole life. "He wants to strive for perfection," Wenger says of a player who he feels treats football like a religion. Whether it is his application in training, the pressure he places on himself to make the best pass every time, or his desire to provide "not just assists but perfect assists", you soon realise that Bergkamp is not just a perfectionist, but a control freak -- "you keep raising the bar, and therefore it's never good enough. You want perfection".

Former Gunner after former Gunner are waiting in the wings to pay tribute to the Dutchman as his North London adventure unfolds -- be it Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Ian Wright or Tony Adams. But while some of the Arsenal tales are real gold -- such as the "love story" of how Bergkamp and Wright first met at a petrol station near Croydon, or the Dutchman's relentless ribbing of Martin Keown -- it may be said by some that the Gunners' glory days are not given enough attention.

That, though, is simply not what the book is about. Bergkamp was no ordinary player, and this is no ordinary autobiography. Rather than a whole chapter on the 1998 or 2002 Double-winning seasons, we are treated delightfully to an in-depth look at his logic-defying goal against Newcastle, as that is the sort of man he is. Trophies are not what define him. His genius does.

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