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Jul 19, 2006

Tribute to the Iceman

In my days as a student I only once managed to visit the old Stadium de Meer, home of Ajax, for a league game. It was the era of Johan Cruyff as coach and the season in which they would win the European Cup Winners' Cup.

On a nice autumn afternoon in 1986, FC Den Bosch were trailing 2-1, when Jan Wouters chipped the ball into the penalty box for Marco van Basten to score with a bicycle kick, perfectly placed into the top corner. Even the biggest whiners in the crowd - there was even a rumour in the 50s and 60s that a third of the public at Ajax came to see them lose - rose in unison to acknowledge the brilliance of the goal.

Van Basten's marker Cees van der Linden even has the picture of Van Basten hanging in mid-air prominently in his house with himself looking almost in awe to show visitors how close he was to this magnificent shot. He might have ruined it by marking the top European goalscorer of 1986 closer, but he did not and we have to thank him for that.

When Ajax beat Lokomotiv Leipzig 1-0 in the Cup Winners' Cup final in Athens later that season Van Basten had already signed a contract for AC Milan and would never play in the red and white again.

As a replacement Ajax brought in Frank Stapleton from Manchester United, but just four weeks after Van Basten has scored that cracker against FC Den Bosch a skinny schoolboy from the youth team entered the dressing room to join the squad for the home game against Roda JC.

'Hello, I am Dennis Bergkamp,' he said as he shook hands with his new teammates before coming on as a substitute in the second half. Though out of line with the Ajax tradition of the scoring debutant, he would make more than a century for them in the next six years before, via Inter, almost singlehandedly making Arsenal popular again.

Comparing Bergkamp, who retired at the end of last season, to Van Basten is something Dennis does not like. 'Van Basten was a different player,' he said in an interview. 'Marco played deeper, which I never did. I am not such a goal poacher and have other qualities like the assist. I am not one to lurk somewhere in the box and look for that last touch on the line.'

In 1991, Louis van Gaal created a new position to accommodate Bergkamp in his team: the shadow striker. As a number 10 he was the ideal link between midfield and striker and they were his most successful seasons as a goalscorer.

Amazingly since, he has not scored as many goals in one league season apart from the 16 in Arsenal's Double year in 1997/1998. However, where only a couple of Van Basten´s 200 league goals in a ten-year career will be remembered, almost every single one of Bergkamp's stands out.

At Ajax he had an almost twin-like understanding with midfielder Wim Jonk. A nod or the blink of an eye was enough to bring the ball from the foot of Jonk to a vacant space somewhere in the box where Bergkamp suddenly emerged to score.

Between 1990 and 1993 he averaged 25 league goals, more than half of which came as result of a double act between the two. No wonder Internazionale were interested in signing them both.

It did not work in Italy though, remembers Bergkamp: 'The team should play a pressing game, but our first friendly was a disaster and manager Osvaldo Bagnoli immediately went back to his former defensive system.'

Although Inter did win the UEFA Cup in his first Italian season, Bergkamp hit the target only 11 times in two Serie A seasons. The partnership with Jonk did not suit the Italian style.

He was saved by then-Arsenal manager Bruce Rioch. No matter how unlikely pairing Bergkamp andArsenal was at that moment, it seems like an eternal bond now, especially as he earned the nickname 'God' from the Highbury faithful in addition to being known as the 'Iceman' due to his calmness on the ball.

What is his secret? One of his definite attributes is a clinical first touch and an immediate awareness of where next to play the ball. Deliver to him at whatever speed and he manages not only to control it in one touch, but have the next pass already in his mind. There is never a second touch. It earns him that millisecond on his marker for the space he needs to pass or shoot.

His goal against Argentina at World Cup '98 was exemplary, when he took the ball from the air, while in motion, but managed to balance himself immediately for the shot. Defender Roberto Ayala was all over the place as he moved like every other human being, along with the law of physics, while his opponent somehow defied that.

The face of goalkeeper Carlos Roa was painted with desperation even before Bergkamp fired, as he already knew the outcome. With his control of the ball and his balance, Bergkamp gained a step on the rest of the world and after that finishing was the easy part.

It is only one of maybe 10 or 15 world class goals. One against England at Wembley in 1993, a couple at Ajax that defied belief and than a handful at Arsenal, not the mention the dozens of mere great goals, like all those curlers in the top corner from the edge of the box.

And obviously all those assists when he put teammates clear on goal, where they could not miss. Unforgettable, the one with the turn against Newcastle United, when pundits afterwards doubted he intended it as their imagination was limited to the reach of their own abilities.

He explained the wonder goal at Leicester, the equalizer in the closing minute with which he completed a hat-trick, on the DVD with 100 of his Arsenal goals. According to the master himself, taking the long pass from one foot to the other, while keeping the ball in the air, controlling it and then finish with a deft touch was what he had in mind,

I always believe that all goals in football history can be repeated by some lucky punter on a village pitch, but of some of Bergkamp's I am not so sure as they need so much skill and vision. We may never see the likes of such a player again.

  • Email newsdesk@soccernet.com with your thoughts.