Dennis Bergkamp became a legend playing under Arsène Wenger for Arsenal, and a statue of him outside the Emirates confirms such status had there been any doubts. Never the ravenous goal-hungry striker of Ian Wright’s ilk, instead here was a player of infinite grace; a Dutch Master who illuminated the pitch with the artistry of a painter bringing the green sward of a canvas to life with precise brushstrokes. Goals were not his prime currency, although 120 strikes in 423 games is decent fare, his foremost talent was an ability to link, to prompt and promote the strikes of others, whilst still plundering a welcome contribution of his own.
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As well as being a pivotal creative force in the Gunners most successful period of modern times, Bergkamp scored goals of quality, rather than in quantity. A stunning hat-trick against Leicester was full of poise and purpose; a deft touch and balletic pirouette against Newcastle was the very stuff of dreams and the clipped first-time strike that described a perfect arc before dropping into the net in a cup tie against Sheffield United are but glimpses of an exquisite, exceptional and enthralling talent.
For all the success and accolades that rightly came his way in North London though, it’s worthy of consideration that when Arsenal acquired his services in June 1995, for a fee of some £7.5million, he left former club Inter Milan as a perceived failure. Incoming Nerazzurri President, Massimo Moratti, arrived with a mandate to improve the club’s squad, and moving Bergkamp on was deemed to be an intrinsic part of that process. The man hailed as one of the best foreign imports to the English game had apparently failed in Serie A. It was when the Nerazzurri’s pain led to the Gunners’ gain.
Following in the footsteps of some of football’s greatest exponents of the game, Dennis Bergkamp came up through the Ajax academy system, joining the club at eleven, and made his first team debut in December 1986 when 17-years-old. He would stay with there for seven seasons, scoring 122 goals in 239 games, as he honed his skills in the Amsterdam finishing school for elegant footballing talent. By the early 1990s, it was clear that the club had an exceptional player on their hands. Bergkamp was the Eredivisie top scorer for three consecutive years across 1991 to 1993, and voted Dutch Footballer of the Year in the latter two of those years. As with any finishing school though, there’s always the problem of a completed education becoming the prelude to a move away. And so it was for Dennis Bergkamp.
When such a talent becomes available for transfer, the continent’s biggest clubs circle hungrily like sharks awaiting a feeding frenzy. Milan seemed like a likely destination, in either red or blue, but the Old Lady of Turin was also looking for rejuvenating young blood and in Spain, the big two would always compete for talented players. Reports suggest that, Johann Cruyff, the Netherlands’ greatest ever footballing export, unsurprisingly suggested to Bergkamp that joining Los Blancos in the Spanish capital would not be ideal. Some even suggested that Cruyff had wanted to entice Bergkamp to join him in Catalunya, but nothing came of any such move, be it real or merely conjured up by a furtive press imagination. Such blandishments were unnecessary. Bergkamp had declared that Serie A, the top league on the continent, was the place to be and considered Milan or Turin as his preferred destination.
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After all the financial wrangling had been completed, it was Inter Milan that secured his services, paying just over £7million to take him to the San Siro. He would be accompanied on the journey by team-mate Wim Jonk. Ever the courteous diplomat, when arriving in Milan, Bergkamp emphasised why he had chosen the Nerazzurri over all of his other options. The club, he declared, “met all my demands. The most important thing for me was the stadium, the people at the club and their style of play.” Whatever the sincerity of those remarks at the time though, whether prudently political or injudiciously ill-judged, his term with Inter would be anything but comfortable.
If Bergkamp’s assertion that Serie A was the foremost league in Europe was accurate, much of that celebrated status would be attributable to the structured and obdurate defensively organised outlook of many of the clubs there. This was no Dutch league. Dennis Bergkamp had opted for a league where ability such as his would only be highly prized if it found the keys to unlock that defensive structure. If not, he could quickly end up as some kind of misfit, lost in a culture that had little love for his approach to the game.
His first term in Serie A began with a 2-1 victory over Reggiana in August 1993. He didn’t find the net in that game, but his first strike would follow in the next month against Cremonese. If both player and club hoped that the first goal would breach a dam, and lead to a flow of goals, they were to be disillusioned. It was a stuttering start, and it would hardly improve as time went on – at least domestically.
September also saw Bergkamp reach a somewhat brief measure of acclaim in Italy when he notched a hat-trick on 15 September in a UEFA Cup tie first leg at home to Rapid Bucureşti. The competition would offer an ultimately successful counterpoint to the club’s domestic travails. A 0-2 victory in Romania, confirmed the progress past the opening round.
In the latter days of October, a far less convincing passage was secured against Apollon Limassol in the next round. Bergkamp scored the solitary goal in a home win, and also netted one of the Inter’s three goals in a hard-fought draw back in Cyprus. The Italian club moved into the last sixteen and faced Norwich City. The tournament was becoming a more than pleasant distraction for Bergkamp, and once more he scored Inter’s sole goal in the opening leg at the San Siro, and then found the net again in Norfolk with a strike two minutes from full-time.
The quarter-finals pitched Inter against Borussia Dortmund, but by now, manager Osvaldo Bagnoli had been removed from his post. Progress in the UEFA Cup was never going to be sufficient to assuage the anger and resentment of a poor Serie A campaign. The manager’s ploy to use Bergkamp, shoehorned into a front three comprising the Uruguayan Rubén Sosa, and the home hero of Italia ’90, Salvatore Schillaci, foundered against the casehardened defences in the league. The trio failed to click, and many were quick to place the blame on Bergkamp’s shoulders. Despite earlier complimentary allusions to the club’s “style of play” being one of the reasons he joined Inter, the way he was deployed by manager Osvaldo Bagnoli hardly seemed designed to bring out the best in the Dutch import.
With Inter’s Serie A form patchy at best, Bagnoli was removed in February 1994. Despite finding the net regularly in European competition, Bergkamp’s league goal tally had reached the paltry and wholly unsatisfactory level of seven. He seemed an ill-fitting option in the team.
The new man at the helm of the club was Gianpiero Marini who had been part of Italy’s World Cup squad in Spain 1982, when the Azzurri lifted the trophy, and as the club moved past Norwich into the last four, speculation grew that perhaps a European trophy might preserve dignity, jobs and players for another season. A highly creditable 1-3 victory in Germany facing Borussia Dortmund was, however, so nearly squandered back at the San Siro. Inter shrunk to a 0-2 deficit. Goals by Michael Zorc and Lars Ricken on either side of the break meant that a further strike would see the Germans qualify. The next goal came from the home side though. Antonio Manicone struck with just ten minutes remaining. Dortmund couldn’t respond and Inter stumbled into the last four where they would face a domestic squabble with Sardinian club Cagliari.
Playing the away leg first, Inter seemed on course for a comforting 1-2 victory. Inside the final ten minutes however, strikes by Criniti and Pancaro turned things around, offering a glimmer of hope to Gli Isolani. It would soon be extinguished back in Milan. Bergkamp coolly converted a first-half penalty and then further goals by Berti and Jonk saw the Nerazzurri into the final where they’d meet the surprise package of the tournament, Austria Salzburg. Single goal victories in both home and away legs saw the trophy head to the San Siro.
Bergkamp would finish the tournament as the equal top marksman with eight goals. His strikes had come in just 11 appearances, suggesting a surging rate of goals. Regrettably, it didn’t find an echo in domestic football. He would only score the same number of goals in 32 Serie A appearances. Despite the European success, at the end of the season, Inter were in 13th position, and just a point from the unthinkable disaster of relegation. In the final analysis, it wasn’t sufficient to keep Marini in position and for the new term, Ottavio Bianchi would head up the club. Bergkamp would complete the term with 18 goals from 48 games across all competitions, but with eight of those strikes coming in the UEFA Cup, the relatively paltry Serie A return was hardly what was expected of a big money signing.
Before the new season got under way though, there was the little matter of the 1994 World Cup to be contested across the Atlantic in the often-sweltering heat of a USA summer, and Bergkamp would be a key element of the Netherlands squad competing there. The Dutch were drawn in the same group as Belgium, Saudi Arabia and Morocco. The first three of that quartet would qualify for the knockout round with almost identical records in a keenly contested group, and Bergkamp would play every minute of each game in the section.
On American Independence Day in the midday heat of Orlando, the Dutch would face Jack Charlton’s Republic of Ireland side for a place in the last eight. Bergkamp would score the first goal in a 2-0 victory, again completing every minute of the game. It would take the Dutch to a quarter-final match up with Brazil five days later. Fated to win the tournament, the South Americans were two goals up just past the hour mark, thanks to efforts from Romário and Bebeto, the latter taking the opportunity to ‘christen’ the now familiar ‘rocking cradle’ goal celebration.
Just a minute after the Brazilian striker feted the birth of his child though, Bergkamp raced onto a quick throw-in to fire home from a narrow angle and inspire a Dutch fightback. A dozen minutes later Winter headed home a left-wing corner to square the game, with the Dutch now having the momentum. Inside the final ten minutes though, a low-driven 30-yard free-kick from Branco evaded Ed de Goey in the Dutch goal and Brazil were through.
On top of the exhaustion of playing yet another full 90 minutes – he had now not missed a minute of action across five competitive games in a short space of time – Bergkamp’s understandable weariness would have been emphasised after the Dutch had been eliminated following a courageous fight back. It would hardly mean a fresh and invigorated player returned to Milan for the start of the new season. The pressure on him to improve – at least domestically – on the previous term would only have added to extra weight to his burden of responsibility.
Whether it was due to fatigue, an inability to cope with the rigours of Serie A, an incompatibility with the team’s structure or just a feeling of being a misfit in a country with a culture so different to the one he had grown up with back in the Netherlands, the 1994-95 season would be both a disappointing and dispiriting experience for Dennis Bergkamp. Less than inspiring performances coupled with injuries would led to increased pressure and a decreasing amount of playing time. He would feature in only 21 Serie A games, scoring just three times. A tame exit from the defence of the UEFA Cup did little to ease the pressure.
The British press is often criticised for lauding and defaming players with little regard for any middle ground or vague nod towards temperance. It would be folly to think any different of the Italian media. When playing well, hero-worship by the tifosi is readily echoed in the copious football coverage in newspapers. When the reverse applies though, the mauling can be merciless.
Bergkamp was never one for the limelight and bright lights of the city’s glitterati, preferring to go home to his family after games. It was a propensity to introversion often portrayed by the press as an apathy response to poor performances and results, often whipped up into cruel and personal abuse. La Repubblica even exchanged their normal description for the week’s worst performance labelled as ‘L’asino della settimana’ (Donkey of the Week) to ‘Bergkamp della settimana’. It was harsh. It was callous and it was hardly likely to improve matters.
Quoted in a Q&A on FourFourTwo, Bergkamp recalled the times and how he perceived the situation. “They expected me to talk to them every day in detail! I said: ‘If there’s a game on Sunday, of course on Monday I’ll talk to you about the game. But I’m not going to talk again about it on Tuesday and Wednesday. So I’ll talk to the media twice a week, which is a lot compared to England, and even more compared to Holland.’ But they were angry. They wanted me to talk all the time, and I said no. I need my private life as well, and in England the press respect that. The English tabloids criticised me at first when I didn’t score in my first seven or eight games. Fair enough. I never mind if people hammer me about football. But in Italy they made up ridiculous stories. One time I had a haircut and they said my hair was falling out because I couldn’t cope!”
In February of 1995, the club was purchased by Massimo Moratti with a promise to invest in new players and to move on those failing to hit the high standards demanded by the club. Bergkamp was an inevitable target, and the arrival of Maurizio Ganz from Atalanta merely confirmed to many the inescapable logic that the Dutchman’s time in Milan was up.
The player himself contends that, when the possibility of him leaving the club was discussed with the owner, Moratti actually asked him to stay as things would improve. It seems difficult to accept however that such sentiments were indeed the case. Some may consider such a stance by the owner to be either surprising or perhaps less than totally sincere. In June, a reportedly £8 million deal lifted both the gloom and the Dutchman’s presence from the San Siro breaking the club’s transfer record as manager Bruce Rioch took Bergkamp to North London.
It would hardly be an ideal start to his career in England though, when the first half-dozen or so games went by without a goal. “Dennis Bergkamp is a £7.5 million striker playing like someone who cost 75p. Now he needs a Bruce Rioch rocket to make him get his finger out,” urged Mark Lawrenson in the Daily Mirror at the time.
If things initially did not pan out well for Bergkamp, with echoes of the bad days at the San Siro dogging his footsteps, things would change with the arrival of Arsène Wenger and, as the saying goes, the rest is now history. There would be trophies, there would be glory, and there would be redemption. Whilst Dennis Bergkamp had endured disdain and disappointment in Milan, now with a style of play more suited to his talents, under a manager in tune with how to extract the player’s undoubted ability, there would be acclaim, adulation and legendary status.
When a player succeeds at one club, after palpably failing to convince at another, there’s a tendency to play the blame game. Why did Dennis Bergkamp not excel at Inter? Was it the club’s failure? Was it down to Bergkamp? Perhaps it was a little from Column A and a little from Column B. Sometimes though it’s just appropriate to recognise that no matter how nice a pair of shoes look in a shop window, if they don’t fit, then they don’t fit, and the initial attraction is rapidly diminished by the discomfort caused by wearing them. That however doesn’t mean that the same shoes wouldn’t be ideal on some other feet. Perhaps that’s the real story. Dennis Bergkamp is no Cinderella, and few would cast Inter as anyone’s Ugly Sister but, when the shoe fits, you do get to the ball. After all, that’s what football is all about in the end.