Player Profile: Dennis Bergkamp
Date of Birth: 10/05/1969
Height: 5 ft 10 in
National Team: Netherlands
International Caps: 79
International Goals: 37
With technique and goals in abundance, Dennis Bergkamp was a magician who defined an era for Arsenal and indeed the Premier League at large. His ball control bordered on the surreal, his understanding of the physics of football was Newtonian, and his 264 career goals were invariably stunning.
Nicknamed the Iceman for his sub-zero coolness in front of goal and his chilly demeanour, Bergkamp played for three great European clubs in his 20-year career, Ajax, Inter Milan and Arsenal. 16 titles came in this time, with the Champions League the only major honour alluding him. This might have been due in part to his major fear of flying, a phobia which earned him his other nickname – the ‘Non-Flying Dutchman’ – a less affectionate moniker than his Iceman pet name. For many other players, this blemish would have been enough for them to be remembered merely as a figure of ridicule, but any mockery was more than offset by copious amounts of adoration and praise.
Like a disproportionate amount of Europe’s top footballing talent, Bergkamp began his career at Ajax’s academy. Unlike many of the club’s gifts to the sporting world, however, Bergkamp was very much a local. He was born in Amsterdam in 1969 and grew up in the city’s suburbs. Among the urban sprawl, Amsterdam is a city peppered with lush patches of green where football is a ritual, a ceremony ingrained deep into its citizens’ collective psyche. Bergkamp’s family were very much part of this tradition; his father was an amateur footballer and named his son after Scotland and Manchester United striker Denis Law.
Though he would grow up to become an Arsenal legend, it was their arch-rivals, Tottenham Hotspur, who captivated Bergkamp as a youth. He idolised Glen Hoddle, an attacking midfielder with skill and deftness uncharacteristic of an Englishman of his era. It’s no coincidence that many of Hoddle’s strongest assets were reflected in Bergkamp’s own game – his unorthodox approach, supreme ball control and range of passing in the final third were all prominent in the Dutchman’s peak years.
From the age of 11, Bergkamp honed these talents under the supervision of Ajax’s youth coaches. He would progress rapidly and, by 1986, manager Johan Cruyff handed him his professional debut. Cruyff, a semi-mythological figure in Holland and worldwide, was another huge influence on Bergkamp. The populariser of total football and three-time Ballon d’Or winner imparted much wisdom onto Bergkamp. Many of the ideals of Dutch football stem from the late Cruyff and he is adored as much in Barcelona as he is in Amsterdam.
He spent five years of his career as a professional with Ajax. His first game was a 2-0 triumph over Roda JC in mid-December with his first senior goal coming a few months later in February during a 6-0 rout against HFC Haarlem – it was the first of 122 in 237 games. He scored one more time that season, playing 14 times in total.
Bergkamp got the first taste of silverware that campaign too. Ajax won the KNVB Cup as well as the now-defunct European Cup Winners’ Cup that season. Marco Van Basten scored goal after goal en route to the final of the latter of those competitions. Van Basten was far from the only household name in Cruyff’s squad that season. Frank Rijkaard and John Bosman were part of the makeup of what as an intensely gifted Ajax side.
In his second campaign, his first full one as a professional, Bergkamp would play predominantly as a wide-midfielder. His switch into a more central position would come gradually throughout his time in his homeland. He showed glimpses of his goalscoring ability during his sophomore voyage into the game, scoring six times from a traditional wingers’ position. Ajax would lose their talisman Van Basten to AC Milan at the end of that campaign. Bergkamp, now one of the hottest properties in Dutch football, knew his role within the side would have to grow if he was to emulate Van Basten’s career path.
And, as his game time began to increase, so did the goals. He netted 16 times in 34 games giving him a goals-to-games ratio of almost one in two – a spectacular hit-rate for a player who hadn’t yet turned 20. Though Bergkamp himself was successful, Ajax as a whole were not. They finished as runners-up in the Eredivisie and failed to launch an assault on any of the cup competitions. It was one of few trophyless seasons in Bergkamp’s career and the only one for Ajax.
By 89-90, Ajax had bolstered their squad. It was, as usual, in large part thanks to their academy. Edwin van der Sar, who would go on to become a legend of European football, came through the ranks that year, as did Frank de Boer. Surrounded by new talent, Bergkamp moved into the second-striker position which made him famous throughout the game. His goal return faltered slightly as a result of him learning the complexities of this new position. However, he still managed to score nine times in 28 games on the way to the Eredivisie title, creating as many goals as he scored.
To say he returned to goalscoring form during the following season would be an understatement. The 1990-91 season brought 26 goals for Bergkamp. Unfortunately, however, the tally was not enough for Ajax to add any trophies to their already jam-packed cabinet. Ajax would go on to win the UEFA Cup in the season which followed, with Bergkamp scoring six goals in 11 games throughout the tournament, and a fantastic 30 in 44 in all competitions. It was a truly brilliant breakout season for the Dutchman who would go on to score 60 more goals over the course of the next two seasons.
In his final year with Ajax, the team won one trophy, the KNVB Cup, but had no Eridivisie or European success to boast. Bergkamp, who had been in demand by clubs from Europe’s top five leagues for several years by this point, decided he would be better off seeking glory in pastures new. Milan, it transpired, would be his ultimate destination.
At the time of Bergkamp’s arrival, Inter had not won Serie A in half a decade. Their last success had come in the form of the UEFA Cup in 1991, but prior to this they had not won a trophy in almost a full decade. The signing of Bergkamp was meant to facilitate goal-getting and bring them prosperity in terms of competition victories.
It would be a fair assessment to describe Bergkamp’s time at the San Siro as mixed. He won the UEFA Cup for the second time in his career at the tail end of his first season and scored 18 goals in 48 games in all competitions. But only eight of these came in a Serie A campaign in which Inter finished in a meagre 13th place.
Though it had been a long-held ambition of Bergkamp’s to play in Italy, he struggled to adapt to life after his £7-million move to one of its most prominent cities. His dealings with the media and fans were sour and, owing to his shy persona, failed to form the relationships which might made him feel more at home in Italy.
His form in the following campaign was poor too. He scored just four goals all season as the club changed managers twice. When an English suiter came calling then, it was to Bergkamp’s relief and delight – Highbury would become his new home.
Though Bergkamp is associated synonymously with the Arsene Wenger era at Arsenal, it was Bruce Rioch who made Bergkamp his first signing for the club in 1995 in a deal which tripled their previous record outlay on a single player. He started his Gunners career relatively poorly, however, failing to score in his first seven games. The Dutchman eventually found the net in a 2-0 victory over Southampton and would go on to score 11 more over the course of the season, helping Arsenal climb to 5th place in the league standings. It was his fourth highest-scoring season in an Arsenal shirt, but arguably his worst in terms of performances.
When Arsene Wenger arrived at the start of the 96-97 campaign, he did so with the knowledge of Bergkamp’s immense prowess as a player. Wenger nurtured Bergkamp’s strengths, reassuring him that he valued him as a vital cog in his Arsenal machine, whether or not he was scoring goals. He maintained a similar strike-rate in his second season, but his overall contribution to the team was hugely improved. Now, he was showing the flashes of virtuosity he had displayed in his Ajax days on a regular basis.
In the 97-98 season, Bergkamp won his first and second trophies as an Arsenal player, the FA Cup and Premier League in a famous double. He scored 22 goals in total, his highest tally in four seasons and his best for Arsenal in a single season. Many of these goals were stunners, the types of goal that came to define Bergkamp’s illustrious career. Three in particular stand out, however, and it just so happens that they all came in the same game, a 3-3 draw against Leicester City in August. For this trio of strikes, Bergkamp earned 1st, 2nd and 3rd place in highlights programme Match of the Day’s Goal of the Month contest.
He was just as impressive in the following campaign, but Arsenal did not win any trophies despite pushing a treble-winning Manchester United right to the end. Things were similar in 99-00 when again Manchester United got the better of them in the league. They lost the UEFA Cup Final to Galatasaray a few weeks later, denying Bergkamp a third success in the competition. In 00-01, Arsenal finished as runners-up once more, unable to knock Alex Ferguson’s Red Devils off their lofty perch.
In 01-02, though, silverware returned to Highbury with Arsenal again winning the double. But it was the historic 03-04 season which truly earned Bergkamp a place in Arsenal folklore. The Gunners went unbeaten in the league, amassing an incredible 90 points. Until this day the Arsenal Invincibles remain the only club to have achieved this remarkable feat.
This was the peak of his time in North London and Arsenal have not returned to this high bar ever since. Bergkamp won one more trophy with the club, an FA Cup in 04-05, before hanging up his boots at the end of the following season. He scored 120 goals for Arsenal in total, a record which places him just outside the top ten Arsenal goalscorers of all time.
Until 2003, Dennis Bergkamp was the Netherlands’ all-time leading goalscorer. He scored 37 goals in 79 appearances for the national team between 1990 and 2000.
He played his first game against Italy in a European Championship qualifier and scored his first goal not long after. Unfortunately, Bergkamp missed out of being part of the Netherlands team which were triumphant at the European Championships in 1988 – he was only 19 at the time.
Bergkamp represented his homeland at five major international tournaments, the last of which was the European Championships hosted on home soil in 2000. The Netherlands reached the semi-finals on that occasion, continuing a trend of being nearly-men on the biggest stage. They had reached this round of the World Cup two years previous, losing to Brazil in the penultimate hurdle in France.
He remains the Oranje’s fourth-highest scorer of all-time.
Where is Dennis Bergkamp Now?
A distinctly reserved character, Dennis Bergkamp initially claimed he would remove himself from football entirely following his retirement. However, he returned to the game in 2008 when he became a youth coach at his old stomping ground of Ajax. He coached both the under-12s and the under-19s in one of the world’s most distinguished academies.
He graduated to become assistant to Frank De Boer during the latter’s stint as manager of Ajax in 2011. His role within the club declined, however, and he resigned from his position in 2017.
Bergkamp has been largely absent from public life ever since, rarely making media appearances or trips to football matches.