Book Review: Stillness and Speed – Dennis Bergkamp

True geniuses are rare; books that do justice to their genius are rarer. Stillness and Speed falls fully into that category. Written by Dutch writer and football expert, David Winner (who also wrote Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football) with ample inputs from Dennis Bergkamp himself, this is a refreshing narrative that shines and stands out in a genre that is saturated with formulaic, repetitive texts that usually don’t yield too many real insights, the footballer’s thoughts and voice lost in the elaborately constructed story by the writer.

It is a conversation with one of the greatest players of his age. It has the echo of games past but talks to the present and carries hope for the future.

The Dutch version by Jaap Visser is, in Winner’s own words, the Arnold Schwarzenegger to the English edition’s Danny DeVito; a coffee table colossus that covers all aspects of Bergkamp’s life and career chronologically and through multiple colour photographs. Here, Winner provides the loose, experimental format and lets Bergkamp do what he does best – guide and assist the narrative of his own life in a way that enlightens and lets the reader truly understand what makes one of the most creative players football has ever seen. Just like the ease and grace that so characterised his game, the book has an effortless flow and chapter names seem merely present to be able to divide the sections for the contents page. (They have names like It Has To Be Perfect, Driven, The Dark Side, The Penalty, The Meaning of Meaning, Future of the Future.)

However there is also enough proof of his steely interior, his stubbornness in sticking to his pure vision of the game even when others (particularly during his ill-fated Serie A stint) called him too snobbish to conform to their style of play. It is here that Winner shows his interviewer skills, asking probing questions, questions that demand honest answers and explore some of the darkest and most difficult moments of Bergkamp’s career (His penalty miss against Manchester United in the 1999 FA Cup semifinal has an entire chapter dedicated to it with some very interesting, thought-provoking discussions about what is a good or bad penalty. Similarly that goal against Newcastle also gets its own chapter and in-depth analysis).

There is also plenty of unexpected humour, dry wit and mischief that will make you smile, chuckle and even laugh out loud (the story of Bergkamp and Wright’s first meeting at a petrol station near Croydon is one of the best). Above all there is his constant striving for perfection, his passion and obsession with the beautiful game and a very introspective, intelligent voice that perfectly complements the football we were lucky to be able to witness on the pitch.

That’s one of its main selling points, its universal reach. You do not have to be an Arsenal fan to enjoy and appreciate the journey both the Dutchmen take us on, all you need is a true love for the game. A love that we encounter in its purest and most sacred form in the man named after Denis Law, in a story that started way back in 1970, in Kade, a working-class Amsterdam neighbourhood. (His name was spelled Dennis after his elder brothers convinced his father that Denis was too girly.)

There, a worn-out brick wall still stands testament to the innate footballing mind, maturity and drive present even in an eight-year-old Dennis. He spent countless hours practising, kicking the ball against it, experimenting with different ways of how to control it, seeing how it bounced and how many times, how that affected how it came back … things that still don’t occur to most professional footballers. It was here that his technique was refined to such precision that he would aim for a corner of a particular brick, each time with different pace, power and spin to see how the ball’s trajectory changed. That wall is the birthplace of Bergkamp’s obsession with control, the importance he gave to that first touch, the challenges he set himself from a very young age in order to come as near that perfection as possible.

“It’s not thinking. It’s doing … Most of the time I was by myself, just kicking the ball against the wall, seeing how it bounces, how it comes back, just controlling it. I found that so interesting.”

For him the first touch is still a crucial part of what makes a great footballer, so much so that when he was a player, he preferred the first touch that began his best goals than the finish. For him it’s all about control and touch and creating what he calls ‘time with a moving ball’. In an interview with The Guardian’s Amy Lawrence, Bergkamp gives the example of Mesut Özil,

“First touch in football is so important. If you talk about Mesut people say he is not marked properly, he always has a lot of space but he has got that space because he can create space by his vision and his first touch. With that you create your own time.”

“Teach that to children. Do something with the ball, let it bounce, back, back, back against the wall, left, right, that’s the main thing.”

As a coach his priorities are very clear, logical and scientific, but the pure unadulterated enjoyment of the game remains the most important lesson he ever learned and wants to pass on. It is exactly the philosophy he learnt under, the one that shaped him and the same one he is part of imparting as assistant coach at his boyhood club Ajax. All these events in his life can trace their origins back to one man, another Dutchman by the name of Johan Cruyff. Cruyff is a crucial part of the Dutch revolution of the 1970s, of Total Football and the Ajax and Holland teams of that time and later. It’s an integral part of what it means to be Dutch and nobody embodies it better than the guy they called the Iceman during his Arsenal career. The book also takes you through his Holland career, through the ups and downs, through his decision to never fly again and his relationships with former managers and colleagues, as well as his Arsenal days, being a part of Wenger’s Invincibles.

One theme that runs through the life of Dennis Bergkamp is that of perfection. Even when it comes to telling both sides of a story, particularly the miserable days at Inter Milan where he refused to conform to the Italian Catenaccio mentality and culture, simply because he didn’t want to compromise on his art. (In retrospect he was in the wrong place at the wrong time when Italian football was in an identity crisis of sorts) In a rather surprising turn, most of that time is described by his then teammates Ricardo Ferri and Beppe Bergoni, and Osvaldo Bagnoli (Bergkamp’s first coach at that club) – all three who have not very nice things to say about him or his attitude while in Italy. It is magnanimous and also endearingly honest of the Dutchman to give them the chance to talk about their sides of the issue and shows his desire of wanting balance and exploring all sides of an argument. The following quote gives us some much needed perspective on what it was really like in Italy and in Italian football at that time.

“If van Basten had come to Inter instead of going to Milan, van Basten would have failed as well. At Inter, Dennis was all alone while van Basten had a team to back him at Milan”

That was one of the things that made a difference in England, the support of a team who soon shared his beliefs and vision. Bergkamp won 3 League titles and 4 FA Cups with Arsenal and under Arsene Wenger. But his contribution to the club as well as football was much more than that. He was part of the influx of foreign players around that time who slowly changed the culture of the game in England at a time when players thought nothing of drinking after a hard day’s training or eating crisps, chocolate and other junk food on the team coach. With his single-minded intensity and dedication during training and games alike, and his motto of you can always do better, Dennis did more than just pull the strings of the Arsenal midfield. It is Arsene Wenger who shows some of the best insights into one of the best players he inherited when he was appointed manager.

“He wants to strive for perfection … You keep raising the bar, and therefore it’s never good enough. You want perfection.” (Arsene Wenger)

But it’s not a perfection or obsession driven by money or ambition. For Bergkamp, the latter are desires that can be satisfied, while his passion for perfection, for the game, for the perfect pass is something deeper, within the soul. You want to grab it, to do the hard thing always and move on to the next challenge. For him it was never enough to simply get the ball over the defender for his striker. No, Bergkamp would not be satisfied until he could ‘beat the defender and make the goalkeeper think he can get it’ so he would come out and leave space, giving Dennis the option of getting the ball in front of his striker or on to his head. All in a few split seconds. It is an entirely different way of thinking, and one you need to relentlessly keep at even if you’re born with it like Bergkamp seems to have been. Maybe it’s the reason why the Dutchman has been most successful under managers who recognised his genius and simply let him be,

“I am not the product of any manager. My best trainers were the ones who left me on my own. [Johan] Cruyff, Wenger, Guus Hiddink.”

Again, it is Wenger who has an interesting view about this self-sufficient devotion that Dennis displayed throughout his career.

“It is a spiritual thing. I am convinced of that. (There are) those who want to serve football like you serve God, and they put football so high that everything that is not close to what football should be is a little bit non-acceptable. I believe that Dennis was one of those who had such a high idea of the game and such a respect for the game that he wanted that to be above everything. I believe that the real great players are guided by how football should be played and not by how football should serve them. If it becomes spiritual, it’s endless and you’re always driven to going higher and getting closer to what you think football should be.”

Bergkamp echoes this when he makes the Roger Federer comparison and talks about the drop volleys, the disguised lobs and the subsequent close control over the ball that the Swiss has – ‘to do something that others don’t do or don’t understand or are not capable of doing. That’s my interest; not following, but creating your own thing.’

Dennis Bergkamp is a genius; his vision, control, awareness, ability to read the game and predict what would happen before it did, unparalleled. And yet he was also always a team player at heart, a trait that is still reminiscent throughout this book. It contains plenty of fascinating discussions about football, craft, technique, vision, talent, passion, as well as insights into his family, into the way he was brought up and the values he and his siblings were ingrained with. All of it is a tantalising glimpse into our main man, but it couldn’t really have been woven together into a multi-layered narrative without the insights and refreshingly honest thoughts from the Dutchman’s former teammates, managers, coaches and footballing greats. My only complaint? That there wasn’t more.

Anushree Nande

Published writer and editor. Hope is her superpower (unsurprisingly she's a Gooner), but sport, art, music and words are good substitutes.