There are some players in this world who make the game of football look beautifully simple.
From the nonchalant scoring of outrageous goals to possessing a first touch smoother than silk, it all seems to come so naturally for a select few.
One player you’d put in that bracket – and many other brackets for that matter – is Netherlands legend Dennis Bergkamp. Written off by the British press upon signing for Arsenal, he made light work of embarrassing his critics by becoming one of the greatest players to set foot in England.
But while his ability came as somewhat of a surprise to many in England, one man had known all along just how good the Dutchman was.
Back in 1986, Johan Cruyff arrived at Ajax – in the managerial hot seat this time – with a brand of football so attacking it became labelled harakiri: a form of Japanese suicide. More importantly for Bergkamp, Cruyff was not afraid to give young players opportunities; his motto, “good enough is old enough”. By just 17, he was certainly good enough.
Just before Christmas in 1986, Cruyff gifted Bergkamp his first professional appearance in the Eredivisie, coming on as a 66th minute substitute in a 2-0 victory over Roda JC. Given the stamp of approval by one of the greatest figures in footballing history, Bergkamp was always destined for greatness.
His first goal followed shortly against HFC Haarlem in early 1987 and he would go on to make to make 23 appearances for Ajax during the 1986/87 season. It was in European football, however, where his talent started turning heads.
“Dennis toyed with the man, leaving him colourblind.”
– Frank Rijkaard.
The quarter final of the Cup Winners Cup saw Ajax drawn against a Malmo team managed by future England boss Roy Hodgson. Firmly in Cruyff’s plans, Bergkamp travelled with the squad expecting to make his European debut. When they arrived in Sweden, however, they were greeted with bad news; the pitch was covered in snow and the game was postponed. A new date was set, just ten days later .
When an enthusiastic Bergkamp checked his diary, eager for his first taste of European football, he was greeted with a major problem.
Only 17, the young Dutchman was still studying and on the morning of the rescheduled game, he was due to take a biology exam. Bergkamp informed Cruyff of the unfortunate clash, expecting to miss out on his European introduction. But his manager had other ideas.
Not content with leaving his talented youngster behind, Cruyff formulated a plan – Bergkamp would take his exam and make it to Sweden in time to make his European debut the same evening. Travelling first by car, then by plane (the non-flying Dutchman was still flying in his early days) and finally by boat, Bergkamp reached Malmo in time to make a 15 minute substitute appearance.
The game ended in a shock 1-0 defeat for Ajax but Bergkamp’s performance caught the eye. In the return leg just a few days later, the Iceman made the starting line-up. In front of 25,000 Ajax fans, Bergkamp dazzled. Playing on the left-wing he tormented the oppositions right-back with such ease that teammate and Netherlands legend Frank Rijkaard stated, “Dennis toyed with the man, leaving him colourblind.”
With a 3-1 victory all but secured, Cruyff substituted the youngster in the 87th minute. The crowd, knowing they had just witness the first great performance of a man who would dominate an Ajax team for many years, stood in rapturous applause.
Suddenly the scintillating talent that Cruyff had been acutely aware of for sometime became the talk of Amsterdam. At just 17, Bergkamp was firmly on his way to stardom.
While Bergkamp was intending to continue his studies, Cruyff intervened. The youngster had proven invaluable to his team but could only train twice a week while still in education. The great manager convinced his prodigy to leave his schooling behind and begin training with the first-team full time; a request that proved to be the right choice, as by the end of the season Bergkamp had played in both the Dutch Cup final and the Cup Winners Cup final. Ajax were victorious in both.
Over the next seven years, the Iceman would cement himself into Ajax folklore scoring 122 goals in 239 games. He picked up two Dutch Player of the Year awards after propelling Ajax to their first division title in five years, and in 1992 they triumphed against Torino to win the UEFA Cup.
Bergkamp’s first season as a professional was remarkable, yet that’s not surprising. Bar a short stint in Milan, his entire career was remarkable – and he was capable of executing moments of greatness with such serenity that most mere mortals could only look in with awe. For evidence of that, look no further than his jaw dropping winner against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup.