The Ringer’s 22 Goals: The Story of the World Cup, a podcast by Brian Phillips, tells the story of some of the most iconic goals and players in the history of the men’s FIFA World Cup. Every Wednesday, until the end of Qatar 2022, we’ll publish an adapted version of each 22 Goals episode. Today’s story involves Dennis Bergkamp at the 1998 World Cup in France.
1. Ship of the Damned
1678. The ocean.
There is a sea captain who has sold his soul to the devil. Or anyway, that’s what people say about him.
You know how people love to talk when it comes to sea captains and their various soul-selling shenanigans. Sailors get together: “Oh, my captain’s a real hard-ass, he’s always making me swab the quarterdeck.” “Oh, really? Wow. What a jerk. My captain is also a real hard-ass, he’s bound by a blood ritual to the Lord of Hell, the beast who devours this world.”
This captain’s name is Bernard Fokke. He’s from the Netherlands. F-o-k-k-e, as in “Argo Fokke yourself.”
The reason people think he’s in league with the devil is … well. He sails merchant ships between Holland and the faraway Dutch trading post at Java, in modern-day Indonesia. Footnote one, see colonialism.
And he’s fast. Suspiciously fast. Perhaps satanically fast. No one makes this trip as fast as he does. In 1678, he makes it in a blazing … three months and change.
OK, maybe three months doesn’t sound all that fast. But remember, it’s the 17th century. As far as anyone in 1678 is concerned, sailing from Amsterdam to Jakarta in three months is quantum computing. The best chess player in the world in 1678 would get crushed by an AI game engine powered by a three-month Holland-Java merchant voyage.
People are like, “How is Captain Fokke doing this? Innovation? Technique? Favorable winds?”
On one of these trips, something terrible happens aboard Captain Fokke’s ship, taking everyone by surprise, since vessels driven by a pact with pure evil normally have only the nicest voyages. Different stories disagree about what this terrible thing is. Some say it’s a murder. Some say it involves pirates. Some say the most boring crew member on the ship forced everyone to listen to his fan theory about how Han Solo actually did know what a parsec was in the cantina on Tatooine. A truly unspeakable act.
Whatever happens, the ship is now cursed. Doomed never to return to dry land. The men on board are forced to sail the seas … forever.
The name of this ghost ship is the Flying Dutchman. For centuries, its harrowing tale is passed down to terrify seagoers. Sailors who see the Flying Dutchman report a pale ship drifting through a dark mist, in an eerie silence broken only by the faint droning of a spectral voice declaring that an expert pilot like Han would never confuse a unit of distance with a unit of time, and would you please just look at this one Reddit post, it really clears everything up.
And so the Flying Dutchman drifts upon the oceans forever. The only two constants in the legend?
No. 1: The ship exists in a state of eternal unrest.
No. 2: When you see it, disaster is about to strike.
In July of 1881, for instance, a ship carrying two English princes saw the Flying Dutchman off the coast of Australia. A few hours later, the sailor who first sighted the ship fell off the top of the mast and was, in the words of one prince, “smashed to atoms.”
The princes were fine. As with most things in life, encountering a ship of the damned is a much nicer experience if you’re rich.
2. Another Dutch Speed Freak
Unlike the Flying Dutchman, I don’t suffer from eternal unrest, normally. I take Advil PM.
But we are not, if you can believe it, here to talk about satanic Dutch sea captains. We are here to talk about another Dutch speed freak, the great forward Dennis Bergkamp.
Not a satanist, Dennis Bergkamp. He’s Catholic. Also not a ghost. Though during his prime, when he was a key player in Arsenal’s golden era, under Arsène Wenger, in the ’90s and early 2000s, he did resemble the Flying Dutchman in one important way: His game was based on drifting through indeterminate space and materializing where you least expected him.
OK, this is going to be fun. We’re going to talk about one of Bergkamp’s most celebrated goals: his stunning late winner against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup. Just an impossibly lovely goal. Bergkamp made a habit, actually, of scoring impossibly lovely goals. I would guess that he probably has one of the highest impossibly lovely goals to overall goals ratios in the history of soccer.
And there’s another way in which Bergkamp resembles the Flying Dutchman. Whenever you saw him, there was a really good chance that you wouldn’t believe your eyes.
Bergkamp played in the ’90s and early 2000s, during a moment when soccer was changing. Was modernizing. And in many ways he embodies those changes. He’s not the best player of his generation, but he may be the player who best represents the shift from an older version of the game—a more physical, less glamorous version—to the version we know today. We’re going to talk about that, too.
But mostly? Mostly we’re going to talk about Bergkamp’s relentless quest for perfection on the pitch, and the way it led to the two main planks of his legend.
One, he played the game in a state of eternal unrest.
Two, when defenders saw him, it meant disaster was about to strike.
This is not a soccer essay, this is a ghost-ship radar array. Let’s get into it.
3. Bath Time for Robin van Persie
There’s a story I love about Dennis Bergkamp that Robin van Persie tells. You remember Robin van Persie? The much-younger Dutch striker who played with Bergkamp at Arsenal at the tail end of Bergkamp’s career?
So one day at Arsenal, the team is training, and van Persie finishes early. So like me after a hard day of podcasting, he goes into the clubhouse and gets into a Jacuzzi. Muscle bath. Important for those of us who work in jobs that demand we keep our bodies in peak physical condition.
Anyway, the Jacuzzi happens to be situated next to a window. So while he’s taking his restorative soak in the hopes of maximizing his soccer career and perhaps one day being fit enough to start a podcast, van Persie can look out on the pitch and see Bergkamp training.
Now, I’m sure this training was happening at Arsenal’s regular practice ground. But for some reason, I picture it taking place in a meadow. Like … there’s a little window onto a field, and as van Persie looks out, Bergkamp scampers across the window going one direction, disappears, then scampers across the window going the other direction. And there’s an apple tree in the meadow? And some puffy clouds? I don’t know. Just go with it.
The point is, van Persie, who’s just a kid, pretty much, is watching Bergkamp train. And he can’t believe how hard Bergkamp is going. Bergkamp’s in his mid-30s, near the end of his career. Doesn’t matter. He’s going all-out. Every pass, every move, he’s playing like he’s in a Champions League final.
So van Persie makes a deal with himself. He says, I’m gonna sit in this bath until Dennis makes a mistake. Then I’ll get out.
Flash-forward like 45 minutes. Van Persie is still in the tub. His cheeks are red. His skin’s all puckered. The bubble jets in the Jacuzzi have gone from being a sensuous delight to being kind of annoyingly tickling to being maddeningly impossible to keep out of sensitive bodily crevices, but the knob is all the way over there, on the other side of the Jacuzzi, but maybe if I just scooch a little to one side—NO THAT’S NOT IT.
He can’t get out because Bergkamp still hasn’t made a mistake.
To me, this story is the essence of Dennis Bergkamp. The combination of technical precision, unflinching perfectionism, and bath-prolonging consistency explain how a player who was constantly described as having the wrong personality for soccer—not being bold enough or tough enough or outgoing enough for soccer—nevertheless became, quietly, one of the defining players of his era.
4. A Message or a Thought
Dennis Nicolaas Maria Bergkamp. Born 1969 in Amsterdam. His dad was an electrician. Also an amateur soccer player. Dennis was the youngest of four brothers. Close family. All of them wild about soccer.
Bergkamp’s autobiography is called Stillness and Speed. A great title. Also a really good book. He cowrote it with the soccer writer David Winner, who’s also the author of Brilliant Orange, the essential history of Dutch soccer.
Anyway, in the book, Dennis remembers that he used to play a variant of soccer at school called “littlestick football.” You have to, like, guard your little stick while the other players try to knock it down with the ball? And Dennis remembers that he took his little stick to art class and meticulously decorated it to look like Diego Maradona.
Yes, that’s Diego Maradona, whom you may remember from the very first installment in this series. You see how it all connects. This grand tapestry, this cosmic zodiac we call soccer. One player has a brilliant career, another player commemorates that career in the form of a little stick. And so on, through the generations. When I close my eyes, I sometimes see the whole thing spread out before me, a vast and shifting constellation of stars and little sticks painted to look like other stars.
I’ve been in this Jacuzzi for 10,000 hours. I may never get out.
What Bergkamp’s brothers remember about Dennis as a kid is that he was intensely, some might say excessively, observant. Anything that happened in a soccer game, he’d remember it. Analyze it. Play it back in his head.
He was a little blond boy, maybe a bit faster or stronger than the other kids he played with. But what really set him apart was that obsessive analyzing and replaying. The Dutch star Johan Cruyff once said, “You play football with your head, and your legs are there to help you.” That’s Dennis’s mantra, too.
He used to play in the street, by himself, for hours. He’d kick the ball against a wall hundreds of times to assess how it would react to every little change in spin or angle.
But he couldn’t just kick the ball against the wall. Another thing he later said: Everything you do with a soccer ball should have “a message or a thought behind it.” You had to aim for a specific brick on the wall. You had to aim for the space between the bricks. You had to try a specific arc that would make the ball bounce off the wall in just the right way. You had to make it perfect.
He says that for some people, this would have gotten boring. But he could stay out and do it forever, because he was so fascinated by watching the ball move.
5. Wild Light, Fraudulent Pigs
There is a question hanging over this essay like the sail of a ghostly ship. The question is, Where do we look for beauty in soccer? Where do we look for perfection? Does it exist mostly in brief individual moments—in highlight clips? Or does it live in longer stretches—in matches, in tactics, in seasons, in eras, in careers?
Here’s something Virginia Woolf wrote that I think about a lot when I think about Dennis Bergkamp. She wrote that we ought to read “for chapters, not for sentences; for beauty, not tranquil and contained, but wild and fleeting like the light on rough waters.”
I love that line, but there’s something kind of contradictory about the way I love it.
I love it partly because it feels true. But I also love it because it’s so perfect in and of itself. I love it because it points toward the idea that beauty lives in durations longer than mere sentences. And it’s also a beautiful sentence.
Dennis comes up through the youth academy at Ajax, the most successful club in the Netherlands. Successful in part because of its aptitude for developing talented youth players. Convenient!
His mentor at Ajax is Johan Cruyff, one of the greatest stars ever to play the game. Also convenient.
We’re going to do a whole entry on Cruyff later in this series, so I’m not going to go into much detail regarding him and Total Football and the culture of Dutch soccer as a whole just now. Rich tapestry, etc. I’m still in the Jacuzzi.
Suffice it to say that Dutch soccer has a culture of … democratic free-spiritedness, I think is a fair way to put it? Players speak their minds, do their own things, and aren’t necessarily too concerned with how the rest of the world sees them.
Case in point: Johan Cruyff retires from FC Barcelona, for no apparent reason, at the age of 31, as an international superstar.
Then he promptly loses most of his money by investing it in a fraudulent pig-farming scheme. It happens.
Here’s what Cruyff later said about that: “Sometimes you don’t realize how foolish you’re being until someone points out that you’re deluding yourself, then you honestly have to admit your mistake. That you’re not interested in pigs at all.”
Whomst amongst us, friends. Anyway, Cruyff comes back to soccer, for money. Literally says, “I had lost millions in pig farming and that was the reason I decided to become a footballer again.” Put it on my tombstone. He winds up back at Ajax, the club where he’d started his career.
Everyone’s like, “Is he washed up?” Promptly leads Ajax to two straight titles. Then Ajax declines to renew his contract, so in a rage, he transfers to their top rival, Feyenoord, and leads them to a championship.
Life gives you fraudulent ham? Make a ham sandwich!
Anyway. Cruyff is soon back at Ajax as a coach. And he takes a keen interest in young Dennis Bergkamp. Unusually for a talented soccer player, Bergkamp keeps going to regular school even after he starts playing for the Ajax first team. At one point, he’s unable to travel with the team to the quarterfinals of a continental tournament because he has a biology test.
Cruyff thinks he needs toughening up. Multiple people throughout his life will say that personality-wise, Dennis is “the ideal son-in-law.” His future Arsenal teammate Patrick Vieira once summed up his personality this way: “I wouldn’t be surprised if at home his clothes are really well organized.”
Actually, put that on my tombstone.
He’s reticent and well-mannered, in the words of the Dutch coach Leo Beenhakker. He’s got a dry, sarcastic sense of humor.
Cruyff understands that you can’t be reticent and well-mannered on the soccer pitch. You cannot dominate sarcastically. Trust me, I have tried.
One of the fun things about having Cruyff as your mentor is that Johan Cruyff loves conflict the way Bernard Fokke loved selling his soul to the devil (allegedly).
Maybe no one in the history of soccer has enjoyed straight-up fucking with people as much as Johan Cruyff. It’s like, what if Patrick Beverley were your life coach?
So he’s constantly inventing little ways to screw with Dennis’s head and make him more of a killer. If Dennis is playing well, Cruyff drops him to the reserves. If Dennis is scoring goals, Cruyff makes him line up as a defender. That kind of thing.
Dennis loves this, strangely. He says that when he encounters a problem, it interests him. It wakes him up. He gets better.
A little later on, Louis van Gaal, another legendary Dutch coach, has the idea that instead of playing as a winger, where he’s been lining up, Dennis ought to play in the center of the pitch, not as a midfielder or a striker but as something in between. He can inhabit that uncertain space behind the front line, and drive defenses out of their skulls because they won’t know what to do with him.
Remember, this is the late ’80s-early ’90s. The false nine doesn’t really exist yet; no one knows what Dennis’s new position is even supposed to be called. Dennis thrives in this ambiguous role. When he scores in 10 consecutive matches, the press starts calling his new position “shadow striker.”
Which you have to admit is a pretty rad job title.
Where do you work? Well, I work in logistics for a regional wholesaler.
What do you do? I’m a shadow striker.
It just makes any profession immediately sound 50 times cooler. My advice: if you’re bored with your job, start calling yourself a shadow striker. Your job will immediately kick ass.
I hear you saying, “But I don’t work in the shadows, and I don’t strike anything.” Words mean NOTHING. Take it from me, a professional writer.
Scratch that. A professional shadow striker.
He thrives at Ajax. He gets called up to the Dutch national team. He scores three goals at the 1992 European championships. He’s out of school, at this point, by the way. In 1993, the year he turns 24, he figures that the time has come. Like all Dutch soccer stars once they reach a certain level, he’s ready to move to a bigger soccer country. A bigger league.
Any team in Europe would love to have him. He could move to Barcelona, where Cruyff is now the manager. He could move to A.C. Milan, an attack-minded club whose style of play suits his strengths, and where fellow Dutch stars Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard, and Ruud Gullit have all made names for themselves.
Or he could be a free spirit who goes his own way. Who writes his own chapter.
Inter Milan. A defensive team. A badly run team.
They come to see him. Hey Dennis, we’d like to play a more attacking style. He’s like, cool.
They’re like, we want you to be the face of our new-look club. He’s like, I’m listening.
They’re like, also, would you care to invest in our 100 percent legitimate pig farm? He’s like, YES.
So he moves to Milan. And has a terrible experience. Inter doesn’t actually change its style much at all, but they still seem to blame him when they lose.
His fellow players resent that he doesn’t hang out with them in his free time. It’s not that he has anything against them. He’s just an introvert and doesn’t speak much Italian.
In his memoir, the person he mostly talks about hanging out with in Milan, apart from his wife, is his landlord, a dissatisfied Inter fan who enjoys complaining about Inter.
His landlord has a cool Ferrari and says, if you score 20 goals, you can have this car. Dennis is like, “Oh I’m getting that car.”
He does not get that car.
Two miserable seasons at Inter later, he’s scored 11 total league goals, and he’s ready to drive his own car the hell out of Dodge. Even if it takes three months.
5. Not Flying
1994 World Cup, USA. Dennis is in the Dutch squad. Another bad experience.
He plays well. The team reaches the quarterfinals. Loses 3-2 to Brazil. Great game. It’s in Dallas, at the Cotton Bowl, and for the TV broadcast, there’s a special intro that copies the opening credits of the prime-time soap opera Dallas, but shows the faces of Brazilian and Dutch players instead of the cast? Dallas, only instead of J.R. Ewing, they show Romario?
The match lives up to the hype. No shame in losing to the Ewings. Especially for Dennis, who scores yet another beautiful goal.
But the perfectionist in Dennis cannot get over the fact that the Dutch coach—a guy called Dick Advocaat, who’s incredibly not a men’s rights activist—seems happy with the result.
Dick Advocaat tells the press, wow, we’re one of the eight best teams in the world! And Dennis is like, we should be the 0th best team, because that’s the only thing that’s better than first.
He also has a bad time with airplanes at the World Cup. This is actually something that’s been building for a while.
At Inter, the team travels to games in little prop planes that fly at pretty low altitudes. Clouds covering the windows. It’s claustrophobic. I don’t know if you’ve ever traveled by propeller plane. I flew across Alaska in one once, and it can be ... I’ll just say that turbulence hits differently in a plane that small. Wind hits differently.
It’s like being repeatedly flicked by the finger of God.
Dennis does not enjoy this. A few years earlier, in 1989, two teammates of his had died in the crash of Surinam Airways Flight PY764—a flight from Amsterdam to Surinam that went down and killed 178 people. Dennis feels a little weird about planes in general. In America, the team is on a plane when a journalist gets sick. They have to make an emergency landing. Scary.
Also in America, a flight is delayed by a bomb threat. Also scary.
So for all these reasons, when he signs for Arsenal in the summer of 1995, Dennis is thoroughly unsettled. Unhappy. Eternal unrest.
He needs a change of scene, and Arsenal … looks like a bad bet. Arsenal … oh, man.
6. Boring, Boring Arsenal
Well, OK. We gotta do this. We have to talk about the English Premier League in the 1990s.
Actually, almost no one calls it the English Premier League in the 1990s. It’s called the FA Carling Premiership. For a long time—for 100 years, give or take—the first division of English soccer was called … the First Division. Words still mean nothing.
Then, in 1992, the top clubs in the First Division—your Manchester Uniteds, your Liverpools, your Arsenals—broke away to form a new league. They did this because they had a high moral vision for the game. They found it incompatible with this high moral vision that they were required to share their TV money with smaller and less powerful clubs. Nobility.
A few years later, the league changed sponsors and became the Barclaycard Premiership. Then the Barclays Premiership. Sponsored by Barclays.
No one loves a breakaway superleague like a giant bank.
So, the generic narrative about soccer in England during the early Premier League era is that it was physical and not technical. Not glamorous.
In Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands, the game was played with a certain precision. A certain coordination.
Players were graceful. They controlled the ball. They kept possession.
In England, by contrast, soccer looked like a slightly gentler rugby game—a rugby game whose mom had just come to the back window and yelled “you be careful out there.”
There was a lot of walloping of various pieces of equipment and body parts. A lot of 1960s Adam West Batman intertitle onomatopoeia.
Biff! Zang! Crowp! Smork!
A lot of that. Also a lot of 78-yard passes toward center-forwards named Brian. Idiots.
And then—the generic narrative goes—starting around the mid-’90s, the TV money got bigger and the game got more sophisticated. David Beckham came along—he turned 20 the year Bergkamp moved to Arsenal—and players started to realize that the answer to “what’s your skin care routine?” should not be “lager.” Passes got shorter. Players got more advanced.
That’s the generic narrative. I think it’s true, mostly? Inevitably it leaves a lot out. I sincerely believe that George Best, for example, did wash his face before going to bed most nights. Though admittedly he sometimes washed it in lager.
But mostly true. And if you’re going to identify a pivot point when the league started to shift from the old terrace-hardman style to the new satellite-TV style, you could do worse than to select the moment when Dennis Bergkamp came to Arsenal.
At that point, in the mid-’90s, Arsenal is known for being boring. For being a kludgy, defensive-minded, unimaginative, turgid, Division One-ish club.
A club with no shadow strikers of any kind, and probably not even a shadow smorker.
But when Dennis arrived in London, things got off to a great start. He got lost trying to find a gas station, and when he finally pulled into one, he pulled in facing the wrong way. Or he blocked some other cars—anyway, this guy jumps out of his car and starts yelling at him. You moron, what do you think you’re doing, etc.
And then the angry guy takes another look, stops short, and says, Wait, are you Dennis Bergkamp? Did you just sign with Arsenal?
The guy’s Ian Wright. Yes, that Ian Wright. Arsenal legend Ian Wright. Dennis Bergkamp’s future longtime strike partner Ian Wright. My Ringer colleague Ian Wright! One of the few elite athletes fit enough to make the leap up to podcasting.
They immediately hit it off.
A few years ago, Wright remembered their bizarre petrol-station run-in for an interviewer.
A weird meeting, but already way better than hanging out with the Ferrari-owning landlord back in Italy.
One year later, Arsenal bring in a new manager, a relatively unknown French guy called Arsène Wenger, who eventually brings in a young French striker called Thierry Henry.
Wenger introduces a wild new approach to diet and fitness. The players are now expected to eat a vegetable at least once a week—that’s never happened in English soccer before. And he brings in a wild new approach to tactics in which he’s like, “What if we tried to make soccer … wait for it … wait for it … fun?”
Dennis Bergkamp isn’t the biggest star on the team. But his imagination, finesse, and technical exactitude are essential to the whole project.
People who played with Bergkamp love to talk about how you can’t really appreciate his game if you didn’t play with him. Because a lot of it is stuff you don’t necessarily see on television.
It’s the absolute confidence that you’re going to get the pass in the exact right place every time. The confidence that if you manage to fling the ball in his general direction, there’s a good chance he’s going to do something non-obvious and brilliant with it. The knowledge that he’s going to drift into spaces that leave the other team so vulnerable that their whole defense breaks down.
The ghost ship is terrifying until it’s on your side, at which point you realize that ghost ships actually make the best friends of any variety of frigate or large watercraft.
Arsenal wins the title in 1997-98.
They don’t finish 0th, but they do finish first twice—once in the Premiership and once in the FA Cup.
After a lot of frustration—after writing a lot of lovely sentences in books that didn’t quite work—Dennis is now officially back in the chapters game.
Cut to the 1998 World Cup in France.
It’s important that the tournament is in France. Because Dennis’s anxiety about flying has only gotten worse.
It’s a strange thing. He’s found that a day or two before he has to get on a plane, he starts to feel incredibly tired. He feels heavy. You play football with your head, and your legs are there to help you. Now his legs feel like lead, and his head feels wrong.
Before he gets on a plane, he starts shaking. Starts panicking. Unpleasant. After the flight back to Europe from the ’94 World Cup, he needs to sleep for two whole days.
So he looks at his options. He thinks, well, I could do some intense therapy and try to find a way to manage this condition. Or I could say hell with it, and stop putting myself through this horribly painful experience that I hate.
He says hell with it. Tells his agent he’s not flying anymore. I have always loved this about him. It was like reading the space on a soccer pitch. He looked at his situation, analyzed all the moving parts, and made the choice that would produce the best outcome, regardless of what anyone else might think.
He and his agent tell his coaches. They’re supportive. From now on he’s only going to play in matches he can reach by car. He forms an incredibly close friendship at Arsenal with the kit man, the guy who takes care of the players’ uniforms, because that guy drives him to all the games.
And he gets a new nickname. Do you know what it is? If you do, I’m guessing you’ve been screaming it at me every two pages since the start of this essay.
If you don’t, you might want to sit down. Because as sports nicknames go, they don’t get much better than this. In fact, I’d say that there’s a good chance whoever came up with it sold their souls to the devil.
He becomes … the Non-Flying Dutchman.
I’m sorry. That nickname just makes me so happy. Imagine if someone came up with the term “shadow striker” to describe you and it was only the second-best name you were given in your career.
Nice thing about France, if you play in England—it’s accessible by ground transportation. Thank you, Channel Tunnel. So Dennis gets in whatever the cool Dutch version of the old John Madden bus is, with whatever the cool Dutch version of Turducken is for a snack, and drives to the World Cup.
Maybe it was just regular Turducken? That sounds Dutch.
And here we go.
8. Wild Light, Numb Faces
This is a strange era, by the way, for the Dutch national soccer team. I’m not gonna get into it. They’re all strange eras for the Dutch national soccer team. They don’t win the 1998 World Cup. They never win the tournament.
Incredible team, though. Incredible collection of talent, and actually less infighting than usual! There’s often a lot of infighting in Dutch teams. The Johan Cruyff school of conflict resolution is alive and well. Leave it at that.
This year, the players are pretty unified. Dennis enjoys that. He’s still the ideal son-in-law. He really dislikes intra-team friction that goes beyond, like, some subtly sarcastic jokes.
But it’s interesting. Because, well, he’s just won the title with Arsenal. He’s still early in an era-defining run at Arsenal. He’s writing chapters. He’s writing books.
But he’s still one of the greatest constructors of sentences in soccer. And something about Dutch football has always made it an ideal venue for the beautiful sentence.
Holland gets through the group stage undefeated. Dennis scores against South Korea. In the round of 16, they squeak by Yugoslavia, 2-1. Dennis scores the first goal.
In the quarterfinals, they play Argentina. The match is in Marseille. South of France. Fourth of July. Blazing-hot day. Argentina’s playing its first World Cup without Diego Maradona in 16 years. Dennis should have brought his little stick.
The Dutch take an early lead through Patrick Kluivert in the 12th minute. Dennis sets up the goal. But it doesn’t last. Five minutes later, Claudio López scores for Argentina. Things tighten up.
Both teams have chances—Dennis has chances—nothing quite goes in. In the 76th minute, the Dutch left back Arthur Numan is sent off for an iffy challenge on Diego Simeone.
In the 87th minute, the Argentine midfielder Ariel Ortega, whose nickname is Burrito—not the best nickname we’ve covered in this episode, but certainly the most delicious—also draws a red card after diving in the area and then getting into a confrontation with the Dutch goalkeeper, Edwin van der Sar.
I highly recommend finding a video of this confrontation. Burrito Ortega is maybe 5-foot-7 on his tiptoes. Van der Sar is 12 and a half feet tall. Ortega headbutts him. I can’t explain it, either.
We are down to 10 men on either side. Only a couple of minutes left in a tie game. We’re definitely going to extra time. Right?
As it happens, no, we are not.
Because in the last gasp of regular time, Dennis gets a little bit ahead of his defender. He’s lurking outside the area on the right side of the pitch. He doesn’t have the ball at this point—Frank de Boer has the ball, way back on the far side of the halfway line.
Frank de Boer. Future manager of Atlanta United. He sees Dennis. Dennis sees him. Somehow, even though they’re separated by about 50 yards, they understand each other. Dennis breaks toward the goal at top speed. De Boer smashes a long, high pass in his direction.
The ball stays in the air for what feels like two weeks. It stays in the air for like 475 parsecs. Do not @ me, undead Reddit sailors.
The ball’s in the air.
We choose goals on this program for a wide variety of reasons. Sometimes a goal is historically significant. Sometimes the moment is dramatic. Sometimes the story of a goal, or the player who scored the goal, is too good not to talk about. But we are not limiting ourselves to the goals that are otherworldly, astonishing, unscrew-the-top-of-your-head-level, wild-and-fleeting-like-the-light-on-rough-waters-level highlights.
This one, though? I hope you like wild light.
Bergkamp sprints toward the goal. Looks back maybe once to assess the flight of the ball. He said afterward that he didn’t need to look back because the weather conditions were such that he could predict the timing of the ball’s flight without watching. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Dennis Bergkamp.
He leaps into the air. Super unexpected jump, at least for me when I watch this. Just leaps as high as he can. He explains later that this is a tactical choice, because if he waits till the ball is on the ground to control it, it’ll have to bounce, and he’ll be at the corner flag before he gets it stopped.
He doesn’t want to be at the corner flag. He wants to take a shot. So because the weather has allowed him to calculate the ball’s flight trajectory within a small margin of error, he jumps. High.
Did I call him the Non-Flying Dutchman? Terrible nickname.
The ball comes over his shoulder. He stops it—he’s still airborne—on his foot. And because he’s so high in the air, he’s able to use his descent to cushion the ball and control it so that by the time he lands inside the area, the ball is dead at his feet.
We’re not done.
He’s got a defender glued to his hip. Roberto Ayala. Longtime captain of Argentina. Not the captain in this game. But a great player. This is not his fault. Dennis beats Ayala to the ball and gently flicks it with his right foot across his body, past Ayala, who staggers to his left. He pauses for about a quarter of a beat, then strikes the ball with his right foot toward the far post.
High shot. Goalkeeper has no chance.
Dennis later says he knew he was going to score the way a darts player knows he’s about to hit a bull’s-eye. Boom. 2-1 Holland. Game over. Pure light. The goal is so incredible—is an act of such sheer loveliness—that I just said “boom” when I really should have said “smork.”
That Dutch commentator definitely said “smork.” Dennis falls to the ground with his arms outstretched. Holland moves on to the semifinals. They lose to Brazil on penalties. Dennis makes his.
Who cares? The goal against Argentina is such a marvelous thing. Sometimes it’s enough that the marvelous thing exists regardless of who wins a soccer tournament. I don’t know. Sometimes a goal is so splendid that it just makes everything around it recede in importance.
9. That the Powerful Play Goes On
I don’t know whether perfection can exist for long stretches. I know it can exist for short moments.
We read for chapters and not just sentences, it’s true. But 187 years passed between the moment when John Keats said “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever” and the moment when YouTube first launched, and Dennis’s goal against Argentina may be the clearest imaginable link between those two events. He touched the ball three times. It took two and a half seconds.
Play it back once and you’ll remember it the rest of your life.
The sentences continue and the chapters continue. In 2004, Dennis plays a prominent role in an Arsenal team that goes an entire league season without losing a single match. Maybe perfection is possible over long periods of time.
It’s almost enough to make you think a team could finish in 0th place.
The Premier League becomes the dominant sports league on earth. TV becomes more important. Highlight reels become more important. The Internet becomes … somewhat important, people say.
Soccer purists hate all this stuff. But not even soccer purists can deny loving Dennis Bergkamp.
He keeps producing moments so incredible that your jaw forgets to drop.
Let’s go out with a couple of recommendations. Watch Bergkamp’s assist to Freddie Ljungberg against Juventus in 2001.
When you’re done crying, watch Bergkamp’s goal against Newcastle in 2002.
I don’t have the emotional bandwidth to talk about that one right now. That one was named the greatest goal in the history of the Premier League. It’s too good. I can’t even tell you.
But Dennis always said that of all the goals he ever scored, the one against Argentina was his favorite.