World Cup moments: Dennis Bergkamp’s perfect goal in 1998

Three divine touches from the ultimate artist see Holland past Argentina and into last four

Bobby Moore never got a bathmat wet in his life. Mike Summerbee, who sometimes shared a room with Moore on England trips, said he was “the only man who could have a bath and get out dry”. Moore would flick the water off one leg, dry that with a towel and then step out on to the dry leg, before continuing the process with the rest of his body. Moore’s routine will come as no surprise to those who watched his immaculate, pristine defending. Nor will the fact that he brought such meticulousness to his wardrobe, where jumpers were hung up in order from dark to light. “It was,” says his first wife Tina in Bobby Moore: By The Person Who Knew Him Best, “almost an aesthetic pleasure to open the wardrobe.”

The fastidiousness demonstrated by Moore is one of the sub-genres of perfectionism within football. There’s also the impossible, self-torturing expectations of perfectionist-winners such as Soren Lerby and Roy Keane, whose business face should be the subject of a modernist painting entitled simply: ‘Standards’. Other significant manifestations include the perfection-making practice of forces of nurture like Peter Shilton or Cristiano Ronaldo, Spain’s obsessive-compulsive tiki-taka and Pep Guardiola’s need for control, and the artistic leanings of players like Eric Cantona and Dimitar Berbatov.

If you put all those types of perfectionism on a Venn diagram, the man in the middle might be Dennis Bergkamp, the perfectionist's perfectionist. Thierry Henry said he loved "Every. Single. Thing" about Bergkamp, but the thing he loved the most was the way Bergkamp trained, because "everything had to be perfect". Bergkamp also had unrealistic expectations – of himself, if not necessarily others - and was a sucker for cleanliness. The Guardian's Amy Lawrence noticed how starched his socks were during an interview 10 years ago, a revelation that would not surprise Patrick Vieira. "To make his kind of passes you have to like things to be perfect," says Vieira in Stillness and Speed. "I wouldn't be surprised if his clothes are really well organised. I wouldn't be surprised at all." Finally there is perfection as aesthetic idealism, the thing with which Bergkamp is most associated and which informed so much of what he did on a football field.

Bergkamp’s imagination was his gift and his curse. It elevated him above his peers, but it is also meant he was in danger of driving himself round the bend aiming for something that he could not explain and which might not even exist; he was almost striving for Godot. The life of a perfectionist is not easy. Or so we’d imagine. Most people are casual perfectionists at best, and confuse perfectionism with self-loathing, yet it’s comforting to indulge that vague notion because the reality – that adulthood is what happens while you’re busy making compromises on your youthful ideals – is too dispiriting to acknowledge. Yet every now and then you come across someone for whom perfectionism is a way of life, who has no choice but to embrace an existence in which anything less than the best is a felony.

Perfection is a recurring theme of Stillness and Speed, Bergkamp’s excellent book. One chapter is called ‘It Has To Be Perfect’, which is both his mantra and an indication that his co-author David Winner wasn’t a Fairground Attraction fan. “Well, you set yourself goals, targets,” he says in this extract from the book. “And once you’ve got there you want to move on and go further. You keep raising the bar and therefore it’s never good enough. You want perfection. It’s never good enough but it’s within your reach. You climb one mountain and see the higher one.”

On July 4th 1998, Bergkamp climbed the highest mountain for 2.11 seconds – the time it took for him to produce the three divine touches and score the penultimate-minute winner against Argentina that put Holland into the World Cup semi-final. “Perfect” was Ruud Gullit’s description on ITV that night. “You never play the perfect game,” said Bergkamp later, “but the moment itself was, I think, perfect.” Both stalled over the P-word, as if they would be sent straight to hell for sacrilege should they misuse it, before realising that, actually, yes, that was the only way to describe it. Given Dutch football’s obsession with creative purity, you know something special has happened when a Dutch footballer describes something as perfect.

In One Moment In Time, her rhapsodic treatment of spiritual fulfilment, Whitney Houston beseeched: “Give me one moment in time, when I’m more than I thought I could be.” For Bergkamp, this was it. “You’re in that moment,” said Bergkamp. “That’s the feeling. After the first two touches … that moment! You give absolutely everything. It’s like your life has led up to this moment.”

One man never gets the thanks he deserves for his part in Bergkamp’s goal. Not Frank de Boer – whose creation of the goal is regularly acknowledged – but José María García-Aranda. He was the Spanish referee who inexplicably declined to send Bergkamp off for stamping on Sinisa Mihajlovic during Holland’s 2-1 win over Yugoslavia in the second round five days earlier. Bergkamp misplaced the plot, as was his occasional wont, and should have walked. “I haven’t the faintest idea why I did that,” he says. “I was startled by my own behaviour.”

He was not alone in that. On the morning of the game, most papers focused not on the prospect of an immense quarter-final but on Arsène Wenger’s criticism of Bergkamp, who had been the Player of the Year in Arsenal’s domestic double that season. It may have been on Bergkamp’s mind, because he was quiet for large parts of the game. Indeed apart from producing one of the World Cup’s greatest goals and one of the most imaginative assists, he did the square root of bugger all.


Bergkamp argues that he did two great things that day, and he’ll be thrilled to know that we agree with him. The first came in the 12th minute, an ingenious falling header to create the opening goal for Patrick Kluivert. The more you watch it, the better it gets. Bergkamp almost invents a new type of pass, the square through ball. He was always as much an architect and geometrician as he was a footballer – as a child he was obsessed with geometry – and was forever highlighting that a football pitch was so much bigger than it seemed as 20 men were magnetised towards the ball. Bergkamp could find acres of space and strip a defence naked with one pass, as shown in Jeroen Henneman’s diagram (“One moment the pitch is crowded and narrow. Suddenly it is huge and wide … A miracle”) in Winner’s book Brilliant Orange.

In football it’s often said that the run makes the pass. With Bergkamp, the pass regularly made the run – either by ushering a player like Nicolas Anelka into a certain area, or because those like Anelka and Kluivert know from experience what Bergkamp would explore. In this case, forewarned was dangerously forearmed.

Bergkamp was among that small, counter-instinctive group of players who seemed to get as much joy from an assist as from a goal. Thus in many ways this pass to Kluivert, rather than the goal, was truly representative of his career: the awareness and creation of space, the quick wit and, of course, the gentle touch. In a split-second, he worked out all the angles – in both senses – and utilised an extra-sensory perception in a way that evokes those breathless, deductive visual analyses so beloved of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes every time he meets a stranger or finds a dead body.

Ronald de Boer’s pass is flat and hard and waist high too high to control with my foot and too low for my chest so I have to fall to my left and squash my body so that I can cushion it with my head but where do I cushion it out of the corner of my eye I see Kluivert making a run off Chamot if I head it towards him between Sensini and Chamot the control will be too difficult at high speed besides there isn’t much space there the space is between Sensini who has come towards me and Ayala who has gone out to meet de Boer so I need to play almost a square pass with my head the other side of Sensini into the angle of Kluivert’s run I can’t cushion it as gently with my head as with my foot but that’s fine because the space is fairly big and if I head it too softly Roa will stay on his line and stay big so it’s okay to put a fraction more on it to entice Roa from his line because if he comes out Kluivert has a much easier finish.

It’s often said of more prosaic footballers that they are much better when they don’t have time to think. Bergkamp was one of the most thoughtful footballers of all, yet the same rules applied to him. His greatest gift was his instinctive intelligence. When he had time to consider things he was often less effective – look at his penalty record for a start – and his best work was done when he had barely a split second to compute everything. When he was in that moment.

“It’s like solving a puzzle,” he said in FourFourTwo. “I always had a picture in my head of how things would look two or three seconds later. I could calculate it. There’s a tremendous pleasure in doing something that someone else couldn’t see.”

The Dutch have always seen football through different eyes to the rest of the world. Yet for all the grandiose talk and pompous riddles of someone like Johan Cruyff, the way the Dutch play football has always been very simple and unpretentious. With the exception of that goal at Newcastle, not so much a blockbuster as a brainbuster, Bergkamp’s work was always straightforward and accessible, which is not always the case with great footballers. Bergkamp was a reminder of the economy, minimalism and humility of most great sportsmen. He frequently played one-touch and there was scarcely any indulgence or attempt to show how clever he was. It’s so much harder to make something complex look simple than the other way round. That was one of Bergkamp’s greatest qualities. “I don’t like tricks,” he says. “My game is about first touch, control, passing. Art for art’s sake isn’t interesting.”

If Bergkamp was accessible to the layman, that doesn’t mean those who played alongside him didn’t find an extra layer to appreciate. Bergkamp was very much a players’ player, the subject of rare reverence from those he played against and particularly with. “I honestly didn’t think a professional player could be that good,” said Paul Merson. Ian Wright said he was “the greatest signing Arsenal will ever make” and Henry, whose list of team-mates includes Zinedine Zidane and Lionel Messi, says Bergkamp was the greatest he played alongside. Moments like the Kluivert assist explain why he was so revered.

After Holland took the lead Bergkamp began to drift out of the game. Claudio López equalised for Argentina in the 17th minute, nutmegging Edwin van der Sar in a manner so cocky as to remind us why the one-on-one is football’s greatest masculinity-waving contest. Thereafter the game flowed beautifully, and has a strong case for being the best match in a World Cup full of excellent contests. It was the kind of classy, open game you only get when two teams are formidably comfortable both in their own skin, and with the ball at their feet.

It was also a match loaded with significance, the first competitive meeting between the sides since Argentina beat Holland in the 1978 World Cup final. That match was Bergkamp’s first memory of football: he was eight years old, standing at his home at Amsterdam, watching with confused childish distress as Rob Rensenbrink hit the post in the last minute of normal time before Argentina went on to win in extra-time.

Twenty years later, Wim Jonk and Ariel Ortega rattled the post in the first half. In the second, Gabriel Batistuta staged an impromptu test of the quality of the craftsmanship of the official Fifa World Cup goalframe, walloping the post from 15 yards. The match seemed to swing Argentina’s way in the 76th minute, when Arthur Numan was sent off for a second yellow card. Holland moved tactics expert Philip Cocu to left back and, although Argentina inevitably dominated possession thereafter, Holland were not unduly stretched – until the 87th minute, when a sensory overload of action changed everything.

Ortega, a strong contender for the player of the tournament at that stage, ran at Jaap Stam in the box and dived. The referee gave nothing – a brilliant decision that could easily have gone the other way, with the dive only really apparent in slow motion. As Van der Sar came to remonstrate, Ortega, bristling with the kind of righteousness that only the guilty can summon, rose from the floor to stick his head into the underside of Van der Sar’s chin. What was going to be a yellow card for diving morphed into a red, and both sides had a couple of minutes to consider the changing circumstances before entering a 10-a-side golden goal period.

It didn’t get that far. Fifty-three seconds after play restarted, Bergkamp produced his masterpiece. The quality of the goal is what is most spoken about now, but at the time the savageness of the swing was the most significant aspect of the overwhelming joy it created among the Dutch fans. One moment Holland had been hanging on with 10 men; the next they were 2-1 up and in the semi-final.

Bergkamp said it was like his life had been leading up to this moment. The game certainly hadn’t. For much of the second half, and particularly in the buildup to the goal, Bergkamp was dreadful. This is not the playful hyperbole of which modern writers are regularly guilty but a legitimate appraisal of his performance. He looked like he’d won a competition to play in a World Cup quarter-final.

Between the red cards for Numan and Ortega, Bergkamp touched the ball only three times in 11 minutes. Once he conceded a throw-in with a tackle, twice he misplaced simple passes – the second, in a dangerous area in his own half, launched the attack in which Ortega had a penalty appeal and was sent off. Even after that, in the 53 seconds between the restart and the goal, Bergkamp had time for his worst touch of the match – he tried to play a simple short pass to Marc Overmars, kicked it against his standing foot and launched an Argentina break. When that attack broke down, Holland pottered about at the back for a few seconds before Frank de Boer spotted some movement up front …

Occasionally great goals come in the context of dismal personal performances. It’s the great players’ beautiful interpretation of “winning ugly” – demonstrating the ability to bend games not to their will but to their skill. Ryan Giggs against Arsenal in 1999 is another significant example. Perhaps playing so poorly creates a certain freedom, an “oh-bugger-it” attitude (as Matthew Engel, on these pages, memorably described England’s cricket against South Africa during a famous victory in 1994). Or maybe, as with so much great sport, it just happened.

Frank de Boer got things going with a refresher course in the difference between a long ball and a long pass – “a stretch-limo of a pass,” as Cris Freddi describes it in his definitive World Cup history. Indeed, needing only four touches as it did, this was that rarest of goals: the kind that could be appreciated equally by Johan Cruyff and Charles Hughes.

After the pass came the holiest of holy trinities, three perfect touches from Bergkamp. The first would have been a breathtaking piece of control even if that was the extent of the exercise. Bergkamp was so high in the air that it’s almost a surprise his fear of flying didn’t kick in. He was also running at full pelt, yet still managed to kill the ball with a telescopic leg and a right boot made of velvet and velcro. Even in that split-second, Bergkamp processed that he had to control it with his instep rather than the side of his foot. An interview gave insight into the staggering amount of information a human being can process in just over two seconds: Bergkamp factored in everything from the wind to the line of the ball to the defender’s movement to the angle of an eventual shot and consequent need to use his right rather than his left foot. It’s easy to think Bergkamp is embellishing it but we have seen this so often; Diego Maradona, for example, showed startling total recall during a similarly career-defining goal against England in 1986.

Bergkamp is unusual in that most of his great goals – Argentina, Leicester, Newcastle, Spurs – are remembered more for the first touch than the finish. He loved making goals, and it’s almost as if that was his way of supplying an assist for himself. If you wanted to go the full pseud, you could call it a pre-goal.

In this case, Bergkamp still had a serious amount to do even after the immaculate control. His game was all about the manipulation and creation of space – but usually that involved through balls into the spacious area behind defences. This time, with the sweeper Roberto Ayala roaring across full of misplaced determination, Bergkamp had a phonebox to work with at best. No matter; his second touch ushered Ayala off towards the wrong fire, and set him up for the shot.

“After the second touch I know this can’t go wrong,” he says. “No chance!” That’s one way of looking at it. The other is that with each brilliant touch, the pressure to make it count becomes greater. Remember Rivaldo after another long pass from Frank de Boer; Barcelona score, but he looks like a man who has just realised he’s accidentally put the family chihuahua in the slow cooker. His face is a picture of repressed distress because he knows he missed the chance to score one of the greatest goals in history.

Bergkamp took the chance to do so. By then he was in that zone – “that moment” – and nothing could go wrong. With the outside of his right foot, he flicked the ball past Carlos Roa and into the top corner, an appropriately elegant finish. Confirmation of the rare quality of the goal came from the BBC commentary box. “Beautifully pulled down by Bergkamp – OH WHAT A GOAL! DENNIS BERGKAMP HAS WON IT FOR HOLLAND. That was absolutely brilliant.” Barry Davies had not shouted as loud in the commentary for 27 years, since the “Leeds will go mad” game. “The sound supervisor only just managed to keep my voice in range,” he said later. Davies is the greatest commentator there has ever been; when he cries wolf, you know the sheep are about to get eaten. The same with Martin Tyler’s commentary at the height of Serie A’s most dramatic game.

In Holland it was even better, with Jack Van Gelder repeatedly screaming “DENNIS BERGKAMP!” Van Gelder was not the only one who seemed on the cusp of tears. Bergkamp’s face almost dissolved. If he was startled by his own behaviour against Yugoslavia, when he stood on Mihajlovic, he was overwhelmed by it here. He thrusted his hands straight over his face in shock. Whether subconscious or coincidental, it became a charming nod to Rinus Michels’s similar reaction 10 years earlier when Marco van Basten scored his staggering volley in the European Championship final against the USSR. The Dutch have a football imagination like no other, yet sometimes they even shock themselves.

As Bergkamp collapsed on his back, the camera showed a sea of Holland shirts behind the goal on a gorgeously sunny day: brilliant orange in the stands, blindingly brilliant orange on the pitch. After the game, Bergkamp was coming to terms with what he had achieved. In his post-match interview, he was a picture of self-satisfaction – the good kind. He looked like the cat who first discovered cream.

Bergkamp has not watched the goal since 1998. “It’s still in your mind,” he says. “I don’t really need to see it on television, I know exactly how it went.”

The consummate footballer-artist

Dennis Bergkamp is rarely ranked among the 10 or 20 greatest players of all time. Last year, when World Soccer asked 73 journalists, managers and former players to select their all-time XI, Bergkamp did not get a single vote. He never won the Ballon d’Or (though he did finish second in 1993). Yet he will endure, and with good reason. It will be seen as a bit pseudish, but the fact is that to many people Bergkamp is the consummate footballer-artist. We all want to align ourselves with the beautiful people, and Bergkamp was inevitably the subject of a kind of aspirational admiration, as if “getting” him would somehow imbue the 5.24am train commute and the rest of your life with greater romance and meaning.

For all the brilliant things that footballers do, the pass and the first touch is the really good stuff, and Bergkamp specialised in those. His best moments represent football at its most profound. Bergkamp had a supernatural capacity for creation that hinted at a tantalising level of intelligence and technique we could appreciate even if we couldn’t understand it. He specialised in moments – or rather, in moments – and Argentina was the pick of those. It was übergkamp.

“You play football with your head,” says Cruyff, “and your legs are there to help you.” If the brain is the most erogenous zone of all, then Bergkamp might be the sexiest football of the modern era. Yet all this would be try-hard horse pucky if it didn’t amount to anything. Bergkamp practised what he preached when he said that “art for art’s sake isn’t interesting”. And that’s why the goal against Argentina meant so much to him, more than any other.

“Every boy has a dream: ‘I want to score in the World Cup.’ Score the winning goal in the final, of course. But in this way … to score a goal like that, in my style? The way I score a goal, on that stage, in a game that really means something, because that’s important to me too. I love good football, nice football but it has to mean something.”

It was deep and meaningful against Argentina. “I should be more of a killer,” Bergkamp says in Brilliant Orange, “but it’s just not a quality I have.” He had it for those few seconds. He was creator and killer, everything he knew he could be and something he thought he couldn’t. That context is why the goal is so special to us, too. It’s the point at which the two schools of football – football as art and football as a results business – come together in harmony to create a unique moment, and a perfect goal.

With thanks to Cris Freddi, whose World Cup history is the best around by a mile, and Daniel Harris, whose Treble book needs reading. Most of the quotes in this article are taken from Stillness and Speed: My Story by Dennis Bergkamp.

(Guardian service)

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