Interviews

The big interview: Dennis Bergkamp – "I never expected to be at Arsenal for 11 years"

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With all the players Holland had in the '90s, how disappointed were you not to win anything? What was the biggest problem: the coaches, the players or the team spirit? 
Pat Dixon, Rochdale 
In 1992 we were very close, but we had a team coming to its end. Did they want it enough? What would they achieve? To be European champions – again? They could have been hungrier. If only we'd taken an extra step, we would have been there easily. In 1994, the World Cup was a fantastic experience, but in the end I felt we were just not good enough to win it. But we definitely shouldn't have lost to Brazil. We were better than them. In 1996, well, we know the problems. All the problems, the Ajax players brought into the team. But in 1998 we really should have won. We were the best team. We should have beaten Brazil, and we would have given France a really good game in the final. They didn't want to play us, from what I understand.

Holland Brazil 1998

Brazil ended up wishing they needn't have bothered winning on penalties

And the same in 2000 with the European Championship: we should have beaten Italy easily and got to the final. In Holland we practise penalties all the time now! So in the end, we had really good players, but we couldn't go that extra step. Sometimes I feel we needed a bit less similarity. We were all technical players, all thinking, passing and playing in a good way. But sometimes you need a defender who just puts it in the stand! And up front as well – be more clinical.

Would you prefer Holland to win the World Cup playing dirty or lose playing Total Football?
Chris Gallery, via Twitter
The World Cup Final leaves a bad taste because Holland played such good football leading up to the tournament, in the traditional Dutch way – attacking. They even did it in the tournament a bit. And in 2008 they played that way against Italy and France. So that team had a lot of potential, and somehow they forgot to play football against Spain. Tackles became more important, which we've never been good at. It's just not our thing to play dirty, and we shouldn't have done that. It was probably the frustration of not getting into playing our own game. Knowing Frank [De Boer] and Phillip [Cocu] and [Bert] Van Marwijk, I'm sure it wasn't planned. It's just not their style. Phillip told me it wasn't intentional. But I felt a little bit embarrassed. It's not really Dutch, is it? There are two great footballing nations and one is trying to play football and the other one is preventing them from playing football in a way they've never done before.

Do you think your fear of flying ever affected your ability to play? Surely long journeys in cars and on boats were very draining?
Ben Welch, FourFourTwo Performance writer
It was the opposite. When I stopped flying it freed me. Three days before a game I'd worry about the next flight. During a game I'd be thinking about the flight back. It was stopping me from enjoying football so I had to make a decision either to go into therapy for months or years, or just cut out flying. Everybody accepted it. When I joined Arsenal, almost the first thing that came up in the contract meeting was me saying I'm not going to fly, but I can drive everywhere. It was never a problem.

Which strike partner did you most enjoying playing with – Van Basten, Henry, Kluivert, Wright, Anelka – and who was the best?
Darren Johnson, Michigan, USA
For me it was always a matter of adjusting to someone else's game. With Nicolas Anelka it was easy because he was so quick. Just go behind the defender, I'll give you the ball and you're one-on-one with the goalkeeper. Thierry Henry's fantastic with all his skills. And Ian Wright was great. But if I had to pick one I would say Thierry because of the unbeaten season with him. There's a difference between skills and functional skills. Thierry's skills were perfectly functional. There was something behind every movement: to get a strike, receive a pass. Marco van Basten has a different skill. He was a great finisher and had some great touches as well. It's difficult to decide. But I would say Thierry because I worked with him longer in training and we really had a partnership.

"Oi Den, watch where that hand's going"

Who was the best defender you ever played against?
Robert Frumkin, via email
I think the best are players like Sol Campbell, Jaap Stam – hard, serious defenders with pace who can read the game. I always loved to play against players like [Sinisa] Mihajlovic or [Marco] Materazzi – players with a big mouth who make dirty tackles, step on your toes and give you an elbow off the ball when no one was watching. That got me going. You'd really try to have a good game against those players, and against defenders in general who would have an air like: "Look at me, I'm fantastic." I can't stand that. I prefer defenders like Martin Keown who do their job and maybe have big mouths in the dressing room but in a funny way. He took pride in getting someone else not to score a goal. And he was a fantastic trash talker: ''Come on, come on, let's have it... you think you can go past me? Oh yeah?''

Thierry Henry called you the best player he ever played with, but who would win in a one-on-one kickabout between you?
Marvin Rose, Reading
We never did that! Even in training sessions there's so much respect that you wouldn't go at each other. He would have beaten me for pace without a doubt. But in training, if he was one-on-one with me, he would pass to someone else and it was the same the other way around. With other players you want to make a statement. But going against him... no!

Why did you change your mind after saying you wouldn't go into coaching?
Paul Aminu, Glasgow
When I stopped playing I didn't want to go into coaching. I played golf and spent time with the kids for two years. My son was playing for a local team and I used to go with him to training. But every now and then I took a training session and I really enjoyed it. Back in Holland I could do my coaching badges in one year. At first I thought it's not for me, then I thought – just focus on it for one year. I got my diploma, so I can be a coach wherever I want to go now. Marco van Basten was straight on the phone. I had to get in certain hours with a professional team for the course. Marco said: "Why don't you do it with Ajax?" I can see myself coaching there one day. Maybe coach the strikers a few times a week. And I can see myself doing that at Arsenal – I could be part of that staff. Coaching brought me back into the game, but I needed a push.

Coaches De Boer, Stam and Bergkamp

Is traditional, clever, playful, beautiful Dutch football dying?
Joey Voce, Liverpool
Yes. I feel it's dying, but other teams are growing. If you look at the way Barcelona and Arsenal play, they could be Dutch teams. When one ball is given, numbers two, three, four and five are moving already. The Dutch teams aren't playing like that. If you look at the Dutch game you see one player with the ball and one other moving. No one else. So the one who is moving gets the ball. It becomes easy to defend. So there are few successful passes and not a lot of movement. It's more the long ball, and the foreign players who come in aren't at the same level as our youth players.

I hope that at Ajax at least we just give chances to the youth players. Maybe the first year they're not as good as other players, but just give them the experience and give them the confidence to play football. We have to do things differently. Years ago, when I joined the first team, with Cruyff, we played with two wingers – attractive, attacking football, and everyone in Europe was talking about us; us and Arsene Wenger's Monaco, who played the game in a similar way. Now it's gone. Now Barcelona and Arsenal are the two teams that play football differently from other teams.

Interview: David Winner. Portrait: Steve Orino. From the February 2011 issue of FourFourTwo.

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