Elegance. Perfection. Control. Intelligence. Those words, time and again, come up whenever Dennis Bergkamp is discussed. When he scored a goal or passed balls that led to goals, questions arose. How did he do it? Did he mean it? He made them look easy when they were a combination of skills and techniques, precision, calculation, and calm. “Stillness and Speed: My Story” offers insight into the life and mind of one of the best footballers the world ever has.

I would not say I am a football person. I just went along with whatever programme on TV which was always taken over by the males of the family whenever a football match was on, English or Italian. Their enthusiasm must have rubbed off on me because I began to take notes of the matches. I also began to feel the rush and elation whenever I watched some games as I thought, ‘that was cool,’ or ‘beautiful!’ Such was the thought I had when Arsenal was playing, when Bergkamp was playing.

Much of the book concerns Dennis Bergkamp’s techniques and creative process. It follows his footballing journey from childhood in Amsterdam to his professional football career in Holland, Italy, and England, his time playing for the Dutch national team, and his return and next step in his football life as a coach to the club of his youth, Ajax Amsterdam.

“Stillness and Speed: My Story”
by Dennis Bergkamp with David Winner (Simon and Schuster, 2013)

Of course, as he made most of his professional career in Arsenal FC, it is inevitable that larger portion of the book explores Bergkamp’s time with the club. Retired at the age of 38, relatively later than most players of his generation, eleven years had been spent in Highbury. Bergkamp has carved for himself a sturdy place in Arsenal’s history and won adoration from fans, and non-fans alike, that would last a lifetime.

Coming to Highbury when the club was struggling, his presence contributed to the rise of Arsenal FC under Arsene Wenger in the late 90s into early 00s. The team managed to earn titles, and nurture players that then went on “Invincibles” in season 2003/2004. Bergkamp influenced the transformation of the club culture and their game, from boring to beautiful. It would not be a stretch that Dennis Bergkamp is the best signing Arsenal has ever made.

Those successes and achievements don’t come falling from the sky, of course. Intelligence, discipline, patience, and hard work have always been mentioned to follow Dennis Bergkamp. These qualities were tempered and influenced by some of the best minds in football from early age. The journey had not always been smooth either as there were failures and disappointment. Sometimes, off-field dramas carried on to the field. Italy did not work as planned. The Dutch national team has yet to win the World Cup and improve the nation’s ability to win penalty shoot-outs. And there is the fear of flying. Amidst all these, the man maintained a long career as one of the best football players (picked by Pele as one of the FIFA 100 greatest living players) until he retired in 2006.

And what is next for Dennis Bergkamp? Whatever it is, it will involve football, of course. Already assuming the coaching role, he is now training new generation of great players and working on getting Ajax back to what it once had been: producer of great football players. We would still see great things from him in the future.

For non football-enthusiasts, the book can be a struggle. I got lost in the web and labyrinth of names, the “who’s who”, during Bergkamps’s time in Italy. The book gives the underlaying framework and information needed to follow the plot. But still, one needs to have patience. The analysis on why Bergkamp did not do well in Italy was fascinating. He might have experienced culture shock, dealing with the difference in The Dutch way and the Italian way of playing, the Total Football vs Catenaccio schools; or he was caught in the middle of, as the book put it, “The Religious War”. I fared better with names during Bergkamp’s time in Ajax, Arsenal, and Dutch national team.

The English edition’s narrative mostly takes the form of interviews with people around Dennis Bergkamp and the man himself. In “A Note On The English Edition” section, co-author David Winner explains that “[it] is experimental, its structured influenced by Puskas on Puskas, Rogan Taylor and Klara Jamrich’s wonderful book of interviews with and about Ferenc Puskas, and by Francois Truffaut’s book of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock.” People related to football and Bergkamp (family, team mates, commentators, rival team mates, etc.) take part in telling his life, affirming his stories, contradicting them, and offering perspectives and details.

Maybe because I’ve been reading too much “first person narrative” lately, and somehow nauseated by it, “Stillness…”‘s presentation is definitely a plus. It was almost like watching a documentary, or actually reading the transcript of a documentary, or like being in a reunion, sitting in a couch listening to these people telling stories of their time together, on and off the field. It was fun reliving some of the best moments of my youth around the 98 to 06 World Cups, Euros, and UEFA Cups, and the moments of Arsenal climbing up the ladder and won titles through their recollection. In a way, the book’s presentation mirrors Bergkamp’s approach in the field. He is a team player. Brilliant techniques and skills aside, it’s the people around him that enable him to achieve great things.

Personally, “Stillness and Speed: My Story” had been an entertaining read. There is understated humour as well that, I think, owes to David Winner’s touch. I’ve read Winner’s “Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football”, in which he tried to explain one of the mysteries of the universe: why oh why, even with such mastery and flair, the Dutch team failed to win the World Cup. Really! And I’ve laughed quite a lot while reading it. Though not as much humour as “Brilliant…”, I still found “Stillness…” smart and witty.

It was hard not to be nostalgic while reading the book because Ajax, Arsenal, and the Dutch national team pretty much coloured my youth. At first, it was a by-proxy support because everyone else in the house supported them. But once I got sucked into the strangely beautiful games they play, I could not look away.

Indeed. It’s been a privilege to see Dennis Bergkamp on the field.