Bergkamp: 'If you can't win the trophy with this Arsenal, who could you win it with?'
Sunday 16 February 2003
As a Dutchman, Dennis Bergkamp is the perfect witness to talk about multi-talented football teams who fail to fulfil their destiny. As a boy, he watched his country's near-misses at the 1974 and 1978 World Cups, while as a player, he was part of the exciting but flawed sides of the Nineties. "Glorious failures are the worst feeling," he admits.
At least there have been few such disappointments during his club career. The Dutch title with Ajax was followed by the Uefa Cup with Internazionale and then, in recent years, the double-Double with Arsenal. There is, Bergkamp believes, only one target remaining. Following his assertion in these pages last week that the current Arsenal team have rewritten the rules of football, the 33-year-old is now keen to see them spread the word across Europe. The Premier League title may say much about consistency, but the Champions' League trophy is the ultimate symbol of success.
"I think I speak for everyone connected with the club," explains Bergkamp, who has never been beyond the quarter-finals of the competition with Arsenal, "when I say that the European Cup is the one we're really keen on. In terms of prestige, the Champions' League is the biggest honour in club football and we, as a team, really deserve to win it. To be honest with you, I would find it very difficult to accept if this side didn't take the trophy. I mean, if you can't win the Champions' League with this Arsenal team, then who could you win it with?"
Bergkamp, though, knows that any talk of the latter stages is still premature. Arsenal may be in a healthy position at the top of Group B, following their wonderful win at Roma and the home draw with Valencia before the winter break, but qualification is by no means a formality. First up is a double-header with a club level on points with Arsenal, and even closer to Bergkamp's heart, Ajax. The Arsenal striker joined the Amsterdam club in 1980 as a 12-year-old with potential, and left 12 years later as a fully-fledged international. "I'm very excited about these two games," he says. "I was at Ajax for my formative years, so it's only normal that the place should hold very special memories for me.
"I remember the first time I walked through the doors. Arriving at the legendary Ajax school was such a proud moment for me, but also a slightly scary one. Out of around 200 kids, maybe one or two make it every year. The kids who don't are just asked to leave."
Two particular faces will add to the sense of homecoming. Ajax are now managed by the great defender Ronald Koeman, while the youth team are overseen by one Marco van Basten. These two giants of Dutch football are also two very close friends of Bergkamp's. "I played many times with those guys," says the man who made his European debut with the club at 17, "so it will be great to see them again. It will be difficult for me to switch off and think of them as any other team, but I'm sure I'll manage."
Arsenal's slick passing and movement, not to mention Thierry Henry's goalscoring skills, should be too much for Ajax's young and fast-improving side. In fact, Bergkamp believes the Gunners are one of the favourites for the crown. "I see no reason why we shouldn't go all the way," he says, "but, like any knockout event, this competition requires that little bit of luck. The domestic title is the fairest, because if you're top of the table in May then no one can say that you were fortunate on 38 occasions. But the Champions' League can be decided on a tiny detail, and that's what makes it so unpredictable. That's its beauty."
Bergkamp believes that last season's quarter-final reverse against the eventual finalists, Bayer Leverkusen, is a good example of the better team losing out. "I thought that we played really well against them," he says, "and we should have run out comfortable winners. But somehow we lost and they almost went all the way. It still hurts a bit, but I can tell you that if we reach that stage again, we'll make sure we win."
Bergkamp will return to Ajax with his head held high, if a little sore. Due to his refusal to fly, the Arsenal playmaker will be driving to Holland. "It's not a problem," he insists. "I've done it lots. In fact, the first time I made the journey was the day I signed for Arsenal in June 1995. I remember it well, because I went around the M25 the wrong way and had to stop for petrol. When I pulled into the station, I had a little argument with the driver of the car behind me, who was getting irate. After a while, the guy stepped out of the car. I kid you not, it was Ian Wright. That's when I knew I was meant to join Arsenal."
There have been no such signs in recent weeks, but Bergkamp can still think of one good reason why Arsenal should win the Champions' League this year. "The final is at Old Trafford," he smiles.
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