Unravelling the enigma that is Dennis Bergkamp

Revered in the Netherlands, a flop in Italy. What sort of player will Arsenal get for their pounds 7.5m, asks David Winner
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The Independent Online
He was thrilling for Ajax, then failed badly at Internazionale. In Dennis Bergkamp, have Arsenal acquired one of the world's greatest footballers or is he a fragile artist irreparably damaged by his experience in Italy?

Leo Driessen, a Dutch radio commentator, said: "If you compare England and Italy, you are comparing heaven and hell. Even if Arsenal is a defensive team by English standards, they attack more than any team in Italy. English football will show him more respect than he had in Italy. If he is allowed to play his way, he can be great again."

Jaap de Groot of De Telegraaf was one of many surprised by Bergkamp's decision to join Arsenal when signing for his hero, Glenn Hoddle, and joining Ruud Gullit at Chelsea seemed a more obvious way to rebuild his career.

"Dennis is a very intelligent man and he knows exactly what went wrong in Italy. He will not allow the Inter situation to repeat itself," he said. "The basic qualities are still there. But Inter showed that he is very sensitive to the situation around him. I think his experience has made him tougher."

Few doubt that as a footballer Bergkamp has the class to rise again, but Ron Westerhof of Voetbal International doubts he has the mental strength to fulfil his potential. "I don't think he will succeed in England. Of course he is still one of the best players in the world, but he's weak mentally. He's not a winner. He's a loser. He's a cissy.

"Look at the way he allowed Ruben Sosa, who is an inferior player, be the boss at Inter. Berg-kamp's free-kicks and penalties are famous in the Netherlands. His problems are between his ears. A lot depends on Bruce Rioch, but if you want the best from Bergkamp, you have to build a team around him and play in an intelligent, attacking way. I don't know if Arsenal can do this."

Bergkamp was one of the most brilliant of all graduates of the famous Ajax youth system, playing briefly in the under-15 team with winger Glenn Helder, now at Arsenal. Bergkamp emerged as a 17-year-old in the 1987- 88 season and soon became the most exciting player in the Netherlands.

In 1992-93, Bergkamp's last season before moving to Italy, he took the role of a shadow striker, playing behind a centre forward in a team dedicated to perpetual attack. The move was a success and he scored 28 goals.

With his exquisite technique, elegantly lethal finishing and searing pace, the pale Dutchman seemed ready to follow in the footsteps of Marco Van Basten and fulfil former coach Johan Cruyff's prediction that he could become one of the world's greatest players.

Cruyff wanted him for Barcelona, but Bergkamp opted for Internazionale, lured partly by the false promise that Inter would ditch its notorious defensive traditions and play Dutch-style attacking football.

Instead, it was Bergkamp who found himself playing an alien style, usually as a lone attacker. In his first season, the gloom of poor league form was alleviated by his goals, which helped Inter win the Uefa Cup.

But last season's campaign was much worse. Troubled by stress injuries caused by not being given enough time to recover after the World Cup, when he did play he was a shadow of himself. Drained of confidence, he scored only two goals all season.

Things were even worse off the field. Bergkamp is naturally shy and prefers to go home after matches and spend time with his girlfriend, which was interpreted as aloofness or weakness. By the end of the season, the club, the press and the fans had all turned against him.