The shadow cast by Bergkamp's statue


Today, Arsenal unveiled a statue to commemorate the exploits of Dennis Bergkamp, one of the most-unique and exhilirating players to ever don an Arsenal kit. The moment, cast in bronze, shows Bergkamp leaping to collect the ball on his right foot as Newcastle’s Dan O’Brien looks on. It’s just one of a seemingly infinite number sublime moments that Bergkamp delivered, effortlessly and poetically, distilling both the athletic and the aesthetic into one. As we lionize him, though, I hope that the long shadow cast by his statute and his career doesn’t stretch so far as to obscure the light. He was a once-in-generation kind of player, and it’s more than fitting to give him his due. For me, more than Henry, he is Arsenal. His understanding, his vision, his style…it all takes my breath away. However…

There is a risk in living too long in the past. Bergkamp and Henry, Adams, Wright, Brady, and all of the rest are hallowed names that bring to mind memories, some hazy, some grainy; others, emblazoned in the memory like a beacon. All of these memories are bronzed and burnished in our hearts and minds, some more than others, and each of us has our idiosyncratic preferences around which memories shine brightest.

Bergkamp spoke at the unveiling, and among his touching words of gratitude for this tribute were these:

You all see me as a team player, and there is only one statue of me, but I believe it is part of a whole team that I was involved in which made me shine…When you think of that team, it is not only the quality players around you, it is the fantastic manager, the staff around the club…I had a very good relationship with the fans. You were very patient with me…In the first six or seven games of my career, a lot of people spoke about that, “is he good or not? Can he do it?” We proved them all wrong and are where we are now, and it is all down to the fans because you had belief in me, in the team.

It is in part because of him that we struggle to be as patient now. The moments of glory that he conjured did not happen all at once, nor did they happen as early or as often as he or we hoped—but, in time, they came, and we forgot the early struggles and the occasional miscues, in part because that’s how memory works and in part because that’s how a player like Bergkamp works. Between the conception and the creation, there occasionally falls a shadow—a mishit pass, an overly ambitious dribble—but it’s fleeting. It fades in the passing of time and the alchemy of other transcendent moments to follow.

Those transcendent moments, so innumerable and so transcendent as to beggar description, have earned the man the statue outside the Emirates, linking past to present, Highbury to Emirates, Invincibles to the current squad. As we look from then to now, we look from him to…whom? Who among the current lot will be the next Bergkamp, Henry, Vieira? When will we experience the next Invincibles season or win another double or treble? I’ll skip the part of the sermon when I ask that we let Özil be himself instead of the next Bergkamp, or any other current player be himself instead of the next legend. Legendary status should be awarded, for the most part, retroactively. There will be times in a player’s career when we can start pondering such status—certain moments, matches, and seasons will trigger the thoughts.

However, I hope it’s too heretical to say that we shouldn’t dwell too long in nostalgia.  Nurse the memories, yes, but don’t become servant nor slave to them. Any current player’s exploits will pale in comparison to what Bergkamp wrought, and we should be wary of idolizing too much for fear of turning too far from the present. We can’t repeat the past, no matter how fervently we might hope to. Bergkamp’s brilliance is now frozen in time, a moment captured for us all to celebrate, but we have to look to the future, whether it’s the next ten or twelve matches of the current campaign of seasons to come even as the future recedes before us, always eluding us. Without turning away from Bergkamp or the glories of the past, we must today run faster and stretch our arms out further…

We have in the squad a number of young players eager to make their mark, perhaps even laying a foundation for their own statues ten or twenty years from now. Let’s not name names, though. Let them roll around in your mind and content yourself with wondering. Don’t let expectations or memory make you impatient. Legends come around once in a great while and are seldom identified in the moment. Let the lads play. There will be time to measure their stature later.

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