I discovered soccer on the eve of the 1998 World Cup. My friend Simon took me to see England’s crucial qualifier against Italy in a pub very (very) far away from downtown Toronto because this was Canada and there was scant soccer coverage back then. It was the earliest I’d ever walked into a bar (9am) and the first time I’d had to pay to see a sporting event on someone else’s television. The energy in that room… men crying out as if stung by bees in unison at every chance on goal.
1998 World Cup Qualifier: Italy v England (October, 1997)
England prevailed. Simon was happy. I was smitten with “the beautiful game”.
When the World Cup approached, it was not England that I fancied but my ancestral (mother’s side) country: Holland. Lucky for me, the Dutch were favoured to do well. Thing is, I have learned since that they always are – they’ve just never managed to win the Cup.
By this time, I knew about Holland’s roster of stars: Overmars, Kluivert, Davids, the DeBoer twins, and goalkeeper Edwin Van der Sar. But the player who stood out most was the striker, Dennis Bergkamp.
He had an incredible depth of vision on the field, an instinct for being in the right position at the right time. Have a look at this.
Dennis Bergkamp v Newcastle (March, 2002)
Bergkamp was also handsome and – like a lot of Dutch soccer players – made a fine role model for male pattern baldness. Most importantly, he scored the goal of the decade, the goal of the century, the goal which will forever define, for me, what god-like eloquence on earth can look like.
On the 4th of July, while Americans were either celebrating Independence Day or else still reeling from their 2-1 loss to Iran, Holland was playing their World Cup quarterfinal versus Argentina with 55,000 people watching in Marseille.
We were tied 1-1 and the clock was ticking – the winner would move on to the semifinals against Brazil and the loser would be eliminated. In the 77th minute, Arthur Numan received a red card, leaving Holland with 10 men against the same team that had knocked Simon’s England out of the tournament with considerable controversy.
In the 88th minute, the gods intervened: Ariel Ortega, Argentina’s temperamental striker, made an attempt on goal before clashing with Dutch ‘keeper, Van der Sar.
World Cup Quarterfinal 1998, Argentina v Holland
Ortega’s clearly stupid – Zidanesque? – behaviour earned him a red card. The sides were even, with two minutes left in official time to decide. Team captain Frank deBoer saw Bergkamp from 60 yards away on the right of Argentina’s penalty area.
The pass is clean and clear: Bergkamp brings the ball down delicately, almost picking it out of the air with his foot, controls the ball through the legs of defender Roberto Ayala with another step, and with his third touch, slots it past the shoulder of the Argentinian goalkeeper.
World Cup Quarterfinal 1998, Dennis Bergkamp in the 89th minute (4 July, 1998)
Three touches of the right foot and Dennis Bergkamp sealed his legacy and his team’s victory. It was the first time at a sporting event that I had drained my lungs with screams. How can I explain it to you? Listen again to the Dutch commentator when the miraculous goal is scored.
Bergkamp’s goal as relayed by Jack van Gelder
– Matt Cahill