I had finished a 25-hour shift at the London homeless hostel where I was working. My night had been broken, as it usually was on such shifts, by incidents in which the night-shift worker needed support and assistant. I can’t remember the details. I was lying semi-comatose on the couch of our staff accommodation, kept from sleep only by the breathtaking to and fro of one of the greatest games of football I had seen. I would sleep after, I told myself. Holland v Argentina, a dream tie in the World Cup quarter finals. A game of high quality, decided in the game’s dying embers by a Dennis Bergkamp goal of such art, delicacy and precision it jolted through my system like a triple espresso. I sat bolt upright, mouth open. I shouted something incoherent. It was perfect. If you don’t believe me, click here for a moment of sublime sporting beauty.
As you’ve just discovered, it’s hard for words to do justice to moments like that. Bergkamp specialised in such moments, moments of perfection which even opponents and opposition fans would applaud, the sort of moments you dream of being in the same vicinity as, let alone being part of. On the rare occasions I found myself watching from the stands as he plied his trade for Arsenal it felt like his awareness of what was going on around him and his economy of movement were so supernatural that there must be two of him, one on the pitch in constant communication with another in the stand, able to relay down to the Dennis on the pitch where everybody else was and where the spaces were developing.
Then there’s this goal, the balletic grace of which frankly belies description. Watch it, and tell me your life isn’t better for seeing it.
How do you justice in words to such a player. Sports biographies – especially football ones, it seems – do not have a great history of artfulness or appropriateness. They’re usually written too early, with little insight or context. This one is different. Stillness and Speed is the English language version of Holland and Arsenal’s Dennis Bergkamp’s story, told by David Winner through deft prose and a series of illuminating interviews with Bergkamp himself and his colleagues. It have many of the elements of the biography, but is really trying to do something else; to get a handle on how genius is born and how great art comes to be. Hard work is part of it; resolute attention to, for example, the way different balls bounced. Training, fun, a desire to always do something meaningful and not ‘just’ try to do a job or simply win a game. All of it coming together in the revelation that as regards the second goal related above, he decided what to do when the ball was 10 yards away. Instinctive genius, served by muscle memory.
It’s a beautiful book, and like all good books its genius is in lifting the specific (a footballer) and finding things to say that are relevant and interesting way beyond the one arena. It’s hard to imagine people who don’t like football reading this, but really this is one for those who want to dig deeply into how a genius is set apart. In that context it might make a good companion volume to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.
Mainly though, I’m grateful. Grateful to feel closer to one of my heroes, but not to have the mystique taken away. Grateful that the book does him justice but leaves genius of this type where I want it – just out of reach. Grateful he’s both ordinary and extraordinary. Just grateful, really.
I rated this book 5/5 on goodreads.com