There are a lot of ways to score a brilliant goal. You can dribble your way past half the side; beat the keeper from inside your own half; curl the perfect free-kick in from 35 yards. These are all practised by millions of hopeful dreamers worldwide everyday. Everyone knows what they would like to be able to do if only they could.
But there is another way to score a great goal. Not only to score one which others could never execute; but to do what others could not even imagine.
Watch a video of Diego Maradona’s second goal against England in 1986. It is quite possibly the best goal ever scored in a football match; a fusion of pace, dribbling ability, fearlessness and a brilliant finish. You wonder, “how on earth did he do that?” Every footballer across the world harbours dreams of waltzing so magisterially through the opposition.
Now watch Dennis Bergkamp’s goal against Newcastle in 2002. Spectacular, but surely even the most one-eyed Arsenal supporter could not argue that Maradona’s tour de force was inferior. It inspires a subtly different reaction. It is not merely ‘how did he do that?’ The more discerning question is: ‘how did he think of that?’
Footballing superstars can dazzle with their dexterity on the ball; their speed; their apparent immunity to pressure.
Something altogether rarer is to astonish with their imagination. It takes a special player to execute what everyone is dreaming of. Bergkamp could succeed in what no-one else was dreaming.
In fact, he relatively lacked two of those three attributes of the greats of the game. His pace was pedestrian set against the likes of Thierry Henry. And his tally of red cards proved he could be wound up by less-skilled opponents.
In this sense he was very human: he could not be relied upon to win his side a crucial game – though he did so on countless occasions – as he could not even be relied upon to be on the pitch. But he was otherworldly in his vision, his comprehension of angles and intricacies and complete understanding of the range of creative possibilities the footballing field provides. They say sport is all in the mind: for Bergkamp it was too, but in a very different sense.