Dennis Bergkamp: The Non-Flying Dutchman

Dennis Bergkamp is one of the most creative players to ever grace the field, yet a unique mental condition inhibited his true potential during his playing career.

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Known for his intelligent playmaking, calm and collected personality, and clinical finishing in front of the net, Dennis Bergkamp is considered one of the greatest playmakers of all time. The Dutch attacker peaked at Arsenal F.C., where he won three Premier League titles and four FA Cups with the club. He also picked up multiple individual accolades across the span of his career. Though Bergkamp was a very accomplished player, he could have achieved so much more if he didn’t have an unusual condition: aviophobia, the fear of flying. Aviophobia would prove to be a difficult mental challenge for Bergkamp throughout his career, and his growth as a player would be hindered due to this unfortunate condition.

Bergkamp was born in Amsterdam in 1969. He grew up there, and his talent was recognized by Dutch soccer club Ajax when he was only 11 years old. The young star was quickly climbing through the ranks at the club when a terrifying event shook his perspective on flying. While developing at the club academy, a 1989 flight carrying Bergkamp’s teammates to an away tournament crashed midway and resulted in the loss of some of his friends. Though Bergkamp himself wasn’t on that flight, this incident left a mark on his heart and fostered his hatred for flying. However, over time, Bergkamp pushed on and became an incredible playmaker, revered for his flair and skill on the ball.

He made his professional debut in 1986, impressing all who watched him play. The youngster attracted attention from many of Europe’s top clubs, and he decided to sign for Italian giant Inter Milan when he was 24.

After a couple of disappointing seasons, Bergkamp made the move to Arsenal, where he bloomed. He led the team to multiple league and cup titles, as well as the 2006 Champions League final that marked the Dutchman’s last appearance as a player. Bergkamp was also called up to the Netherlands national team on multiple occasions throughout his career and participated in several European Championships, along with the 1994 and 1998 FIFA World Cups. After retiring as a player, Bergkamp returned as an assistant coach at Ajax from 2011 to 2017. His dedication and hard work to the Gunners were recognized, and the club erected a statue in his honor outside of the Emirates Stadium in 2014. It’s clear that Bergkamp had an immense impact on both his club and country because he played with unbelievable passion and creativity on the field, but few know how mentally difficult it was for the Dutchman to maintain that high level of performance.

Bergkamp established himself as the new number 10 of the Dutch national team after his amazing performances for Arsenal, taking over the mantle of the playmaker from his predecessor Johan Cruyff, one of the greatest icons in soccer history. Bergkamp was expected to meet the incredibly high standards set by Cruyff, and the young attacker lived up to the demand. However, while Cruyff was nicknamed the Flying Dutchman, Bergkamp was nicknamed the Non-Flying Dutchman due to his fear of flying.

Aviophobia can be particularly detrimental to soccer players because traveling by air is necessary to arrive at far away games. Bergkamp actually took a wage cut when he initially joined Arsenal due to the fact that he would be unable to participate in most of the club’s away matches. Whenever possible, the Dutchman would travel by car or train to play with the rest of the team regardless of distance. One time, he drove 994 miles from London to Florence, Italy, a 20-hour car drive, to arrive at the field and play in a Champions League match against Italian side Fiorentina.

“I’ve got this problem, and I have to live with it,” Bergkamp said to the Independent in October 1996. “I am considering psychiatric help. I can’t fly. I just freeze. I get panicky. It starts the day before, when I can’t sleep.”

Bergkamp’s aviophobia developed over time due to a series of events throughout his career. The first incident was the 1989 flight during his time at Ajax’s academy, an occasion that left a scar on his mind. Later, two other events during the 1994 World Cup completely devastated Bergkamp’s relationship with flying. The flight trip to the United States for the World Cup was a long journey that became worse for the Dutchman when the plane’s motor temporarily broke down midway. The last straw was when one of their flights during the World Cup was delayed because a journalist made an inappropriate joke about having a bomb in his bag. All of these bad experiences with flying have led to his permanent fear.

Bergkamp could have achieved so much more without aviophobia holding him back. All of the games that the Arsenal team played without the Dutchman could have been masterclasses if he had been present on the field. While Bergkamp’s unfortunate fear inhibited his progress, the undeniable imaginative spark and quick movement that he brought to the game will remain unforgettable to all who have watched him.