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Bergkamp, Zidane, and Fame

Watching Dennis Bergkamp's vision, touch, and pace in the 1994 World Cup converted me from an occasional soccer watcher into a real fan. His move to Arsenal in 1995 quickly made me a Gunners' supporter. So it's a sad day for me to see his farewell testimonial game arrive on Saturday. Here is a Soccernet article honoring the "Iceman."

His farewell also has made me ponder the question of relative fame of athletes. As Zidane approached his last few games during the World Cup, the press nearly deified him. For many years he has received a huge amount of attention and adulation. A lively online debate continues regarding Zidane v. Ronaldinho -- who is better? I'm not saying that Bergkamp is better than either of them or a few other greats -- such issues are impossible to decide -- but would strongly suggest that Bergkamp deserves to be placed in the same company.

Consider Bergkamp's accomplishments: 271 lifetime goals (37 in 79 games for The Netherlands); 124 assists for Arsenal from 95-06; 3 goals and an assist in the '94 World Cup; played on semifinal teams in Euro 92, 2000, and World Cup 98; his performance in World Cup 98 (3 goals and 3 assists) was unmatched by anyone including Zidane plus it included one of the greatest goals of all time -- the perfect touch on a 60-yard ball, cutback, and outside the foot finish in the quarterfinals winner in the 89th minute against Argentina (video with great Dutch commentary; also included in this video montage); he helped guide Arsenal to two EPL-FA Cup doubles and to their unbeaten season; in two different seasons he had 15 assists. Beyond the numbers or my assessment, here is Thierry Henry's viewpoint,

I have always said that Dennis Bergkamp will remain the best partner that I have ever had. He is a dream for a striker.

In spite of all this and the fact that the numbers well surpass Zidane, Bergkamp has not received the kind of attention of Zidane or a few others. Yes, I know he and Zidane and Ronaldinho don't play the same position. Especially early in his career, Bergkamp was more an out-and-out striker. Yet, as he aged, his role as "shadow striker" became very similar to that of an attacking midfielder, playing almost the exact same role as Zidane in big build-ups. His assists+goals totals would rate up there with anyone who has ever played and surpass Zidane.

As an economist, I wonder, what explains the difference in relative attention and fame? Maybe his fear of flying that cut short his international career by at least one World Cup and hindered his Champions league contributions enters in. Stepping back from his particulars, however, I'm inclined to think that Zidane and Ronaldino being on world champion teams makes a big difference. Had Zidane's France squad and Bergkamp's Dutch squad switched outcomes in 98, and even Euro 2000, maybe the relative attention would be different. It's very similar to the views of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. Russell's championships boosted his stock immensely even though it is a team game. Still, in basketball, with 5 guys on the court at once, one player's contribution is much larger than football or soccer with 11 players. Nonetheless, there are people who would put Tom Brady in the same league (or even higher) than Dan Marino because of his team's accomplishments -- an interesting behavioral pattern.

As a side point and question to the soccer fans out there, why don't assists garner more attention in soccer? Leeds' United and US International Eddie Lewis mentioned the same point a while back. In many situations, the assisting player has done a lot more to generate the goal than the guy toe-poking the ball of the line. Other sports, such as hockey, actively rate players based on the combination of goals and assists but not soccer.