“Beautifully pulled down by Bergkamp. Oh what a goal! Dennis Bergkamp has won it for Holland, that was absolutely brilliant.”
Like many great moments of football commentary, Barry Davies’ words are unremarkable when written down. These were inspired by an enduringly thrilling goal: Dennis Bergkamp pulling Frank de Boer’s pass out of the Marseille sky before flashing it in with the outside of his boot. It settled Netherlands vs Argentina in the quarter finals of the 1998 World Cup, and as the teams prepare to meet at the same stage in Qatar Davies recalls his work with modesty.
“It’s just something that came up, adding words to a picture,” he says. “The sound supervisor said the level was very nearly off the register, because I did rather scream at that. I think, justifiably, it was one of the best goals I’ve seen.”
It came in the 90th minute to settle a tumultuous match that featured a red card for both sides, a worthy successor to the nations’ past skirmishes. There was Johann Cruyff and co demolishing Argentina 4-0 in the second group stage in 1974, then Argentina’s revenge in the final four years later. Post-1998 there have been a pair of World Cup 0-0s, a dead rubber in 2006, then the 2014 semi-final which Argentina won on penalties.
But it is the Bergkamp goal which shines brightest, and it is a line Davies is still asked about. “Some of them go on to what I said afterwards, over a shot of the Dutch support.” After taking a second for his excitement to subside, Davies delivered this: “From adversity to triumph for the Dutch. They who were silent are now in song.”
“It wasn’t a bad line,” he says now, “at the time I was quite happy with that and so was the producer sitting next to me.”
It was borderline poetic, but it is the unmistakable exhilaration in Davies’ voice which makes his commentary immortal. His successors are often chastised for being over-excited but Davies felt it was a crucial part of his art. “People used to say to me, going to a match, who do you think is going to win today? I always replied ‘I don’t know, that’s why I’ve come.’ That’s the fun of it.
“I try not to go into a match with any preconceived ideas. I never had anything written down. I opened my mouth and hoped my foot was sufficiently far away. Things occurred to me, or didn’t.”
There is no shortage of emotion in the Dutch commentary for Bergkamp’s goal. Jack van Gelder shouted “Dennis Bergkamp!” 10 times with increasing derangement and by the end sounds as if he is struggling to breathe.
But precision was paramount for Davies, who still regrets his initial assessment of the hand of God in 1986, assuming England’s players were appealing for offside rather than Diego Maradona’s handball.
On the sublime goal which followed, he is beautifully pedantic. “One or two people quoted me as saying it was ‘sheer’ football genius. It was not, it was ‘pure’ football genius. That word was important, because it was pure compared to the disgrace of five minutes previously, pure cheating."
This time Davies will be watching Netherlands vs Argentina at home in Barnes with his son. Jonathan Pearce will be commentating for BBC Sport, 24 years after he covered the Marseille game in 1998, for Capital Gold. “I remember it vividly,” says Pearce. “I thought Argentina were quite shameful that day but the Bergkamp goal was one of the most sublime I’ve ever seen.
“I said in my commentary, ‘That’s one the best goals you’ll ever see, Argentina are heading out and good bloody riddance,’ I swore on air and thought it was the end of my career. No one complained, there was no social media in those days, so I got away with it.”
He has warmth for Davies. “Barry was a master of words and so underrated as a commentator. He was a wordsmith back in the days when you had a little more time.”
In any era sport commentary brings a pressure to deliver under pressure. What is the key to getting it right when narrating an obviously seismic moment? “You need your immediate honest reaction and not to contrive anything. I did the Richarlison goal against South Korea, when he started juggling it, then passed it to Thiago Silva. I think I just said ‘brilliant’ four times. I was totally caught up in the moment, almost like a fan.
“If you capture the moment precisely, the emotion of it, the importance, that’s what makes a good line.”
How we would love Friday to provide Pearce with a moment as good as Bergkamp’s.
Jonathan Pearce will be commentator for BBC One & BBC iPlayer’s live coverage of Netherlands v Argentina, tonight from 7pm