It is nothing new for Dutch forward Dennis Bergkamp to be living other men's dreams.
He was named for a Scottish soccer player his brothers admired, Denis Law, and with his family made regular pilgrimages to England, where they watched as many games as they could cram into their vacations.
When he wasn't watching games, he was playing them. Before he was a teen-ager, he was touted for stardom by the great Johan Cruyff, who shepherded Bergkamp through the youth programs of the famed Ajax club in Amsterdam, his hometown.
Cruyff might have taught him a few tricks to fool defenders, but his sure touch around the net is distinctively his own. So are his speed and acceleration, which overshadow his subtle, precise skills with the ball. With three Dutch League scoring titles to his credit, he has largely fulfilled the promise seen by his hopeful family and nurtured by the watchful Cruyff.
But not until the last three weeks, when Holland began its march through the World Cup tournament, has Bergkamp been able to live his own dreams.
He was always polite and unassuming, eager to please but resistant to suggestions that he should be more dynamic. Teammates attributed his unease to shyness, and they probably were right.
Didn't he reject a chance to play in Spain because he didn't want to be on his own in a foreign country? And when he decided to leave last autumn to play in Italy for Inter Milan, didn't he insist Inter also sign his friend and Ajax teammate, Wim Jonk, so he wouldn't be alone?
They understood his skittishness, but some wondered about it. If he was reluctant to test himself in Spain, how would he perform under the pressure of starting for the Netherlands in the World Cup--and of being responsible for the team's offense after Ruud Gullit quit and Marco van Basten was injured?
To their delight, he has reacted with his usual poise and modesty--and new assurance. Bergkamp, 25, has blossomed during the last three weeks, becoming a complete player who is also completely at ease.
He has dominated play in leading the Netherlands to its quarterfinal matchup with Brazil on Saturday at the Cotton Bowl. He has scored two goals and assisted on another in his last two games and has generated scoring chances in every game he has played, transforming the Dutch into an entertaining team that isn't hesitant to attack.
"He is such an elegant player," teammate Bryan Roy said. "He is an intelligent player who scores a lot of goals. I think he will become the greatest player in the world."
He has given credence to that in the Netherlands' four games. When he isn't scoring goals, he is setting them up, as he did Roy's game-winner in a 2-1 victory over Morocco in the final game of the opening round, giving the Netherlands the Group F title. Bergkamp scored the first goal in that game, taking a pass from Peter van Vossen and beating defender Smahi Triki before flicking the ball past a helpless goalkeeper.
"I saw right away it was going to be a goal," van Vossen said. "That goal was beautiful. It was a beautiful moment."
It was significant, too, that in discussing that goal and his growing list of achievements, Bergkamp looked directly at interviewers, speaking softly but frankly and at length. In an interview a few weeks ago, he had looked off into the distance and mumbled something politely vague.
"I'm more confident," he said. "And I'm playing with much more confidence, like the team. We have taken our level of play to another level since the first round. If we continue to build our confidence and play like this, we should do very well."
Success has always come easily to Bergkamp, who made his debut for Ajax at 17 and for the Dutch national team at 21. The season he joined Ajax, the team went to the Cup Winners' Cup final. He led Ajax to a Dutch League title in 1989-90, the season after he had set a league record by scoring goals in 10 consecutive games. He was the Netherlands' 1991 player of the year and the players' player of the year in 1992, yet his critics weren't satisfied.
"They always expect me to score goals," he said. "When you play in Italy and play for the Dutch team, the expectations are very high, always.
"For me, it has always been like that. When I was a young kid, 12 years old, I played for Ajax (youth team) and there was pressure. Every year the pressure is getting bigger and bigger. For me, it's the same here."
But it wasn't the same old success story when he went to Milan last fall. He chose that club instead of Barcelona--which is coached by Cruyff--because Inter promised to build its team around him and was willing to pay $6.25 million to get him. He struggled to learn a new system, a new language and a new position, striker, instead of withdrawn forward.
He was roasted by the soccer-mad Italian press, called a spoiled rich boy and too meek to succeed.
"In Italy, they threw me into the lion's den," he said. "It was difficult, but I kept my faith in myself."
It took a while, but he turned faith into results. Although Inter finished near the bottom of the regular-season standings, Bergkamp produced a flurry of eight goals in leading the club to the UEFA Cup championship, among the toughest of Europe's club tournaments.
In the meantime, he was guiding Holland through World Cup qualifying, scoring five goals in four games.
"He can make the difference in the field in any game," Dutch defender and captain Ronald Koeman said. "He's playing on his best (level) right now."
When he plays well, so do the Dutch. They attacked from the start of their 2-0 second-round victory over Ireland, and Bergkamp was in the thick of it. He converted a pass from Marc Overmars to score the first goal, which forced Ireland to modify its defensive stance and attack. That, in turn, left more openings for Bergkamp and his teammates, who scored again before halftime and played their best overall game of the tournament.
"The first half was a real showing of how the Dutch team can play," Bergkamp said. "Unlike the first three games, we dominated everywhere, up front, in midfield and on defense. This game proved we can play with players on the wings. . . . Teams don't have to be so defensive to win games. This style of football has worked very well for us. We showed how Holland can play."
Well enough to beat Brazil? Bergkamp wasn't saying.
"They are very talented and they have two great forwards in Bebeto and Romario," he said. "But they need to worry about us, just like we worry about them."