Friday, March 31, 2023

Euro Profiles Of The Past – Marco van Basten

I was 15 years old. My summer fad was to collect the stickers to fill the Panini Euro 88 album. After a lot of disappointing trips to the store with only duplicates, I finally managed to score the last piece and complete the collection. This little hobby also boosted my interest in the actual tournament. A great tournament, one of the best in my opinion, and it turned out to be a one man show.

This was my first introduction the Dutch national team. After having had a miserable start of the 1980’s, “Oranje” impressed in the qualification games. They sailed up as favorites to win the title with their demon coach Rinus Michels, his “total football”, and their front man star player Ruud Gullit. But it was another man who would step up and almost single-handedly paint the summer orange.

Holland made it to the final in Munich, where they faced the Soviet Union. Ruud Gullit gave Holland the lead with a distinct header in the first half. Eight minutes into the second half, the ball ended up with Muhren, sweeping a long ball across towards the far corner of the penalty area. For the recipient with a defender in his back, and the ball quickly approaching the sideline, this is a very ungrateful pass. What are the options? Try to stop it and pass it back? Head it randomly? Try to get the defender to touch you and get a penalty? Either way, the chances of scoring from that angle are slim to none.

I don’t think anyone taught Marco van Basten probability. Whoever taught him geometry did a good job though. He created his own angels and physics with the ball. On this particular sweeping ball, probably 99% of football players wouldn’t even think of shooting towards the goal. Of the remaining fraction of those who would think of shooting, 99% wouldn’t strike the ball. Of the remaining fraction of those who would strike the ball, 99% would find the ball somewhere in the audience. Of the remaining fraction of players who would be able to hit the target, 99% would realize that they were in the middle of a big final with only one goal up. Of the remaining fraction of the players who wouldn’t crap their shorts by the thought of screwing this up, 99% would realize that the opponent goalkeeper was one of the then best in the world, the two meter man Rinat Dasaev. But again, young Marco didn’t care about the odds. Turning slightly as the ball approached, and with immaculate co-ordination, he hit the volley, the ball looping over the goalkeeper into the far corner. Having witnessed this spectacular goal, maybe the greatest ever in a big final, viewers all over the world could do little than to join Dasaev in a collective “Did that just happen?”

Marco van Basten started his professional career in Ajax Amsterdam when he came on as a substitute for his idol Johann Cruyff in a league game in 1982. One brilliant career was on the decline, one was just about to start. He had a few very successful seasons in Ajax before he joined AC Milan in 1987. An ankle injury would spoil his first season with the Italian side. Despite a very limited amount of matches, Rinus Michels was willing to take the chance and picked him to the Dutch side for the European Championships in Germany. Van Basten was only the second or even third striker choice after John Bosman and Wim Kieft. After a disappointing loss to the Soviet Union in the opening match, Michels decided to give van Basten the chance against England. Marco scored all three Dutch goals in the victory, and also scored a last minute winning goal against West Germany in the semi-final. Rounding off with his fantastic final strike, he landed the first and so far only championship to the people in the land of cheese, windmills, and wooden clogs. The person to send tulips to was undoubtedly this young lad from Utrecht.

Marco van Basten also enjoyed great success on the club level. He won the Dutch league and the Cup Winner’s Cup with Ajax Amsterdam. In Italy he was part of the “unbeatable” AC Milan around in the early 1990’s, winning both the Serie A and the European Cup. Not only did van Basten score many and important goals for the teams he played for, he was also notorious at scoring spectacular goals. Despite the fantastic goal against the Soviet Union in the Euro 88 final, the probably most magnificent goal I have ever seen, van Basten scored in the Dutch league in 1986 against Den Bosch. With stunning co-ordination, executing a bicycle kick, he sent the ball in the far corner of the goal. One of those goals you can describe in words until you drop, but one that has to be seen. With some basic imagination and familiarity with well-known Internet video sites, any reader should be able find and take pleasure in this work of art. A reminder of why we love football.

An ankle injury that haunted van Basten throughout his career forced him to retire from professional football at the age of 29. After a few years of licking the wounds, he returned to the game coaching. Starting out with the Ajax Youth Team, he took the big step and became the head coach of the Dutch national team in 2004. I happened to attend van Basten’s first home game as coach for “Oranje”, in Utrecht against Lichtenstein. Not so much out of journalistic duties, but because I happened to live in the city at the time. It was an easy win for the Dutch team, but against an opponent that probably eleven random guys off the street in Amsterdam would defeat. The audience wasn’t impressed, and mocked their own players rather than cheering for them. But, van Basten was back in Utrecht where his career began. The returning son had begun a new journey.

Dutch football fans, journalists, and various experts are not very patient though. Despite having lead the team to the two consecutive big tournaments, van Basten’s popularity with the Dutch people has slowly declined. He has profiled himself as a coach with rigid principles. Out with the individualists, in with the team players – a concept unknown to the very individualistic Dutch society. A good result in the upcoming European Championships would definitely reinstate his status as one of the greatest in Dutch football. I for one will keep an extra eye on the Dutch team. In my eyes van Basten was one of the greatest strikers of all times, and most probably the most elegant. After Euro 2008 Marco van Basten will take over the coach duties of Ajax, a club in crisis. The Amsterdam Arena may be futuristic and impressive, but for a football atmosphere and acoustics it’s a horrible venue. But with the return of the man with the golden touch, I think I might pay it a visit or two the next season.

Christian Celind for


Christian Celind

Christian started scribbling at a young age, and the words kept coming. He has tons of travel observations, football (soccer) articles and match reports, and academic essays under his belt.



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14 years ago

I thought that was an eloquently written piece. I too was but a teenager when i witnessed Van Basten for the first time in the Euro 88. He had it all in my opinion, with an elegance when in control of the ball, a commanding presence in the air, a lethal presence in the box, scoring both unspectacular and spectacular goals along with a winner`s mentality. My own personal favourite goal scored by him was perhaps the goal in the semi-final against the host nation Germany, given the setting stage and hostilites between the two , the importance and the… Read more »

Charlie M
Charlie M
14 years ago

That volley vs Russia was the greatest volley anywhere in football history.
I rank Van Basten as the most talented & complete striker ever aswell as 1 of the top 5 players of all time.
I think he had a real shot at being the greatest player of all time if he never retired at 28.
No other player has equaled him since he retired, not Zidane, not Ronaldo, not Ronaldinho, not Rivaldo.

Van Basten is on the same level as Maradona to me, without doubt.

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