The Netherlands has produced football geniuses in all departments of the beautiful game. In the 1980’s, Marcel “Marco” van Basten emerged as the rightful successor to the legendary Johan Cruyff, whose name often appears in the top five of any list of greatest footballers ever. In a relatively short career spanning just 11 years, van Basten has cemented his place as one of the greats in modern football.
Van Basten was born in the Dutch city of Utrecht and started playing football at the age of seven. When he was 17, the scouts of Ajax spotted his talent and signed him. In his debut match for the club, van Basten substituted Cruyff and went on to score in the same match. He won a host of trophies with the club, including the domestic championship and cup three times each. His first taste of European success came when Ajax lifted the UEFA Cup Winners Cup in 1987. This was just the beginning, as Milan President Silvio Berlusconi would bring the player to his team in 1987 in an effort to rebuild the struggling Rossoneri. In his five-year spell at Milan, he won a host of trophies. Along with his compatriots Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard, he was a part of the Dream Team of Milan which dominated Italy and Europe at turn of the 90’s.
There are many kinds of strikers with a particular set of abilities that define them, meaning that they are lacking in other departments. Even great forwards like Ronaldo and Thierry Henry are known be less than capable with their head whereas Filippo Inzaghi and Gerd Müller are ‘only’ poachers. This brings us to the question – which department did van Basten lack in? He was a true textbook striker and had all the qualities – physical and mental – needed to be a great forward. Athletically well built, he stood at 6’2. This enabled him to score many outstanding headers. One of his most memorable headed goals came in the final of 1989 European Cup against Steaua Bucharesti. His height did not hinder him from being exceptionally agile. His elegance on the pitch led to him being nicknamed ‘The Swan of Utrecht’. He was not easy to push off the ball. He had exceptional pace and often accelerated past defenders starting from zero velocity. His first touch and ball control were superb – often he received a long ball from some distance and would magically make it stop at his feet. Adept at dribbling and side-stepping, he would breeze past defenders at will. Furthermore, he had an acute sense of where he was in relation to the goal, a quality so often found in the ‘poachers’ which were mentioned earlier. He had an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time, to receive a pass from a teammate to score.
Milan circa 1989-1990
RB – CB – CB – LB
RM – CM – CM – LM
ST – van Basten
Yet, the one quality that stood out was his shot technique. On numerous occasions he scored from seemingly impossible acute angles. He was most famous for his volleys and bicycle kicks, the most magical of which came in the 1988 European Championships (a tournament in which he finished as top scorer), in the final between the Netherlands and the USSR. The Dutch won the game 2-0 and the second goal came due to a stunning volley from van Basten that left Russian ‘keeper Rinat Dasayev stranded. In the same year, he won the European Footballer of the Year award. The Flying Dutchman would go on to win the award two more times, to equal the records of Cruyff and Michel Platini for winning the award thrice. Perhaps his biggest accolade to date is that from former Coach Fabio Capello, who stated that van Basten was the best forward he has ever coached. When you consider the clubs, and forwards, the Italian has coached in his career, that is some praise.
Unfortunately, the Swan of Utrecht would not swim in the rough waters of the Italian League for long. An ankle injury, first picked up in his first season at Milan, cut down his career and he had to retire at the age of just 30 in 1995 – eight years after the initial injury. The tears in the eyes of the otherwise stern Capello were a testament to his greatness. As Adriano Galliani once put: “football lost its Leonardo Da Vinci”.
Name – Marcel “Marco” van Basten
Age – 45 (October 31, 1964)
Position – Striker
Clubs (Appearances/Goals) – Ajax (133/128), Milan (147/90)
Club Honours – Eredivisie (1982,1983,1985) Dutch Cup (1983,1986,1987) UEFA Cup Winners Cup (1987) Serie A (1988,1992,1993) European Cup (1989,1990) Intercontinental Cup (1989,1990) European Supercup (1989,1990) Supercoppa Italiana (1988,1992,1993)
Nationality – Dutch
Caps/Goals – (58/24)
National Honours – UEFA European Championship (1988)
Past Lessons in Calcio
Alessandro Del Piero
Marco van Basten