As the ball left Marco Van Basten’s foot in the 54th minute of the final of the European Championship in 1988, the debate was over. The greatest goal of all time had been scored and The Netherlands would be crowned the champions of Europe for the first, and so far only, time. Van Basten would be named player of the tournament and would finish top goal scorer in what was one of the great individual performances in football. Some simply remember Van Basten for THAT goal but he contributed so much more in a career that was cruelly cut short due to injury.
(Composure and technique – Eye on the ball at all time)
Marco Van Basten is arguably the greatest striker of all time but like another truly mercurial talent, Luis Ronaldo, he never got to fully express himself at his peak for as long as he should have. Officially retiring at 29 years old after a two year battle to regain fitness from an ankle injury, the world was robbed of seeing a maturing Van Basten. How would he have developed as he got older? Would he have evolved his game as his explosive play began to take its toll?
Van Basten had all the tools to perform at the very top level. Comfortable striking with both feet he was also a marvel in the air. His intelligence and ability to read the game allowed him to play in a variety of systems and attacking formations, not that Sacchi or Cappello changed much during those definitive Milan days but it did help with Holland, where Rinus Michels fully embraced the Total Football philosophy he originally helped define.
Dropping deep and helping to dictate play was just as natural to Van Basten as leading the line. The ability to find space and to maximise that space for the good of the team was a critical factor in how he played football. His ability to hit the target from a variety of different positions was a strength but not to the detriment of the team, as his ability to provide an assist was just as devastating as his ability to find the back of the net.
(Highlights Vision of Van Basten assisting Rijkaard in 1990 Cup Final
Van Basten was part of one of the true golden eras in Dutch Football. 1988 was a specifically special year for the Dutch with the success of the national team, PSV Eindhoven being crowned European Champions and a slew of incredibly talented individuals playing at the top level of European football. It was a spectacular year for Van Basten from a personal stand point as he would receive the first of three Ballon d’Or titles as well as going on, in the 1988/89 Season, to have arguably the best season of his career, Scoring 33 times in 47 games but more specifically 10 in the European Cup with 2 coming in the final against Steau Bucharest.
In the early to Mid-1990s, Serie A was the toughest and most tactically astute league in the world. It was jam-packed with the best and brightest from all over the world but with resolute defences and packed midfields. Creative players had to be truly world class to stand out in the Italian top flight at that time. The video below of a Milan derby shows just how physically tough it was in Serie A but also Van Basten’s versatility and determination.
(The power and precision as he bears down on the Inter goal is frightening)
Even the man that many saw as the natural successor to Van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp, struggled badly in Serie A. It wasn’t a great period for Inter but many have commented that Bergkamp didn’t have the mentality or strength of personality to deal with the pressures of life in Serie A. This highlights that success wasn’t just about technical fortitude but mental strength and determination.
When measuring the success of Van Basten it’s hard to fully quantify just what he achieved other than listing a succession of stats. However, to some extent, it could be measured against level of importance Milan attached to him compared to some of their other headline grabbing Dutch talent. Of the famous 3 Dutchmen at the club at the time, Van Basten was untouchable. Gullit found himself surplus to requirements at Milan and was moved on to Sampdoria, returning briefly but the re-association was fleeting. Rijkaard returned to Ajax where he would again be part of a European Cup winning team, ironically against AC Milan.
The reason for their departure? You could say Competition for places due to the ‘three foreigners’ rule or the fact they were both 30. The main reason? They weren’t INDISPENSABLE – Marco Van Basten was. So much so Milan stuck by him for two years while he tried to recover his destroyed ankle.
The stats above show just how prolific a striker Van Basten was in arguably one of the toughest and most technical leagues of all time. AC Milan begged him to reconsider retirement and to try and find new avenues for recovery because they knew how crucial he was and how irreplaceable he would end up being. Van Basten became the archetype for the modern day European striker and although there has been a plethora of exceptional strikers since, none have matched Van Basten full list of attributes.
The Van Basten legacy can be summed up in a lot of ways, a penchant for an overhead kick, match winning goals and assists but ultimately Van Basten played his part in the clamping down of dangerous tackles. Coming up to the 1994 World Cup it was clear Van Basten, photographed on crutches due to his shattered ankle, would miss the finals. At that time FIFA decided they needed to protect strikers from reckless tackles and Van Basten was consulted on the change personally.
While discussing the need for protection, Sepp Blatter made reference to the Dutch Striker personally ‘Marco van Basten is the most famous victim of such sabotage but, unfortunately, only one of many” Years of being clipped, stamped and viciously hacked had taken its toll on Van Basten’s ankles and the rule change would help but it was too little too late for the Dutch striker. (The tackle from behind would eventually be outlawed in 1998)
Marco Van Basten redefined forward play in his era with a natural ability that is rarely seen. Few have come close to matching what he achieved and who knows how many accolades he would have received if he’d had the opportunity to go on and have a full career. Van Basten was a big game footballer, excelling when the pressure of expectation was shining on him and therefore it’s fitting his last ever game was in a European Cup final. Not many players can say that.