Van Basten would have shattered records without injuries

John Nicholson

Marco van Basten achieved a ludicrous amount in a relatively short career. The Dutchman was a distant, exotic, orange superstar.


Who’s this then?
Marcel van Basten is now 56 years old and was a 6ft 3ins Dutch striker who had a relatively short, 12-season, injury-blighted career playing for just two clubs: Ajax and Milan. Since retiring he’s managed the Netherlands, Ajax, AZ Alkmaar and Heerenveen.

‘The Swan of Utrecht’ was a great goalscorer, his record of 277 goals in just 373 club games reflecting his status as one of the best strikers of his generation. And 24 in 58 for Holland backs that up.

With Ajax he won three Eredivisie titles and four cups including the 1986/87 Cup Winners Cup. In total he scored a magic 128 goals in 133 league matches for Ajax

After six seasons in Amsterdam, he moved to a fantastic Milan side in 1987 and in doing so won a whole host of titles including three European Cups in 1989, 1990 and 1994, four Serie A titles in 1988, 1992, 1993 and 1994, four Supercoppas Italiana in 1988, 1992, 1993 and 1994, three European Super Cups in 1989, 1990, and 1994 and two Intercontinental Cups in 1989 and 1990.

Twice he was Serie A capocannoniere and he was a three-time Ballon d’Or winner, taking the prize in 1988, 1989 and 1992. Only Those Two have won it more often. And he also won the 1988 European Championship with Holland, famously scoring a hat-trick against a woeful England side that was full of jingoistically overrated players along the way. Incredibly, scored 51 penalties out of 54. His 94.44% success rate was the third highest in history, behind only Matthew Le Tissier and Cuauhtémoc Blanco.

Were it not for those persistent injuries which forced him to retire aged only 28, he would’ve gone on to break every record in the book. Almost every coach he worked with – and most players he went up against – said he was the best of all time, from Fabio Capello to Arrigo Sacchi to Diego Maradona, Hernan Crespo and Tony Adams. The Arsenal legend once memorably said:

“He’s the quickest 6ft 3ins centre-forward I’ve ever seen! Just awesome. He was as quick as Ian Wright, as good in the air as Joe Jordan and he held the ball up better than Alan Smith. I put him in front of Maradona. Technically, Maradona was brilliant and he had amazing feet, but Van Basten could head, volley – he had power and strength.”

Since retiring, his management career has been less successful. His first job as boss was of the national side, which was a controversial appointment. He had four years in charge, losing only six games but being beaten in the last 16 of the 2006 World Cup and the quarter-final of the 2008 Euros. From there he took over Ajax but resigned after less than a year due to being no good. Three years later he had a go as boss of Heerenveen for a couple of seasons but again, wasn’t any good. Then he did a few months at AZ but had to quit due to health issues around stress and mental well-being. He went to do some coaching at national level, but it doesn’t seem as if management is his gig at all. By 2018 he had taken a seat on the FIFA gravy train as something called a technical director.


Why the love?
He did this: one of football’s finest ever moments.

And that’s good enough in and of itself to guarantee he will live on in the heart and minds of all football fans forever. Even his wiley old boss Rinus Michels looks absolutely blown away after this strike. To have the vision, the technique and the confidence to hit that ball from that angle is, all in one move, a moment of absolute genius.

It’s hard to think that it’s not far short of 30 years since he retired. The fact his name lives on in such high regard shows just what a long shadow his reputation, established in little more than a decade, still casts. Unusually for a tall striker, he was elegant and not in the least bit coltish or leggy. Quick and with great ball control, as well as agile and athletic, he really did have it all.

Of course, in the UK we only really saw him play in international tournaments, in European finals and a little bit of Serie A at the end of his time, so he remained a distant exotic orange glow. This is one of the reasons our affections for such players lives on. We were never over-exposed to them. They remained iconic and were held in a romantic sort of aspic. There was no watching them trudge through a 10-game loss of form in a wet November to dilute our enjoyment and admiration of them.

Many fans’ first exposure to him was as part of that magnificent 1988 Dutch team which bossed the Euros and took England apart. They were just so good. Both hugely creative and ruthless, they made England look leaden. I’ve always thought that the fact Holland played in orange made them somehow special. As any Theravada Buddhist knows, orange has a special quality and a uniquely positive vibe, without the aggression of red but with more heft and grit than yellow.

It’s also important to realise that in the ’80s and early ’90s we did not talk about money very much, if at all. We didn’t talk about transfer fees or wages. This may seem hard to believe to anyone who has grown up under the financial tyranny and propaganda of the Premier League and global capitalism’s parasitisation of football, but it is perfectly true. We talked about football and players and we talked about how teams played and we had a laugh. Football was not such a serious business as it has become. So MVB is not tainted in our minds by vast amounts of filthy lucre the way greedier players like Lionel Messi and CR7 are. Life is better for this. It helps us see the person rather than the glorified, grotesquely remunerated icon.

He is also a great reference point to counterbalance those who push the notion that football in the ’80s and early ’90s was all kick and rush brutalism. It wasn’t. That is merely more propaganda spread by those who benefit from the current power and financial structures to encourage us to believe it is now a superior product and thus worth paying for. It’s a con job.

Van Basten was as exciting and dynamic a striker as ever walked on a football pitch. However, his repeated injuries, especially via tackles from behind, did contribute to a reconsideration of the laws of the game to protect players from the worst assaults. Of course, this has now been taken too far, virtually outlawing physicality of any sort, but the original intentions – to stop players stamping on someone’s Achilles in return for a yellow card – were good.

I am of the firm belief that a footballer only needs one moment of utter brilliance to make their reputation in the collective football mind. Maybe Marco is the very best example of that. He is far, far more than that strike against USSR, far more, but had he only done that, that would be enough.


What the people love
If you’re under 40, you probably recall little of seeing him play, but everyone of any age knows about THAT goal and that drove a lot of responses this week  We start with a delicious 4_4_haiku:

‘He was so good I seem to somehow remember his career despite only seeing him play about 10 times and only being 12 when he retired.’

‘That goal. Pure football joy – like something from a film. Wow.’

‘The perfect front man. Power combined with precision. Scored every kind of goal but often had that star quality of saving spectacular goals for the big occasions. Lit up Euro 88…hat trick vs England, the winner in the semi and THAT goal in the final.’

‘Clinical stiker and that was some Milan side yet he always had the look of a man trying to divide 500 by 13 ( doffs hat to Joey Tribiani acting tips).’

‘He made everything look easy, the highest compliment I can pay him is that he was better than Bergkamp, euro 88 was brilliant, England were appalling, but I didn’t care, I got to watch MVB.  Euro 88 was his tournament, he was brilliant, as was his nickname, the Swan of Utrecht.’

‘Wish the tackle from behind had been outlawed sooner because that was what shorted his career the most. A majestic player. World class.’

‘I ran home from school in June 88 and witnessed a master at work against England. And then the goal against USSR in the final. A goal scoring legend for Ajax and AC Milan and the Dutch national side. Poetry in motion when the ball would leave his foot going towards goal.’

‘The funny thing is that he didn’t start the tournament (Euro 88) as Bosman started ahead of him.’

‘My biggest regret is that I never really watched him play. He was just about finished by the time I was old enough to switch onto football. I wish I’d seen more of him. Many believe him to be the greatest #9 to have played the game.’

‘Watching him play for Milan on Channel 4 on a Sunday afternoon is one of my earliest football memories. They were a special team and he was the jewel in the crown.’

‘I used to work with an Ajax fan who absolutely worshipped Van Basten. He was from the same town in the Netherlands as MVB, where Van Basten’s nickname was “The Swan of Utrecht.’

‘And, of course, pretty much having Tony Adams on toast at Euro 88. Adams recovered from that, to his immense credit, but many defenders might not have done.’

‘OMG…Van Basten! The prime centre forward of his generation…Delivered in big games: CWC final – scored the winner. Euro 88 final – scored a worldie. European Cup Final 89 – scored two. A pure No. 9. Shame about the injuries.’

‘Van Basten was a “Rolls Royce” of a striker. Perhaps the greatest goal scorer ever. Everyone remembers his goal in the Euro 88 Final, but his hatrick against England in the same tournament was a masterclass of clinical finishing. Incredibly, he never scored in the World Cup!’

‘As a 14 year old boy I remember being awestruck by that goal in the Euros. Just seemed to defy the capabilities of humans.’

‘His completeness as a striker was not the goals we remember but the Linekeresque greediness and absence of shame at scoring incredibly mundane goals. For that reason, the only way to stop him was to foul him. And the only question mark against the greatness of his team-mates Baresi and Maldini is that they had the huge advantage of never having to defend in public against Marco van Basten.’

‘In 92, Serie A was on Channel 4, I remember watching AC Milan play Lazio when Gazza was in his prime…..Lazio were 2-0 down fairly early but playing brilliantly, but everytime they got within a goal of Milan MVB ran at their defence, winning and scoring 2 pens – finished 5-3.’

‘If he’d been a bit older, and dominating Europe in the early 80s before we started pretending European competitions didn’t exist, or a bit younger and had been at his peak during Football Italia, would get the same reverence here as Ronaldo 1. An incredible footballer.’

‘Feet made of pure silk (which perhaps explains the problematic ankles).’

‘I think he was the player most influential in the change of laws on tackling. The infamous Basile Boli challenge is now a thing of the past – thank God.’

‘Van Basten was a standout in a team of stars that will go down as one of the greatest club teams ever. The benchmark for modern strikers.’


Three great moments
A wonderful overhead kick:


Tearing England apart (plus a classic Bryan Robson goal):


Proof that great football did not start in 1992:


Future days
Like so many players I document in this column, he hasn’t got near matching his playing career by moving into management. That so many keep trying this route is testament to the addictive elements to the game. However, he does seem to have now accepted it is not his calling.

It must be very difficult to know what to do with yourself when you retire from the game aged 28 and you made your big life statement in your mid-20s. With 60 years left on the clock, you must feel a little in the shadow of your own achievements. Most of us progress through life perhaps thinking or dreaming of great glories ahead. But for a player like MVB he must know that’s not going to happen and that in a split second against the USSR his life’s peak achievement happened.

Leef goed, Marco. Voor altijd in schitterend oranje.