If Johan Cruyff was the king of Dutch football, then Marco van Basten was heir to his throne. Named European Footballer of the Year three times (1988, ‘89 and ‘92) and FIFA World Player of the Year in 1992, Van Basten’s goals for Ajax, A.C. Milan and the Dutch national team still rank among the best that’s ever been seen on a football pitch.
17 August 1995. 30 year-old Marco van Basten, wearing jeans, a pink shirt and brown leather jacket, waves goodbye to the A.C. Milan fans in San Siro. He has decided to stop playing football. As early as 1987, his first season in Milan, Van Basten had to undergo surgery on his right ankle. This injury continued to haunt him. Another series of operations between 1992 an 1994 couldn’t make up for the damage done: Van Basten’s farewell had become inevitable.
In 280 matches for Ajax and A.C. Milan, Van Basten made 218 goals, and 24 more in 58 caps for the Dutch national team. Some of them still rank among the best that’s ever been seen on a football pitch, others are simply testament to Van Basten’s sublime skills, strength and football intelligence. Together, they tell the story of an extraordinary career that ended way too early.
The young Van Basten
On 3 April 1982, Van Basten makes his debut for Ajax. The 17 year-old forward replaces Johan Cruyff, who has returned to Amsterdam after his years in Spain and the United States. He immediately scores his first goal. In the five seasons thereafter, Van Basten’s stats grow more and more impressive. And many of his goals are of an exceptionally high level.
Ajax 5-2 Volendam • Dutch Eredivisie • 27/3/1985 • Stadion De Meer, Amsterdam • Goal: 77’
In March 1985, Ajax receives Volendam in Stadion De Meer in Amsterdam. With fifteen minutes left to play, the latter head coach of the Belgian national team Walter Meeuws passes the ball to Van Basten, who has already scored three times this afternoon. He dodges the first Volendammer, fools the second with a step over and then chips the ball in the right upper corner, leaving the players in orange baffled and defeated.
Ajax 3-1 FC Den Bosch • Eredivisie • 9/9/1986 • Stadion De Meer, Amsterdam • Goal: 71’
Ajax leads 2 to 1. They need a goal to make sure FC Den Bosch doesn’t get ideas. Slowly but surely, Frank Rijkaard and John van ‘t Schip move forward. Van ‘t Schip gets the ball to Jan Wouters on the right. He doesn’t think twice and sends it into the penalty area. Van Basten, with his back to the goal, takes some steps sideways and leaps up for what turns out to be a perfect bicycle kick. In 2010, Van Basten’s far from lucky shot was named the third most beautiful Ajax goal of all time, right behind Rafael van der Vaart’s bizarre backheel goal (2) against Feyenoord in 2003 and Zlatan Ibrahimovic’ famous slalom against NAC in 2004 (1).
Van Basten in ‘88
Van Basten makes his debut for the Dutch national team on 7 September 1983 against Iceland. Two weeks later, against Belgium, he scores his first goal. 23 more would follow in the years to come, including five very important goals at Euro 1988.
England 1-3 The Netherlands • Euro 1988 • 15/6/1988 • Rheinstadion, Düsseldorf • Goal: 44’
Three days earlier, the Netherlands have lost against the Soviet Union: 0-1. ‘Oranje’ needs a win to keep the dream – taking the cup home – alive. England needs to win as well, after losing to Ireland. Dutch head coach Rinus Michels puts his faith in Van Basten, who didn’t play in the first match. It’s nearly half-time when Ruud Gullit passes the ball into the penalty area with the outside of his right foot. Van Basten controls it, turns and takes the ball with him towards the goal. He barely has enough time to shoot, and does so falling onto the German grass. It would be his first of three goals that evening in Düsseldorf.
West Germany 1-2 The Netherlands • Euro 1988 • 21/6/1988 • Volksparkstadion, Hamburg • Goal: 88’
Same tournament, higher stakes. After winning 0-1 against Ireland, the Netherlands has reached the semi-finals. The opponent is West Germany. The Germans take the lead; captain Lothar Matthäus scores from the penalty mark. Twenty minutes later, Ronald Koeman does the same for the Netherlands. The referee’s decision to award a penalty is dubious in both cases. As the game progresses, Oranje is putting more and more pressure on the German defence. “If we ever had a chance to beat Germany, this is it,” Van Basten tells his teammates. With only a couple of minutes left to play, the striker gets a through ball from – there he is again – Jan Wouters. Without hesitation, Van Basten slides towards the ball and manages to send it past German goalie Eike Immel in the left bottom corner.
The Netherlands 2-0 Soviet Union • Euro 1988 • 25/6/1988 • Olympiastadion, München • Goal: 54’
After losing against the Soviet Union in the group stage, the Netherlands is looking for revenge. Which they get – and man, is it sweet. After 32 minutes “the bowl of orange in Münich comes alive,” as an English commentator puts it, when Ruud Gullit heads the ball past Rinat Dasayev with incredible force. The real magic is yet to happen, though. Ten minutes after half-time, 37 year-old Dutch midfielder Arnold Mühren provides a cross that seems hopeless. It’s too high, too far away from the goal. An impossible angle. But not for Van Basten. With his right foot, he volleys the ball in the far left corner – to his own surprise, it seems from his reaction. With his goal, Van Basten is responsible for one of the most memorable moments of football history. (Side note: Last year, Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema did something similar against Osasuna.)
Van Basten in Milan
Van Basten’s first season in Milan, 1987/1988, is overshadowed by an ankle injury. He scores in his first appearance for i Rossoneri, against Pisa, but has to undergo surgery shortly thereafter. It’s a false start that nonetheless proves to be the prelude to five successful seasons in which Van Basten scores 87 goals in the Italian Serie A and eighteen goals in the European Champions Cup.
Real Madrid 1-1 A.C. Milan • European Champions Cup (Champions League since 1992) • 5/4/1989 • Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, Madrid • Goal: 77’
A.C. Milan has reached the semi-finals of the European Champions Cup. Hugo Sanchez opens the score for Real Madrid. In the 77th minute, Van Basten raises his hand. He wants to receive the ball behind his Madrilenian defender. The mediocre cross falls short. Van Basten, forced to make the best of the situation, rapidly gets in front of his guard and dives down and a bit backwards to send the ball into the right upper corner. It hits the crossbar and bounces on the unlucky goalkeeper’s back, into the goal. You won’t find the result of Van Basten’s acrobatics lesson in his career statistics; the goal was marked as an own goal by Paco Buyo.
Pescara 4-5 A.C. Milan • Italian Serie A • 13/9/1992 • Stadio Adriatico, Pescara • Goal: 39’
In 1992, Van Basten is named both European Footballer of the Year and FIFA World Player of the Year. Despite his ankle, he excels in the first part of the 1992/1993 season, making twelve goals. Of the three beauties against Pescara, the second one showcases Van Basten’s many skills (2:07). His acceleration, the way he controls the ball, his solid finish – it’s all very graceful and confident. In the second half, the Dutchman scores the winning goal by effortlessly chipping the ball over the incoming goalkeeper.
Fiorentina 3-7 A.C. Milan • Serie A • 4/10/1992 • Stadio Artemio Franchi, Florence • Goal: 90’
A.C. Milan is on a roll. They’ve won the three preceding games, including the one against Pescara. Fiorentina has already given up hope when Van Basten controls a tight pass from the right and gets the ball in position to shoot it past the unfortunate goalie (1:34).
Napoli 1-5 A.C. Milan • Serie A • 8/11/1992 • Stadio San Paolo, Napels • Goal: 69’
It’s Van Basten’s third of four goals, all equally smart or responding to miscommunications between Napoli players. While the opponent is grouped together after a free kick is given to A.C. Milan, Van Basten quickly passes the ball to a fellow Rossenero, who in turn passes it back to Van Basten (4:00). His goal is slightly reminiscent of Johan Cruyff’s famous penalty against Helmond Sport in 1982.
A.C. Milan 4-0 IFK Göteborg • Champions League • 25/11/1992 • San Siro, Milan • Goal: 61’
In their ‘Top 10 famous bicycle kick goals’ Goal.com notes:
Mexes’ effort was far from the first of its kind by a Milan player in the Champions League, with Van Basten netting an unforgettable version himself in 1992. Stefano Eranio’s cross seemed to be harmless as it forced the Dutch master to retreat, but his reaction was to swivel with great grace and poise and send the ball flying into the net.
Van Basten became the first player to score four goals in a Champions League match. A record that was bettered twenty years later, when Lionel Messi scored five goals against Bayer Leverkusen.
The beginning of the end
In December 1992, Van Basten undergoes surgery. He recovers and plays the Champions League final against Olympique Marseille, which Milan looses – and sends the Dutch striker back to the hospital for more surgery. It’s a lost cause. Van Basten’s right ankle prevents him from doing the thing he does best. ♦