Marco van Basten, scorer of one of football’s greatest volleys and owner of one of the coolest Dutch names in football. A striker that never had an off-season, yet only played 281 games in his career. He was a two-club man, only playing for Ajax and AC Milan, and a rangy figure, standing 6 feet and 2 inches tall.
Despite his height, he played with the grace and elegance of Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze making pottery. He was dubbed ‘the Swan of Utrecht’, his play style reminiscent of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake with his first touch surely inspiring much of the ballet’s routine.
Van Basten is comfortably one of my favourite strikers of the 90s, and in a lot of ways paved the way for attackers of similar ilk. Names such as Bergkamp and Van Persie come to mind, with the former heavily influenced by the striker, as Bergkamp was just breaking into the Ajax team in Van Basten’s final season there.
Van Basten’s was a glittering career, cut short in his prime, the flying Dutchmen retiring aged just 28, yet won 3 Ballon d’Or awards.
Marco van Basten was born on October 31, 1964, in Utrecht, Netherlands, beginning his foray into football at just 6, signing for a local side in the Oog In Al area of Utrecht.
A year later he was scouted for the Utrecht side, where he spent the rest of his formative years.
Despite being Utrecht born and raised, his professional career was launched at Ajax; signed at 16 he was marked as destined for great things early on. This was all but proven later the same season, as he was subbed on for Johan Cruyff at only 17 years old, scoring a debut goal and alerting all of The Netherlands to his existence.
The country took note, just a year later he had earnt his first cap for a Dutch national side filled with young talent, such as Ruud Gullit, Ronaldo Koeman and Frank Riijkaard.
Just 2 seasons after making his debut, at 20 he had cemented himself as Ajax’s main striker, finishing as top scorer in 4 consecutive seasons, from 1983-84 to 1986-87.
Following this remarkable form, ‘the Swan of Utrecht’ took flight to Milan, a culture famed for its elegance, hoping to do what many had failed in replicating his form in the fiercely competitive Serie A.
Migrating to Milan
Fittingly, Van Basten took to the Serie A like a Swan to water. His exceptional technique, exquisite touch, and clinical finishing were still among the best in the world in more competitive waters. His elegance on the ball and ability to score from any angle or position made him one of the most lethal strikers of his era. Even with a serious ankle injury that needed an operation.
In 1987 he’d the step up to the league that all great players at the time were moving to. The Serie A. Van Basten struggled in his first season, due to his injury in March of 1986. However, come 1988 he was firing on all cylinders, his first year simply a chance to soak in Italian football.
No more exemplified by THAT volley against the Soviet Union in Euro 1988, the world stood up and took notice following such a special striker, as 1988 culminated in his first Ballon d’Or. In 1989 he won his second. Unbelievably, he still had room to grow.
By 1992 Van Basten hit his peak…
A 3rd Ballon d’Or in 4 years
At 27, Van Basten started the year on fire, easily on course to smash his measly 11 league goals the prior season, as he scored 9 before January. It was already a good return and a sign of the player bouncing back after a tough season.
Little did anyone, not even ‘The Swan’ himself realise that as soon as the new year came around, something changed inside Van Basten. He was a different beast as if he knew his career could be coming to an end soon.
The rest of the season would be the stage for an insatiable Van Basten. The first few months of the season, he hadn’t managed more than one goal in a match, but as soon as the year rolled over to 92, He’d score 3 hat tricks in 2 months, making the difference in a 4-1 win vs Calgiari, and 3-1 wins against Foggia and Atalanta respectively.
Milan went the whole 91-92 season unbeaten, as they won the league, thanks to Van Basten’s 25 League goals. But, at the 1992 European Championships, Van Basten looked unlike his usual self. He failed to score in any of the Netherlands games in their Semi-Final run, even missing the only penalty in the shootout against Denmark, as The Netherlands suffered at the hands of the eventual winners.
But, those who had begun to harbour doubts about the striker were abruptly proved wrong, as the 1992-93 started, Van Basten seemed as good as ever. A hat-trick in his second game, which was a 5-4 thriller vs Pescara, as he followed that with 5 in his next 3, including two braces in 7-3 and 5-3 wins against Fiorentina and Lazio.
As much as the start to this season sounds right out of a FIFA game, Milan were just really good at scoring goals and playing expansive exciting football, which occasionally resulted in Milan shipping a few themselves.
Van Basten however, managed to add another 4 to his tally just before the year was out, all of them coming against Napoli, this time in a 5-1 win. With 28 league goals in the calendar year, despite missing games here and there, his crowning as a 3-time winner, matching Platini was given.
His club form was just too good to compete with. Diego Maradona once called him ‘the best player he’d seen’ alongside Brazilian Romário. Winning in the voting process by 18 points, as he bested future winner Hristo Stoichkov, and Dutch teammate Dennis Bergkamp who rounded out the top three, Van Basten was on top of football.
Unbeknownst to his beaming admirers, all was not as good as it seemed.
An Aftermath of Years of Discomfort
That ankle injury he’d had taken care of years prior had slowly become more and more of an issue, with Van Basten playing through discomfort for some time, before the pain finally got too much. He’d undergo another ankle operation, which was intended to put him out for just 3 or 4 weeks. A nightmare for a striker itching to play, but a necessity nonetheless.
Those 3 or so weeks turned into 5 months…
Upon his return to the league in 1993 he was understandably off the pace, but still managed a goal in a 3-1 win against League strugglers Ancona.
There was something to be thankful for, however, as Van Basten was back for the Champions League final vs Marseille. He’d even missed the league games leading up to the final, as his ankle pain flared up again, but he would manage to make it onto the pitch.
He’d last a full 85 minutes, but in truth, as much as I’d like to paint his final game as a brave and heroic performance, he was playing far below his capability It was certainly brave, but Milan were playing with a Van Basten at 50% of his powers, for the sake of victory, Capello would have, in hindsight of course, been smarter to play a backup.
In the end, Van Basten would never recover. There were attempted last-gasp measures to try to save his career, but they wouldn’t take.
At the age of 28, Van Basten retired, despite winning a Ballon d’Or just half a year ago. Van Basten wouldn’t blame the tackle that injured him in 86, nor the multitude of fouls, kicks and nicks he’d receive as a skilful player. He’d blame the countless surgery.
In football, it was to get better asap and do everything to speed recovery up. This, in Van Basten’s case, only served to worsen his chances of a full recovery.
An abrupt end, that to Van Basten was a long time coming, his elegant playstyle, combined with his tenacity and poise will always be remembered. But one can’t help but ask ‘What if?’. At 28 years old, there was so much more to come, and having won 3 Ballon d’Or in just 4 years, there’s every chance he could be rivalling Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi in Ballon d’Or victories.
Ballon d’Or 1992 Top 20:
|Marco van Basten
|1. FC Köln