The flying Dutchman

Marco van Basten was the greatest goalscorer of his generation. It wasn’t just that he scored lots of goals, what made him the most feared striker in world soccer was a rare ability to perform when it was most needed. Pressure seemed nothing to him. It brought out his best. It was Van Basten who scored one of the best goals seen in international competition. And the fact that it won the only football honour ever achieved by Holland is the true measure of his ability. It may well have been an omen that Van Basten was born on Halloween in 1964. For the boy from Utrecht grew up to struck terror into the heart of international defences. Not for nothing did he become known as “Marco Goalo”. The Van Basten story, like that of so many of his country’s great stars, began at Ajax who had spotted him playing with Elinkwijk. When he joined Ajax, as an 18-year-old, this famous club were struggling to regain the glory days of the Seventies when Cruyff set the standard with three successive European Cup wins. He made his international debut in the 1983 World Youth Cup, but his instinctive brilliance was undermined by a vulnerability to injury that was to plague him and ultimately ruin his career.

By 1986 he was the top marksman in Europe, winning the European Golden Boot award. With Van Basten leading their attack, Ajax lifted two Dutch Championships, two Dutch Cups and the European Cup Winners’ Cup. That Cup Winners’ Cup victory, against Dynamo Dresden, was van Basten’s last game for Ajax. He had scored 128 league goals in just 143 games at an unprecedented strike rate. The following season he joined AC Milan. Berlusconi invested £20 million in the club, and some of that money was spent on Van Basten, Gullit and Rijkaard. He also brought in leading coach Arrigo Sacchi, who was later in charge of the Italian national team during Euro 96. It was feared, at first, that he might miss the European Championships due to an injury, but not only was he the tournament’s leading scorer, he was voted World Footballer of the Year, just ahead of Gullit and Rijkaard - an unprecedented sweep of the honours by players from the same club and country. That autumn, at Milan, Van Basten played some of the best football of his life. He scored 13 goals in 15 games against the tightest defences in club football. It was a remarkable run, but van Basten then had to endure two more operations on his damaged ankle. The condition of his injury was becoming chronic.

Van Basten spent two years trying to overcome his injuries but in the end he had to face the inevitable, announcing his retirement in August 1995. He had scored 90 goals in 147 games for Milan, twice being the leading marksman in Serie A, and had set a European Cup record of 18 goals in 23 matches for the club. Van Basten had had it all. He was graceful, yet powerful, two-footed with tremendous close control, and was quick on the turn and supreme in the air.