When Robin van Persie top-scored for Arsenal with thirty league goals last season, at the age of twenty eight, he received plaudits from all around the world and almost single-handedly carried the Gunners to a respectable third-place finish in the premier league in the process earning himself a transfer to one of the best football clubs in the world at the moment: Manchester United. Yet again he has picked up from where he left last season and some have predicted that the Dutchman is only going to get better with age.
Yet, this number twenty eight rings a bell somewhere inside, reminding me of a great Dutch striker of his era, someone who was for a good six years the most feared striker in Europe, someone who finally helped bring his country glory at Europe’s biggest stage, someone who was the youngest recipient of three Ballon d’Or’s during his time, someone who did all this and retired at the age of twenty eight.
Marco van Basten, the ‘forgotten’ striker, the absolute gem of Dutch football has often not received the recognition he so deserves. Marco grew up in Utrecht and learned his football on the streets and grew up to join one of the best footballing institutions in the country, Ajax. He shared the same dressing room as Johan Cruijff, Ronald Koeman and Frank Riijkard. In fact his first Ajax appearance was as a substitute for Cruijff and ten minutes into the match, he had already scored his first goal for Ajax, that was it, the path which lead to the fulfilment of his potential had chartered on and in years to come he went from strength to strength at Ajax. Van Basten was the top scorer in the Dutch league from ‘83-‘87 amassing an astonishing 117 goals in 112 matches and scored a whopping 37 goals from 26 matches in the 85-86 season which included smashing six against Sparta Rotterdam. The crowning moment of his stay at Ajax came when he scored the winner for Ajax in the European cup winner’s cup against Lokomotiv Leipzig, something he still cherishes as it was his first taste of continental glory.
The world was beginning to take notice and Van Basten had outgrown Ajax, time was ripe to move to someplace bigger and better and in came AC Milan in 1987. At Milan, Van Basten did not hit it big from the go, as he was troubled with ankle injuries in his first season at the club. He slowly found his rhythm and soon there was no stopping the man from UVV Utrecht as he became a quintessential part of the Milan forward-line along with fellow Dutchman Ruud Gullit and Frank Riijkard under legendary manager Arrigo Sachhi. He won the Ballon d’Or the following season along with the first of his European Cups scoring two goals in a 4-0 demolition of Steaua Bucaresti at the Camp Nou, a match which had more than 80,000 Milan supporters turn the stadium red and black with flame prior to kick-off. He top scored with ten goals in the tournament. He became Capocannoniere (SerieA’s leading goal scorer) the next season with 25 goals and was instrumental in Milan defending their European crown against Benfica in the final, they are to date the last team to successfully defend their European Cup win and for this he earned his second Ballon d’Or.
They say a footballer is presented the status of a ‘legend’ if he can bring glory to his country at the biggest stage and once again Marco was at the centre of things to help the Dutch win their first ever major trophy at the 1988 Euros in Germany and the win was made sweater owing to the fact that they defeated bitter rivals Germany in the semi-finals. Van Basten top scored the tournament with five goals. In a group game against England when the world expected John Barnes to take the world by surprise, it was van Basten who scored a hat-trick and outshone everybody to the point that Barnes later himself admitted that he really was one of the best footballer in the world at that time.
In the finals against the USSR, a team who had previously defeated them in a group game, Van Basten scored his ‘ghost’ goal, whereby he smashed a perfect volley from the right hand side of the penalty box from a nearly impossibly angle. The goal is best described by his fellow team-mate Ruud Gullit’s words :-
Football has been glittered with iconic moments through the years, well that was certainly his. His form continued with AC Milan and his importance to the team was highlighted by the fact that after he fell out with manager Sachhi and Milan lost the ’89-90 Scudetto to Sampdoria, Owner Silvio Berlusconi sacked Sachhi and replaced him with a young Fabio Capello who returned the Rossoneri to winning ways when they won the ‘90-91 league unbeaten with Van Basten scoring twenty-five goals and earned another Capocannoniere.
In November 1992, he became the first player to score four goals in a Champions League match and later that year was awarded with his third Ballon d’Or etching his name alongside greats such as Cruijff and Platini. He was twenty eight and the youngest of the three to win three Ballon d’Or’s. That was however his last hurrah when it came to football. Thereby started his long and sad affair with his ankle problem, the injury was making it tough for him to compete at the highest level and after visiting the best doctors in Barcelona ,Amsterdam, Milan and after numerous surgeries he finally decided to hang his footballing boots. For a guy whose every little joy in life had been somewhere or the other related to football, this was tough to take. It still saddens me even to this day as to how he would have enthralled us all even more had he had a career span of that of Giggs or maybe Makelele.
Ronald Koeman once described him as a selfish footballer who was nice off the field but a little less than rude on it and who was very focussed on his objectives in life. Every great footballer has been selfish at some point in their career, else they would not have been where they are and so was the case with Van Basten. The only thing which made his career incomplete was his inability to never score in a World Cup finals.
So, this past Sunday when I saw Van Persie score the injury-time winner against City in the Manchester derby and people say as to how great he has become with time, I could only laugh at the thought and I realized that had they ever seen van Basten in his prime and what all he had achieved by the time he turned twenty eight van Persie would not have even deserved a second glance from many. Maybe van Persie can take heart part from the fact that many pundits consider his game to be similar to van Basten.
Marco van Basten is currently the manager of the Dutch Eredivise side Herenveen after not so successful stints with Ajax and the Holland national team, whatever he may achieve in his life as a Manager from here on might be irrelevant compared to what he achieved on the pitch as a player and it is safe to say that he will always be a pleasant reminder of an outstanding talent and a sad reminder of what might have been.
‘He was the most beautiful striker I had ever seen, He had an elegance to him and could do almost anything with the ball at his feet’- Mauro Tassotti (Milan 1980-97)
‘He could score goals in any possible way. Spectacular goals, tap-ins,individual goals, he was the complete footballer and the best player I ever played with.’- Demetrio Albertini (Milan 1988-2002)
‘It was hard to find a quality that he did not possess as a footballer’- Filippo Galli ( Milan 1983-96)
“ It was a pity, I could not continue more, It was just bad luck. But in the end I’m happy for all the nice experiences I had as a footballer adn for the things I achieved with Milan and Ajax” – Marco Van Basten.
‘I had a son who was a top player, what more could you ask for?”- Joop van Basten (his Dad)