Sunday, June 17, 2007

On Football - No. 10: Marco van Basten

Marco van Basten is one of the greatest players Holland has ever produced. He may even be the second greatest, after Johan Crujiff. Consider the quality of footballers who have come from such a small country over the last 40 years, and van Basten's own stature as a player becomes apparent: Johan Neeskens, Ruud Guillet, Frank Rijkaard, Ronald Koeman, Johhny Rep, Wim Kieft, Denis Bergkamp, Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Arnold Muhren, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Patrick Kluivert, the deBoer brothers and Arie Haan. Marco van Basten was better than any of them. He was the best goalscorer of his generation, not just in terms of his actual goalscoring record - altough with 276 goals scored in 338 games, that is undeniably impressive -but also in terms of his skill level. I could end this post with just this clip, because it makes my argument perfectly:

That goal was scored in the Final of Euro 88, and it was the goal of the tournament. To strike the ball so perfectly - it arcs right over the keepers head and into the side netting at great pace - from that angle, when it has come from over the shoulder, with a defender bearing down on him, and in such a big game, shows van Basten's class and confidence. But then, he's Dutch, brought to Ajax Amsterdam and their famous football academy from his home in Utrecht in 1981 at the age of 17. Ajax train their youth teams the Dutch way. This means that while they train every day, working on technique and fitness and skill, they are also educated in tactics and the more scientific areas of football. "Total football", the Dutch school of thought from the 1970s, survives today in an updated form - players are brought up able to play in every position, giving them an insight into how that position needs to be played and how it can best be utilised. The result has been a few generations of players who understand what is happening on the pitch, are capable of analyzing why it is happening, and are unafraid of sharing their opinion about it. This has led to the many Dutch squad implosions and walkouts and arguments over the years which have played their part in the fact that Holland has never won the World Cup. Van Basten himself has stated that the most common words in a Dutch dressing room, uttered by every player after a word from the coach, are "Yes, but..."

While it may generate divisions, the Dutch means of developing players also fosters confidence in those players. The Dutch have never been afraid of expressing themselves on the pitch. Indeed, of all the Northern European nations, they undoubtedly play with the most elan and conspicuous skill - it has been part of the football culture of the Netherlands since the 1960s, and all of Holland's great teams and achievements have been based around it, from Crujiff's Ajax and International teams in the 70s to the 88 team of Guillet-Koeman-Rijkaard and van Basten to Louis van Gaal's Ajax in 1995. In the European game, perhaps only Portugal and France have consistently played with a comparably attacking, entertaining style. But the Dutch have done it their way, basing their football rigorously on their own principals and deliberately allowing that to influence the way the game is played all over the country. Players like van Basten are the result. As a striker, he could do it all. He was big and blessed with superb upper body strength, meaning that he could hold the ball up as well as any forward of his generation. He was tall, had a great sense of timing and positioning, and possessed a good leap, meaning that he scored lots of headers:

This outrageous finish, against Real Madrid, is a display of amazing control and power for a header. He manages to put it right in the top corner too:

But unlike many physical target men, he had sublime skill, too, allied with a great agility that was possibly the legacy of his childhood love of gymnastics. He uses both for this goal, somehow managing to clip the post with the shot, leaving the goalkeeper utterly motionless:

He could dribble too, was good with both feet, linked the play skillfully and creatively, and his ability to glide onto through balls was probably his greatest strength. That and the aforementioned confidence, which meant that he was a Big Game player, scoring goals in Finals and key games throughout his successful career. He scored in the European Cup final and the European Championship Final. But then he scored in so many of his games and so many of those goals were classic centre forward play, but he always seemed capable of picking his spot, and crucially, he always made it look so easy, and so simple :

All of those clips demonstrate his supreme elegance - he did everything stylishly. His range of talents and awareness suggested that he might have matured into a playmaker as he aged, but his career was cut short by a recurring injury at the age of 28. Still, his achievements are legion, and awesome. Beginning at Ajax, where he made his debut as a substitute for the legendary Crujiff in 1982, in a moment heavy with symbolism. Of course, he scored. He went on to score 28 goals in 26 matches in the 1983-84 season. Crujiff introduced him to the then-coach of Inter Milan as "the new Crujiff", which is incredibly strong praise from a man who never underestimated his own gifts. In 1986, van Basten won the Golden Boot as Europe's top scorer with 36 goals, a tally which attracted the attention of AC Milan. He moved there in 1987, having scored 128 goals in 143 games for Ajax to help win two Dutch Championships, two Dutch Cups and one Cup Winners Cup.

More trophies would follow at Milan, where he was the tip of the awesome spine of what is one of the indisputably great teams in the last 3 decades of European football. Behind him, Van Basten had the incomparable Franco Baresi at centre back and Ruud Guillit in midfield, alongside the likes of Frank Rijkaard, Roberto Donadoni, Alessandro Costacurta and Paolo Maldini. Milan won the Italian title in his first season, but van Basten missed all but eleven games, troubled by the ankle injury that would ultimately end his career. He was included in the Dutch squad for Euro 88 but was not in the first team.
In that tournament, Holland found themselves in the "Group of Death" alongside England, the USSR and Ireland. Holland lost their first game, 1-0 in a tight struggle against a difficult Soviet team. Van Basten made his impact in the second game for the Dutch, when they faced England, both teams needing a win after losing their first game. He scored a hat-trick and more or less utterly humiliated Tony Adams in the process as the Dutch ran out 3-1 winners. He also made himself undroppable, and justified his continued selection with a late winner against hosts and favourites West Germany in the semi-finals, then that amazing goal in the final.

He maintained this form when the season resumed and he returned to Milan, fit and playing regularly. He scored 19 goals that season, won European footballer of the year, and scored twice in the European Cup Final against Steau Bucharest. The next season he again won European footballer of the year and Milan successfully defended the European Cup, defeating Benfica in the final. His years at Milan are a list of honours and incredible acheivements: in all, he won European Footballer of the year three times, World Player of the year once, was Top scorer in Serie A three times, won two European Cups, 3 Italian titles, two intercontinental cups, two European supercups and three Italian Supercups. In addition he was a crucial part of the Milan team which set a long-standing record for consecutive appearances without defeat (58 games in total) during the 1992-93 season. His goal-scoring record in this era is more impressive for the fact that it was maintained during the richest years of domestic Italian football, when teh worlds great players flocked to Italy and defences were legendarily tight in the best Italian fashion. Few defences were too tight for van Basten, and the Italians nicknamed him "Marco Golo". He was so important to the team that when he fell out with Coach Arrigo Saachi, Milan Owner Berlusconi sacked the coach rather than sell the player. The fact that he quarrelled with a coach as venerable and cerebral as Saachi illustrates that Dutch capacity for opinionated comment, and van Basten's self-assuredness. However, his ankle injury recurred and he underwent a series of operations, none of which was enough to save his career. He returned for the end of the domestic season and played in the European Cup FInal, which Milan lost to Marseille. It would be his last game for the club, and indeed his last game as a Professional Footballer. Recently he has enjoyed some success as Coach of Holland, where his confidence and intelligence seem to have been put to good use, but he is best remembered for the stylish and lethal quality of his striking, particularly in his years at Milan:



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