An all-time great of world football, Marco van Basten was sadly forced to give up playing at the age of 30 due to injury. However, the Dutch marksman crammed more into his shortened career than most footballers ever manage to achieve.

  • By David Lee Wheatley
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van basten aA young van Basten made his name during a sparkling period with Ajax of Amsterdam, where a series of wonderful performances for the Eredivisie giants shot the striker to worldwide fame.

Lithe, skilful and deadly in front of goal, the Utrecht-born forward moved from local youth team Elinkwijk to Ajax in 1981. A goalscoring debut against NEC Nijmegen catapulted van Basten into the limelight in April 1982 and he never looked back.

In direct competition with established star Wim Kieft for a starting spot, the upstart from Utrecht still featured on 20 occasions in the league and scored a noteworthy 9 goals in the process.

So impressed were the Ajax hierarchy that they sanctioned the sale of Netherlands international Kieft to Pisa in 1983, thus opening the way for van Basten to assume the mantle of number one striker at the club.

That trust shown by Ajax in their hot prospect was repaid many times over, as the new main man topped the scoring charts four seasons in succession. In fact, he bagged an incredible 37 goals in 26 league outings to snare the European Golden Boot award for the 1985-86 campaign, putting him firmly among some of the best players in Europe.

Signing off with Ajax by lifting the Cup Winners’ Cup and KNVB Cup double in 1987, including hitting the winner to clinch the European trophy when beating Germans Lokomotive Leipzig, then 22-year-old van Basten was ready for a big move and the glamour of Serie A proved too tempting.

Having picked up 3 league championships, 3 domestic cups and a European title in Amsterdam, while scoring almost a goal a game, he’d gone as far as he could in his home nation and a foreign adventure was next on the menu.

Italians Milan put forward the strongest argument to eventually complete the capture of the Dutchman, despite their lack of a Scudetto since 1979. Media mogul Berlusconi took over the presidency a year prior to van Basten’s arrival and the entrepreneur harboured huge ambitions for the Rossoneri.

Convincing one of the most feared strikers in the world to join represented a massive piece of the overall jigsaw for Berlusconi, as did the arrival of another Dutch star Ruud Gullit from PSV that summer. It was a bittersweet first campaign for Marco, who only featured 11 times thanks to the ankle that would later ruin his career. However, Milan returned to the top of the tree domestically by claiming the Serie A league title.

By now a national team regular, van Basten went into Euro ’88 determined to show his injury troubles were behind him. That he did in spectacular fashion, ending the tournament as top-scorer on five goals and leading the Oranje to the title. His balance and poise when unleashing a sublime volley in the final against the Soviet Union is a goal forever etched in footballing folklore.

His Milan career finally thrust into top gear following the glorious European Championships, as he and Gullit were joined by international team-mate Frank Rijkaard at the San Siro. The trio proved the perfect combination, driving Milan on to a triumphant European Cup campaign in 1989 when overcoming Steaua Bucharest at the last hurdle.

Along with a double haul in the final, the striker plundered 19 league goals in a notoriously defensive-minded Serie A. While Milan sat atop the pinnacle of club football in Europe, van Basten was also crowned the continent’s Footballer of the Year.

It got even better the next season when van Basten ended the campaign as Serie A leading scorer and Milan successfully defended their European title against Portuguese giants Benfica.

Holland were strongly fancied heading into the 1990 World Cup held in Italy, but suffered an ignominious exit to traditional rivals West Germany at the second round stage; van Basten unwittingly allowing his only opportunity to shine at a World Cup pass him by.

Milan’s fortunes took a dramatic downturn in 1990-91, with in-fighting between head coach Arrigo Sacchi and the prominent figure of van Basten characterising a campaign filled only with utter disappointment. Sampdoria beat Milan in the race for the Scudetto and Sacchi was sacked to be replaced at the helm by former Juve, Roma and Milan player Fabio Capello.

Capello’s instalment as coach was met with scepticism among the Milan public, but he became the perfect antidote to the poison that infiltrated the squad previously. Supremely talented striker van Basten struck 25 times as Capocannoniere, while Milan strode confidently away with the Scudetto. The Rossoneri went undefeated throughout all 34 of their Serie A fixtures to easily see off a weak challenge from Juventus.

Back on international duty, the Dutch had a European Championship trophy to defend in 1992. They made a decent fist of it, but lost out to surprise package and eventual victors Denmark in the semi-finals. Heartbreakingly, Marco missed in the penalty shoot-out that helped decide their Euro ’92 fate.

Despite losing out on the retention of the Henri Delaunay trophy, van Basten returned to Milan and set about the new season with gusto. He banged in goals from all angles, while becoming the first-ever player to score four times in a single Champions’ League match when battering Swedes IFK Gothenburg in November 1992.

Disaster struck though, when the dreaded ankle issue reared its ugly head once more during a clash with Ancona. A series of surgical procedures commenced in an effort to cure the problem and van Basten came back into the fold for the last few games of another Scudetto-winning season. He also started the Champions’ League final versus Marseille, but was largely ineffectual during 86 tiring minutes on the field and the French side made a mockery of the odds through a Basile Boli winner. Little did Marco know, but that was to be the very last game he’d play for Milan, or anybody else for that matter.

Two years of agony followed for the Dutch marksman and he never regained full fitness. After such an arduous struggle, van Basten called time on his glittering career in the summer of 1995.

Initially stating he’d never try management, van Basten took an assistant coach position with the Ajax second team for 2003-04. He quickly found himself elevated to the role of national team boss in 2004, a position he held for four years. Van Basten introduced several young players to the team, many of whom didn’t play for any of the ‘Big Three’ clubs Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord.

His first international tournament as head coach didn’t go well, despite a strong qualification campaign. The 2006 World Cup began with such promise, but Portugal put paid to Dutch hopes at the last-16 stage.

The European Championships of 2008 saw the Netherlands reach a quarter-final date with Russia after a good run through the group phase and second round. Fellow Dutchman Guus Hiddink sat in the opposition dug-out, as he masterminded a 3-1 slaying of his homeland.

Football authorities in Holland had contemplated offering van Basten a new deal, but the manager himself took the decision a few months in advance of Euro 2008 to sign a contract agreement with former club Ajax to take over at the Amsterdam ArenA after the tournament was over.

It was an ill-fated spell back at his spiritual home, with Ajax missing out on Champions’ League qualification and the playing legend stepped down in May 2009.

Now head coach of Heerenveen, a promising young side is burgeoning under the stewardship of a wiser Marco van Basten and there’s a prevailing feeling around the club that great times lie ahead in the near future.

Meanwhile, the Milan hero remains one of the most revered footballers in the history of the game, as he focuses all his efforts on trying to transfer some of that stunning success of his playing days on to his latest coaching role in the northern Netherlands.