WORDS: LAYTH YOUSIF
The start of the infrequently aired second verse of the Netherlands national anthem runs: “I am a Prince of Orange, fearless, ever free”. They should think about using those lines more frequently, in honour of Marco van Basten, the man whose name has become synonymous with the perfectly struck volley…
Image: Peter Robinson (Press Association Images)
noun (plural volleys)
- (in sport, especially soccer) a strike or kick of the ball made before it touches the ground
Utrecht, located in the heart of the Netherlands, is an unprepossessing place with a strong artistic heritage.
Lonely Planet listed it in the world’s top 10 most unsung locations. Every Saturday a stonemason adds another letter to The Letters of Utrecht, an endless poem carved into cobblestones in the city. It is a place where creative expression is very much encouraged. Unsurprisingly then, it is also the birthplace of one of the best football players the world has ever seen.
21 years after the end of World War Two, Marco van Basten was born. As a football mad youngster there wasn’t much to do in Utrecht, in a drab late Sixties Netherlands still recovering from the jarring effects of war. So he played football. And the football he played honed his technique to perfection.
Where do you start with such a player? Let’s get the stats out of the way first. Van Basten won the Eredivisie three times, the KNVB Cup twice and the European Cup Winners’ Cup once. He was also the top scorer in the Dutch League on four occasions and won the Dutch Player of the Year in 1984/85 and the European Golden Boot in 1985/86. At AC Milan he won Serie A four times, the Champions League and the European Super Cup three times each and the Intercontinental Cup twice.
On an individual level, while in Rossoneri colours, he picked up European Player of the Year three times, top scored in Serie A twice, and achieved the same honour in Euro ’88, with five goals to his name. In total, he scored 276 goals from 373 club appearances with a further 24 goals from 58 caps for Holland. In 1992, he was named FIFA World Player of the Year.
Does that do him justice?
No – for he was forced to retire at his peak. At the age of 28.
To put that in perspective, if Pele had retired at 28, he wouldn’t have been there to roll that ball to Carlos Alberto in Mexico City. If Bobby Charlton had retired at 28, he wouldn’t have been able to weep tears of joy and respect in remembrance of his fallen colleagues, clad in all blue on the sapping Wembley turf, 10 years after the Munich air disaster.
28 is no age at all to wake up and wonder what you are going to do for the rest of your life. Now that your body has finally succumbed to the continual foul play of cumbersome defenders scared of being made to look foolish by men like van Basten. Yet his legacy was the beautiful goals he bequeathed to us; studies in gracefulness and control, powered by a killer instinct.
It seems fitting that his Ajax debut, against NEC as a spindly 17-year-old, was as a substitute for Johan Cryuff, when he scored 10 minutes after coming on in a 5-0 win in April 1982.
10 years later, in the early part of his final season in 1992/93 – the year football was invented according to some – we saw a player at the peak of his sublime powers. In a tumultuous 5-4 win for Milan at Pescara in September 1992, his hat-trick goal saw him imparting the ball with backspin, lifting it gloriously over an onrushing keeper as deftly as a sand wedge.
Against Atalanta a short while later, a header across the box from Frank Rijkaard forced van Basten to contort his body in order to give himself the best shape possible to perfectly hit a reluctantly falling ball into the net. It was that intuitive grasp of physics that transcended play and formed something closer to art.
Then, in a ridiculous 7-3 win at Fiorentina in October 1992, van Basten, having been fed the ball as he ran onto the edge of the area, teed it up and attacked it with such trickery and power it practically swerved through the keeper.
The four goals that van Basten scored against IFK Gothenberg, and their record capped Swedish goalkeeper Thomas Ravelli, in the Champions League also stand out. His hat-trick goal, at a cold, misty and packed San Siro in November 1992, comes close to being my favourite MvB moment. His bicycle kick was technically perfect and aesthetically pleasing. It was executed with a lightness as lithe as an acrobat, producing an action that looked as simple as the mechanics behind it were difficult. He was always good at volleys was Marco.
The fourth, as he danced round a dazed Ravelli, saw him as nimble and effortless on his toes as a ballerina. But he was already 28 by then. A month later he had ankle surgery. He returned to play against the controversial Marseille of Bernard Tapie in the Champions League final of 1993. It was to be his last game of professional football. After two full years on the sidelines, he retired in August 1995. Who knows what other triumphs he could have achieved? Who knows what other stunning goals he could have scored?
When a sportsman is forced to retire through injury you feel sad for him. Of course you do. But when a world class sportsman is forced to retire you also feel cheated and resentful. You feel you have been denied further outbursts of joy, of magic: of special moments.
Marco van Basten’s defining special moment was the 1988 European Championships.
A Brazilian journalist called the total football that the Dutch national team, the Oranjie, carries in their DNA, ‘organised disorganisation’. Over the years people have also called the Oranje ‘Clockwork Orange’. In South America and Southern Europe they were known as ‘La Maquina Narana’ (‘The Orange Machine’). Never have nicknames been so less apt, for they imply a mechanical automation, which belies the fantasy of tactical shapes indulging in continuous and ceaseless swaps, adjustments and amendments of personnel, pounding the opposition in waves of incessant attacking.
At Euro ’88, apart from a hiccup in their first group match against the USSR, Holland progressed serenely through to the final. They also gained a modicum of revenge for their forebears, the much lauded and loved Dutch team of the mid Seventies as they beat West Germany in the semi-final on the same pitch where Cruyff’s total football team forgot to score a second goal in the 1974 World Cup final.
Van Basten scored the winner in a tight game this time around. He also scored a hat-trick against England in a group game which sent the Three Lions home and fuelled the Dutch.
The final saw the Netherlands play the USSR at the Olympiastadion, Munich in front of 62,308 fans – the majority of which were orange-clad Dutchmen and women praying for their first International tournament win. (The Berlin Wall had yet to fall and the Soviet Union was still a deeply suspicious one-party state in which travel restrictions were the norm for ordinary citizens). Did the legendary Valeriy Lobanovskyi get his tactics slightly wrong in choosing Sergei Aleinikov, primarily a midfielder, to mark van Basten after Kuznetzov’s suspension? Even Rinat Dasayev, captain and loyal Lobanovskyi lieutenant admitted, ‘He didn’t get the defensive side quite right that day’.
32 minutes into the final, Erwin Koeman, Holland’s left winger, crosses into the box. The ball is headed back by van Basten to Gullit, who marshals the extraordinary latent force in his neck muscles to power a header over Dasayev with far more venom than many players muster in a shot. Orange waves come crashing forward in delight on the steep terraces around the Olympiastadion, but the players, mindful of the oversight of 1974, know the job is not done. After the game the Soviet team will recount Lobanovskyi telling them during the half-time interval to attack early in the second period in an attempt to put the Dutch under pressure.
Marco van Basten has other ideas, however, and at 4.39pm on 25 June 1988, he produces an iconic moment; a career defining moment. For as long football is played his goal will be talked about – and for as long as art can be said to enthuse and arouse the emotions then this goal will certainly be classed as art.
Arnold Murhen plays the ball into the box. Its arc of trajectory looks way too high for it to be effective. For those of us watching on television, the elevated ball actually disappears from the camera’s view before it drops – at one stage, neither ball nor van Basten is in shot. You wonder whether the defender will head it off for a corner; you almost look away thinking there is no danger. But you don’t. Because you know van Basten hasn’t given up and is running onto it. (As a youngster his dad threatened to kick a young Marco’s backside all the along a local canal if he didn’t persevere during one particularly tough game). Yet the angle is so impossible as to render the notion of a shot ridiculous.
The ball drops back into view, and with astonishment and a not inconsiderable amount of joy, you suddenly realise that the Dutchman has decided to volley it. You think he hasn’t a chance of connecting properly, let alone score, but you watch anyway, mesmerised at the impudence of him even trying. Van Basten has made up his mind early, far earlier than the idea of understanding exactly what the player wants to execute has even occurred to the viewer. Marco has his eyes firmly focused on the ball as he gets into the line of flight. Fearlessly he judges where the ball will arrive and strikes his foot through it as cleanly as he will ever hit a ball in his life. Dasayev, who had previously been on the verge of giving his defenders workaday instructions to keep their shape, has also abruptly realised Marco is about to shoot. As he tenses himself waiting for a shot that may never reach him, he is blown away by the power and the accuracy of the volley. The ball has powered and looped over the Russian keeper and into the roof of the net.
As Marco wheels away in delight, he doesn’t even look surprised.
A typically modest Murhen later said, ‘I think Marco made my cross into a good one as I didn’t hit it well.’ An equally modest van Basten added, ‘I noticed I was losing energy so I decided to hit the ball first time and see what happened’.
It was left to an incredulous Ruud Gullit to pay homage to the goal, stating that his team-mate could have taken that shot a million more times and never scored. Frank Rijkard, full of admiration and deep respect for his friend and team mate simply pointed out that ‘it wasn’t a lucky goal because he scored it’.
The start of the infrequently aired second verse of the Netherlands national anthem runs: “Een Prins van Oranje/ben ik, vrij onverveerd” - “I am a Prince of Orange, fearless, ever free”.
They should think about using those lines more frequently, in honour of Marco van Basten, Dutch football’s very own Prinse van Oranje.