Marco van Basten: ‘It was a very big fall and a really dark time’

In 1994, in the middle of the night, Marco van Basten would often crawl from his bed to the bathroom. The pain in his damaged ankle was so bad that, to divert his attention, he would count the seconds it took him to cover the short but agonising distance. He remembers: “Whispering, I never reach the toilet before I get to 120. The door sills are the most challenging part because my ankle has to go over them without touching them. Even the slightest touch makes me bite my lip to prevent a scream.”

Two years earlier, Van Basten had won the Ballon D’Or for the third time while also being named Fifa’s world player of the year. “It was very difficult because I went from the highest level in football down to the lowest level of personal unhappiness,” he says. “It was a very big fall and a really dark time.”

Van Basten played for Milan and as a deadly goalscorer he helped them win the European Cup twice as well as three Serie A titles. He had emerged at the peak of world football in 1988 when, recovering from a season-long injury, he lit up the European Championship. Alongside his Milan teammates Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard, Van Basten scored five goals for the Netherlands, including a memorable hat-trick against England and decisive strikes in the semi-final and the final, as the Dutch became European champions.


Marco van Basten lifts the European Championship trophy in 1988 after scoring the Netherlands’ second goal against the Soviet Union in Munich

Marco van Basten lifts the European Championship trophy in 1988 after scoring the Netherlands’ second goal against the Soviet Union in Munich. Photograph: VI-Images via Getty Images

Five years later his brilliant career was over. He was just 28 and, two years on, he had been reduced to his nightly crawl. That memory opens his autobiography and Van Basten relives that harrowing time via a Zoom call from his publisher’s office in Amsterdam. The room seems very white, with muted colours in the backdrop, and a residue of sadness lingers.

Van Basten points out that his last match, the 1993 Champions League final when Milan lost 1-0 to Marseille, was in the same Olympic Stadium in Munich where he won the European Championship final against the Soviet Union in 1988. That day he had set up Gullit for the opener before hitting a sumptuous volley that sealed a 2-0 victory.

“I was at the maximum of my career,” he says, “and things that followed were nice and beautiful. But, all of a sudden, in 1993, I played my last game in the same stadium.

“Everything went down. There was a lot of pain and problems. You could say that in those five years I had my whole international career. After a lot of problems with operations I was limping. I couldn’t do anything without pain. I was really handicapped and the doctors couldn’t help me. I was a little afraid.”

Van Basten admits that at his lowest he was concerned he had bone cancer. “It had gone from bad to worse. After many operations, and seeing doctors from all over the world, I had tried everything, but we couldn’t find the solution.

“There was a moment in 1996 I had to say: ‘I have to try to get healthy.’ We made a decision to fuse my ankle. For a sportsman, and I was still only 32, that’s the worst choice. But I had to stop the pain.”

The drastic action worked. Slowly, Van Basten’s pain ebbed and he began to live a relatively normal life. He believes that numerous operations were disastrous, but his book also makes clear he played too often when hurt. In a poignant revelation he suggests the trouble began when his boyhood hero, Johan Cruyff, urged him to play on for Ajax as they strove to win the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1987. Van Basten’s ankle ligaments were too damaged for him to feature in any league games but, at the urging of Cruyff, his coach at Ajax, he played the decisive European fixtures – even scoring the only goal in the final, in his last match before leaving for Milan.

“I first got injured in December 1986 and it didn’t get better. Johan had a discussion with the doctor who said: ‘He has a problem but it’s not going to be worse. He can play.’ I had a feeling this is not good. I’m in so much pain. Johan said: ‘Listen, we make a deal. You don’t play all the competitions and some training you can skip. But you have to play in Europe. No matter what happens, you have to play the final.’ That was the deal we made.”

If he had taken a complete break might he have avoided his later problems? Van Basten shrugs. “In the beginning the doctors didn’t give me good advice. I went on and on and the damage got worse. The next season I went to Milan with Gullit. I played the first few matches in August-September, then I went to another doctor in Barcelona and we made the decision to have an operation. It was too late, because the damage was done.”

Van Basten was lucky to make the Dutch squad for Euro 88 and he was on the bench for the first game, a 1-0 defeat against the Soviet Union. His international career exploded into life when he was picked against England, a 3-1 win. “It was a really spectacular game,” he says, “because we were both good. In the end we were lucky because they hit the post twice.

“I was very nervous because it was my first real match after a long period. But I scored three and you get the wind in the sails. Everything felt easy after that.”

The Milan years were even more imperious. Van Basten played under two contrasting coaches and he stresses that he was much more in tune with Fabio Capello than his celebrated predecessor, Arrigo Sacchi. “I was used to Cruyff, who had been a great player. We were thinking the same. Capello, too. Sacchi was more theoretical. We had to watch so many videos and he was always talking during training. It was too much. I told him: ‘Mister, you have already told me this 12 times. If I don’t understand it now, I never will.’ He was so fanatical he kept telling the same stories. That was difficult to accept.

“Sacchi and Capello were lucky because we had a wonderful team. Baresi, Maldini, Costacurta and Tassotti were great defenders who could also play very well with the ball. We really made each other better in training.

“They were other great club teams. Ajax in 1972, Bayern Munich in 1974, Liverpool from the 1980s and also Real Madrid with Ronaldo and especially Barcelona with Messi, Busquets, Iniesta and Xavi. So I’m not going to say we were the best. But we were one of them.”

One of the most fascinating themes of Van Basten’s book is his close relationship with Cruyff. His face softens when he remembers the first time he saw his idol in person. “It was a really special moment. I was 15 and he came out of the stadium. I wanted to tell him: ‘Listen, remember me, because in the future we will see each other.’ It was such a strong feeling but I did not have the courage.

“A year later, when I was playing for Ajax Youth, we saw each other on the training field and all of a sudden he was part of my football life. I think he had the feeling that: ‘OK, this is an interesting player with talent.’ I played with him and against him in the last period of his career. I had him as a friend and he was my trainer. I loved training with him.

“Cruyff could be hard on me because he had played on the street where you use a different language. I did the same with Ruud van Nistelrooy when I was national coach. Maybe I was too strong, too hard, too direct like Johan had been with me. I should have been a bit softer with Van Nistelrooy. I now have a very good relationship with Ruud. He’s a fantastic person but in the beginning we didn’t have that feeling – maybe because he had too much respect for me.”

Van Basten regrets he and Cruyff fell out in later life over plans to restructure Ajax, and they were not reconciled before Cruyff’s death in 2016. “He was my hero, my best example and my friend. Then his opinion was different to how I saw things at Ajax. It was painful but that happens sometimes with a teacher and his pupil. He went right and I went left. All of a sudden we didn’t have any contact. After he died I saw his wife at a golf tournament in Turin. We kept talking about Johan and it went friendly again.”

Danny Cruyff told Van Basten that he and Pep Guardiola had been her husband’s favourites. “She said: ‘Now we do not have any contact and that is sad. Johan upstairs will be much happier if he sees our relationship is normal.’ It became very emotional and very beautiful.”

Cruyff was one of the game’s most influential players and coaches. Van Basten, in contrast, was not a natural coach. “I’m not a good manager,” he says candidly. “I can train players and talk about football. But losing as a manager was so painful I couldn’t live with it. As a manager you have to be positive to your guys, as a father to his sons, and that was one thing I really didn’t have.

“The profession is also bad for your health. When I became the assistant, I was intelligent and helpful. I had patience. As the head coach I was completely the opposite. I made a good decision to get out. I’m now doing other things and feel much freer. I do some business and work for television, talking about football. I still have a nice wife, nice children, two grandchildren. We’re all healthy. So I’m enjoying life.”

Sign up to The Recap, our weekly email of editors’ picks.

The 56-year-old smiles when I ask about his ankle. “I don’t have any pain but I am limited. I can’t play tennis or football. But I play squash and I am thankful. Looking back I was feeling it was a pity I couldn’t finish my career after winning more Champions League [titles]. I wanted to show more of myself. Some players have 18 years in football. But some players are injured before they start. When I thought like that I said: ‘If I compare with that I have been very lucky. At least I had 10 years of a beautiful experience that changed my life for ever.’”

Basta: My Life, My Truth by Marco van Basten is published by Cassell, octopusbooks.co.uk

The Guardian

Leave a Reply