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Euro Icons – 1988: Marco van Basten and Dutch delight


International football has a variety of motivations for its participants. Simple, basic pride is one; the chance to help your country rise to prominence in an international arena when it is often overlooked in world affairs is another. And then there is one of the basest driving forces of all. Revenge really is quite the dish, especially when it’s served stone cold. Imagine, then, digging up a bit of payback that has been wedged into the freezer for 14 years, and serving it on a bed of ice to your fiercest rivals.

To do so the Netherlands had to get back to a major tournament first. For the Dutch national side, the 1980s had been a miserable decade to that point. After going out in the first round of Europa 80 with the last few Total Footballers from their teams that had reached back to back World Cup finals in the 1970s, they failed to reach another tournament until the 1988 European Championship in West Germany. Rinus Michels, the coach of the team that had gone so close to winning the World Cup in 1974, was now back in charge. He had another gifted generation of players to instil his philosophies into, including a lethal young forward from Utrecht.

Straight As at the Ajax school

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Ajax manager Johan Cruyff chats with Marco van Basten as the press film, in 1987

Image credit: Imago

Marco van Basten was the most devastating talent to emerge in the Netherlands in the post-Cruyff generation. He made his debut for Ajax in 1981 aged just 16 and scored 152 goals in 172 games in his first six seasons. A blast of 37 goals in just 26 league games won him the European Golden Boot in the 1985-86 season and his glancing header against Lokomotiv Leipzig in Athens in 1987 won Ajax the European Cup Winners’ Cup.

Van Basten truly had everything a forward could need. He had an exceptionally athletic physique built into a 6’ 2” frame. That height naturally made van Basten good in the air and his raking strides also blessed him with a deceptive change of pace, particularly over ten yards. He could dribble, he could pass, and he was merciless with his finishing off either foot; in every way that a modern centre-forward could pose a threat, he did so.

His physical gifts were allied to the work ethic of a straight A student. As a teenager, van Basten had been obsessed with maximising his incredible talent. In the brilliant ‘Marco’s Room’ by Hugo Borst, originally published in Hard Gras in the mid-nineties, the author gets a tour of van Basten’s bedroom by Marco’s father. It had become a shrine to his son’s career; eleven square metres of medals, awards, shirts, and nostalgia. Of particular interest to Borst were the files that the young Marco had kept on his formative seasons in youth football and then with Ajax.

Amid all of the detailed logging of his goals, his team’s tactics, and the league table after games, one sheet of paper titled ‘FEINTS’ stood out. They were deceptions that van Basten had seen and mastered in order to elude defenders. “Marco’s repertoire then consists of 14 feints,” wrote Borst, “taken from players like Didier Six, Johann Cruyff and Ruud Krol right through to Utrecht amateur footballers such as Haub Mess, Marcel le Duc and someone called Pieter. Some of the feints are intelligible, others are described cryptically. They took him a long way.” In the summer of 1987, they took him to AC Milan.

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‘After missing most of the season, he is so determined’

Marco van Basten celebrates against England

Image credit: Imago

It was in his first season in Serie A that Van Basten first encountered what would become persistent injury problems, with a bothersome ankle restricting him to just 11 league appearances as Milan won the Scudetto. His late return to action in April after surgery left him short of fitness and Michels only included him in the Dutch squad as a back-up option to Johnny Bosman of Ajax. The Dutch squad was packed with high achievers; Hans van Breukelen, Berry van Aerle, Ronald Koeman and Gerald Vanenburg all won the European Cup with PSV Eindhoven a month before Euro 88, while Koeman’s brother Erwin was in the Mechelen team that had just won the European Cup Winners’ Cup.

The highest achiever was all was van Basten’s Milan team-mate and the Dutch captain, Ruud Gullit. He had transferred to the Italian league in 1987 too, for a world record fee of £6 million, and was the incumbent European Footballer of the Year. Prior to the tournament Gullit suggested that his club colleague could be the difference, fired by the motivation of making up for lost time. “He has a special ability to see goals and to make space where there appears to be none,” said Gullit. “After missing most of the season, he is so determined.”

Michels soon had to call on that special ability and determination. Van Basten sat on the side lines as an unused substitute as the Netherlands fell to defeat in their opening match with the Soviet Union in Cologne administered by a low drive from Vasyl Rats. Their second match in the group would be a win or bust encounter with England, who had also lost in their first game against the Republic of Ireland. Van Basten came back into the team for the showdown in Dusseldorf. It was an afternoon that would change his life.

“From that game onwards, everything in Euro 88 went well,” he said in an interview with FourFourTwo in 2017. “My goal in the final against the Soviet Union is the thing that everyone remembers, but every game is important. If we hadn’t done the job against England, we would not have gone on to reach the final.” Van Basten truly did a job on England; he scored a hat-trick in a 3-1 victory and subjected his marker, a 21-year old Tony Adams, to a torrid afternoon.

In truth it had been a lot tighter than the score suggests. Gary Lineker and Glenn Hoddle both hit the post while the game was goalless. Van Basten’s first goal took a crucial deflection off Gary Stevens, and his second looked marginally offside. In their next match the Dutch got two even bigger slices of fortune. Paul McGrath’s first half header hit the post and was somehow gathered from a blizzard of wildly swinging legs by Dutch goalkeeper van Breukelen. With nine minutes to go, a flicked header by Wim Kieft after a mishit Ronald Koeman shot sent the ball on a physics-defying trajectory around Pat Bonner before violently spinning back into the Irish net.

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That goal put the Netherlands through and knocked the Republic of Ireland out. It would also be the only Dutch goal of the tournament not scored or directly assisted by van Basten; even then, he had been stood in an offside and distracting position when Kieft made contact. Those twists of fate didn’t just put the Netherlands in the semi-finals, they also gave them momentum. That’s a useful ally when you’re about to collide with the weight of history.

More than a football match

Ronald Koeman celebrates while wearing a Germany shirt at Euro 88

Image credit: Imago

West Germany, the hosts and favourites for the tournament, were waiting for the Dutch in Hamburg. After the World Cup in Mexico two years earlier, their manager Franz Beckenbauer had burst out laughing in disbelief when a journalist interviewing him reeled off a list of players that had put them in the final. Two years is a long time in international football; at Euro 88 he had put together a serious power team, the bones which would become world champions two years later.

Rudi Voller and Jurgen Klinsmann were the best front two in the world, while Lothar Matthaus and Olaf Thon were dynamic creative forces in midfield. Jurgen Kohler controlled the back four, on the left of which was Andreas Brehme, a left-back both solid in defence and a serious attacking threat down that flank. After a 1-1 draw in the tournament’s opening game with Italy, the Germans wrapped up Group 1 with consecutive 2-0 wins over Denmark in Gelsenkirchen and Spain in Munich.

Hamburg may have given the hosts home advantage on paper, but the huge swathe of visiting Dutch supporters for that tournament managed to get hold of far more than their official allocation of 7,000 and rendered it obsolete. To this day, van Breukelen calls it the most important game he ever played in. The evening ached with an importance far beyond merely qualifying for a major final. It felt personal and was reflected in the way the two teams clashed – literally – with each other. Hamburg was the fuse for four years of fractious matches between the two sides that became one of the great international rivalries.

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As in 1974, both teams scored from the penalty spot – Matthaus in the 55th minute, Ronald Koeman in the 74th minute. Both awards were dubious to say the least; Klinsmann bought the German penalty after running into Frank Rijkaard and collapsing, while Kohler had seemed to clearly play the ball in a sliding challenge on van Basten. That only added to the tension, which was broken exquisitely by van Basten with two minutes to go.

Jan Wouters picked the ball up in the middle of the German half, and slid a through pass into the right side of the penalty area. Van Basten was running onto it, with Kohler in pursuit, but the pass was slightly out of his reach. In a moment of brilliant improvisation, he slid around the side of the ball and hooked it across goal. Van Basten’s shot skidded past German goalkeeper Eike Immel and into the far corner of the net, and the Volksparkstadion erupted.

“Van Basten’s goal was typically superbly timed in every aspect,” said Michels after the match. Hooking the shot early rather than chasing the loose ball had flummoxed Immel completely, who didn’t have time to set himself properly and was beaten by surprise rather than accuracy. More important than the execution of the strike was the timing of the goal itself. It shattered West Germany, who had no time to respond. The Dutch were in the final and celebrated like they’d won a whole lot more than that.

Simon Kuper noted in the excellent Football Against the Enemy that over nine million people took to the streets in celebration in the Netherlands, the largest outdoor congregation in the country since it had been liberated in the Second World War. That particular episode in the history of the Netherlands and Germany had become an undercurrent in the football rivalry between the two countries in the 80s. In Amsterdam, crowds threw bicycles into the air and shouted “Hurray, we’ve got our bikes back!”, a reference to the confiscation of all bicycles in the country during the Occupation.

Back in Hamburg the Dutch players celebrated as if they’d won the championship. That night Gullit rented out a nightclub so that the players could live it up, even though the actual final was only four days later. Ronald Koeman was the poorest winner of the evening. He swapped shirts with Thon and then mimed wiping his arse with the German jersey. Whatever boundaries the giddiness might have crossed, it was an undeniably cathartic moment for the Dutch, and especially for the coach. “People might not talk so much now about what happened in 1974,” said Michels.

What mattered more to him was what happened next. “Rinus Michels just said ‘Lads, I hope you had a wonderful night, but do me a favour,’” said van Breukelen. “‘Is there a possibility, that for the first time in Dutch history, with the Dutch national team, that we can win a final?’ And at that time, we were back to the earth, and he gave that feeling of ok use the confidence, because you have beaten the Germans, for the next game. But the next game is the most important. It’s nice to beat the Germans, and it felt maybe for a lot of people like the final, but the final has to be played.”

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Time for heroes

Netherlands celebrate their win at Euro 88

Image credit: Getty Images

For all of the world class talent in the Dutch set-up, Michels was the person held in the highest esteem. The day before the final, the players presented him with a gold watch. Twenty-four hours later, they presented him with the European Championship title. The USSR faced the Netherlands in the final, a repeat of their opening match just under two weeks earlier. “Even in defeat,” wrote Clive White of that encounter in the Times, “the Netherlands are an impressive sight.” With van Basten now in the team and flying, they were even more formidable approaching the final. The match in Munich was billed as a Total Football play-off between Michels’ Netherlands and Valery Lobanovsky’s USSR, who had swatted Italy aside with ease in their semi-final. Instead it became the total realisation of van Basten’s ridiculous talent.

The Dutch took the lead in the 32nd minute. A looping cross to the back post by Erwin Koeman found van Basten in space. When he headed it back across the face of goal, Gullit connected with a header of such beautiful ferocity that it tore past the Soviet goalkeeper Rinat Dasayev to give the Dutch the lead. Nine minutes after half-time, van Basten settled a tournament that he had made his own. Arnold Muhren, an ageing but vital presence in the Dutch midfield, ran free on the left and hung a high, hopeful ball to the back post. It dropped out of the sky like a lone hailstone in Munich, straight to van Basten who was waiting just outside the six-yard box on the right of the Soviet area.

“I didn’t really want to make different things,” said van Basten, reflecting on his options. “Because I was a little bit tired already.” Trying to bring it down and dribble was out of the question. His plan B became one of the greatest moments in football history. Van Basten hit the fast-falling ball first time on the volley. He caught it so perfectly that it cleared Dassayev, the best goalkeeper in the world at the time, before dipping under the bar and landing just inside the far post.

Marco van Basten scores his most iconic goal

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Image credit: Imago

This was van Basten, the prodigy, taking our brains to another dimension. To even contemplate a volley from such an acute angle was one thing; to nail the timing and technique of the strike so precisely was simply mind-blowing. There can be no better proof of its greatness than the reaction of the Dutch coaching staff. Michels, one of the game’s great lateral thinkers, staggered away from the bench with his mouth wide open in amazement and holding one hand on his forehead. All of the wonderful possibilities that he had ever conceived or envisioned for game of football had just been surpassed.

Later in the half van Breukelen saved a penalty by Igor Belanov, and the Dutch were home and hosed. Their 2-0 win secured the European Championship, vindication for the methods of Michels and the first and so far only major title in the history of the Netherlands. It remains one of the most famous victories in the history of the Euros. Better teams have won the European Championship, but few have been as iconic as the Dutch of 1988.

They had the tournament’s top scorer in van Basten, who had just walloped in the greatest goal in the tournament had ever known, playing up front with Gullit, the most expensive player in the world and holder of the Ballon d’Or. The back two of the Dutch also harboured some luxuriously creative players. Next to Ronald Koeman in the centre of defence was the elegant Frank Rijkaard, who would soon join Gullit and van Basten at Milan to form a Dutch wedge in one of the greatest club sides in history.

A football life cut short

Frank Rijkaard, Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit reunite in AC Milan colours

Image credit: Imago

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Gullit, Rijkaard and Koeman all finished in the top 5 of the Ballon d’Or voting at the end of 1988, an award inevitably scooped up by van Basten. To complete the hipster bingo card, the Netherlands even wore one of the most sought-after football shirts in history for that tournament. Graphic design was starting to get its teeth into football kit design, and Adidas’ neon-orange mosaic number was revolutionary. Its rarity has only added to its value; they only ever wore it for the five games of that European Championship, making it richly evocative of a memorable triumph.

The summer of 1988 was the platform for van Basten to become the greatest striker of his generation. He won back-to back European Cups with Milan in 1989 and 1990 and would become the first player since Cruyff and Platini to win the Ballon d’Or three times. The building of that reputation however came at a heavy personal cost. With the tackle from behind yet to be outlawed, defenders teed off on the back of van Basten’s ankles with malevolent glee. He missed most of the 1992-93 campaign and a substitute appearance against Marseille in the Champions League final that season would be his last ever appearance. Van Basten was just 28 years old.

Two years later he officially announced his retirement and said goodbye to the Milan fans at a home game in August 1995. Fabio Capello, the Milan coach who had worked with van Basten in the early nineties, broke down in tears on the touchline. It was a tragedy for football that such a talent was denied the fabled peak years at the end of his twenties. Even without them, van Basten’s CV is still that of one of the greatest players in history.

Ultimately, van Basten made the world of football a better place. He furnished it with beauty on the pitch and, although he paid a heavy personal tax, the premature end of his career necessitated a change in the rules. The laws on tackling from behind and the punishments for it were soon altered to benefit and protect attackers, and that tide of change has kept flowing in their favour. While that is to be celebrated, it’s still incredibly poignant to wonder what heights van Basten might have reached had he not been scythed into early retirement.

Next up: its the story of Denmark’s astonishing victory at Euro 92, and the loudmouth keeper who inspired it…

Euro Icons: Every episode

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