Any football fan under the age of 30 could perhaps be forgiven for only associating Marco van Basten with one thing – his stunning volley from an impossible angle for the Netherlands against the Soviet Union in the 1988 European Championship final.
For anyone else this is simply unforgivable, as the Utrecht-born striker can be considered a legend of calcio based on his many other achievements in the game.
Throughout his career van Basten amassed numerous club and individual honours, and the amount of success he had is all the more impressive considering his playing days were cut short at 30 following two years out of the game while trying to recover from a serious ankle injury.
Born on October 31, 1964, a young van Basten’s first professional club was Dutch giant Ajax, for whom he made his debut at the age of 18 against NEC in April 1982. Perhaps fittingly on that occasion he came on as a substitute for the legendary Johan Cruyff in a ‘changing of the guard’ style moment. The debutant went on to grab his first goal in that game as de Godenzonen cruised to a 5-0 victory.
The following season, still very much a fringe player in the Ajax squad, the fledging forward scored nine goals in 20 league games, but it was the next season, 1983/84, that the blue touch paper was lit on van Basten’s career.
With Wim Kieft leaving Ajax for Pisa, van Basten took on the role of main striker and never looked back. What followed was 118 goals in 112 league games over the next four seasons which secured the Eredivisie Top Scorer award on each occasion.
This prolific spell also resulted in a European Silver Boot, a European Golden Boot and a Dutch Footballer of the Year Award. Add four Eredivisie titles, three KNVB Cups and a UEFA Cup Winners Cup to that and the tale of van Basten at Ajax is complete.
Now an extremely hot property in world football, van Basten made the move to AC Milan in 1987. Although the Rossoneri won Serie A for the first time in eight years in his debut season, the striker appeared in just 11 games due to a recurring ankle injury which required two operations.
However at the end of the season van Basten was fit enough to represent the Netherlands at the 1988 European Championship and he finished as top scorer with five goals as Rinus Michels’ side won the tournament for the first and only time to date.
The Oranje met the Soviet Union, who they had lost to in the group stage, in the final at the Olympiastadion in Munich, and what followed was a 2-0 win over Valeri Lobanovsky’s men with van Basten scoring his most famous goal.
With his side 1-0 up following Ruud Gullit’s opener, van Basten was the target of a hopeful, looping left-wing cross by Arnold Muhren in the 54th minute. As the ball fell to the striker on the extreme right of the penalty area around six yards from the byline, he unleashed an unstoppable volley past Rinat Dasayev in the Soviet goal to stun anyone fortunate enough to be watching live.
After his injury-disrupted first season in Milan, the striker enjoyed a much better campaign in 1988/89. Although the Rossoneri couldn’t retain their Serie A title, van Basten netted 19 league goals and was top scorer in the European Cup as Arrigo Sacchi’s men won the competition for the third time in their history.
These personal successes led to the Dutchman winning his first Ballon d’Or Award in 1988, and he followed this up with another in 1989.
The 1989/90 season saw Milan win a second consecutive European Cup, and while van Basten was Serie A’s top scorer, they again fell short in the league with Napoli winning the Scudetto.
Van Basten managed only 11 goals from 35 appearances the following season and fell out with Sacchi. With Sampdoria beating Milan to the Serie A title, owner Silvio Berlusconi had a decision to make and ultimately Sacchi was shown the door and replaced by Fabio Capello.
This proved to be a turning point for Milan and a kick-start for van Basten, as the club won their 12th Scudetto in 1991/92 while going the whole campaign unbeaten, and their star striker once again topped the Serie A scoring charts.
The prolific van Basten was crowned World Player of the Year for the first time in addition to winning his third Ballon d’Or in 1992, the same year he helped Netherlands to the semi-finals of the European Championship while being included in the team of the tournament.
By this stage the 27-year-old was at the peak of his powers and it seemed that things could only get better. Although he managed an incredible 13 goals in 15 league games as Milan won another Scudetto, his troublesome ankle injury began to flare up again and required more surgery.
Such was his importance to the Rossoneri cause he was rushed back for the European Cup final at the end of that season, but the defeat to Marseille proved to be his last game for Milan. Cruelly one of the most talented strikers of the era spent the next two years undergoing operations and rehab but was left with no choice but to retire from the game in August 1995.
After 277 goals in 373 total games over a 14-year playing career, three Ballon d’Or Awards and a FIFA World Player of the Year, it is evident that van Basten was so much more than just a memorable volley – he truly was a legend of calcio.