Marco van Basten reacts after scoring a goal in the final between the Netherlands and the Soviet Union in 1988. (Image via UEFA Euro 2020 Twitter handle)
If Dutch art had Vincent van Gogh, Dutch football had Marco van Basten.
In the second half of the 1988 Euro Cup final in Munich, van Basten received a high cross from the left from teammate Arnold Muhren.
Like Kapil Dev when he took Viv Richards’ catch in the 1983 World Cup final, van Basten ran gracefully as he watched the ball’s flight over his left shoulder.
Then, from an acute angle, the 6'2" striker, who wanted to be a gymnast and was famed for the beauty of his game, thumped a first-touch right footer directly into the goal of opponents Soviet Union. It was Holland’s second strike. They won the game 2-0 and lifted their first major trophy.
The improbability of making sweet contact with a looping cross, the elegance with which van Basten did it and the stature of the match make that goal arguably the greatest in Euro history. It was a sublime blend of geometry, intelligence and athleticism.
But there was another, prosaic reason for the goal. Van Basten was tired.
Almost throughout the two-week tournament, he had shouldered the team’s attacking responsibilities. Going into the final, he had scored four goals. Prior to that he had finished a demanding season for AC Milan. He was also dealing with a chronic ankle injury.
Normally, van Basten would have trapped the ball, and then taken a shot. Else he’d have tried to dribble past defenders or pass to a teammate. Instead, he pulled the trigger. That too with his gimpy ankle.
“I was a little tired,” van Basten, 56, said in a profile in FourFourTwo magazine. “The ball came and I thought, ‘OK, I can stop it and do things with all of these defensive players, or I could do it the easier way: take a risk and shoot.’”
Van Basten feels his less than perfect right ankle also was a blessing in disguise. He believes it helped him impart dip on the ball.
“Without that limitation, I would not have had that effect on the ball to make it dip down,” he once told Sky Sports.
Van Basten’s own team couldn’t believe the audacity and swag of the goal. On the sidelines, the Dutch coach Rinus Michels was overwhelmed with emotion. He covered his face and shook his head. Muhren, who provided the cross, said, “I thought he’d bring it into the (penalty) box.”
Van Basten himself couldn’t believe it when the ball went in. And it showed in his silly grin and bantering with teammates as he celebrated the goal.
“It was just a fantastic feeling,” van Basten said in FourFourTwo. “But the excitement about the goal, I didn’t really understand it and what I did. You can see that in my reaction (after the goal). I’m asking: ‘What’s happening?’”
Players who have struck miraculous volleys, like Zinedine Zidane in the 2002 Champions League final, admit such shots are rare phenomena. In fact, Zidane once said that he struggled to replicate his swiveling left-footer even during an ad shoot.
Van Basten too is candid about the luck factor in his goal.
“You need a lot of luck with a shot like that,” he said. “At that moment it was given to me.”
Van Basten deserved it. Because he was so unlucky with his ankle injury. Not only was he hurting but he also received faulty treatment. Football was his love. He knew how good he was. And it drove him to depression that he could not do what he was capable of.
Though highly successful – van Basten won the Euro Cup, the Champions League and three Ballon D’Or awards – his career was short and marked by uncertainty, and by mental and physical agony. By 28, he was virtually over, after just about a decade at the top. But what a decade it was. Marco van Basten, just after making contact with the ball. (Image via UEFA Euro 2020 Twitter handle)