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Home Columns History Marco van Basten, the Swan of Utrecht, turns 56

Marco van Basten, the Swan of Utrecht, turns 56

Last updated 3 weeks ago by Michael Darmanin

We remember him for the goals. 152 for Ajax, 125 for AC Milan, 24 for Holland.

The most special were probably the five in that unforgettable Euro Cup triumph of 1988. The hattrick against England. The winner against West Germany in the semi-final. And then the conversion from that impossible angle, to make it 2-0 in the final and put it beyond Soviet Union.
That final goal was crème de la crème. A 2002 UK poll ranked the Marco van Basten volley essayed that afternoon in the Munich Olympic Stadium as number 21 in a list of 100 Greatest Sporting Moments.

And then we know him as the manager and FIFA technical director.

Marco van Basten with the KNVB Cup for Ajax, 1987. Photo: Rob Bogaerts / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Marcel the gymnast

It seems strange that he actually wanted to be a gymnast. That had been the only sport that had held him in raptures as a kid. It was his elder brother Stanley who seemed destined for honours on the football field. After all their football-mad father, who had himself played for DOS and HVC, had named his first son after Stanley Matthews.

Marco had actually been named Marcel. However, his maternal grandmother had difficulties pronouncing the name, and hence he quickly became Marco.

His choice of sport changed in 1971. At the Wembley, watched by 83,179 people, Ajax comfortably overcame Panathinaikos to conquer the European Cup.  Football fever gripped the nation. The seven-year-old Marco knew which sport he would play.

At first he played for UVV Utrecht. He loved every moment on the field. However, he had no idea just how good he was. Not just good, he was magnificent. He dribbled past defenders and scored at will. He headed them in with ease. He volleyed them with precision. Luckily, whoever saw him running with a football, or without, never had any doubt that he was exceptional.

Ajax days

After nine years in Utrecht, the van Basten brothers went to a trial for Ajax. Marco was just 16. He made the cut. Stanley, in spite of his illustrious namesake, did not.

Marco started playing for the youth team. He played for them 44 times. He netted 68 goals.

Obviously everyone was impressed. Including one particular gentleman named Johann Cruyff. Marco was whisked into the senior team and Cruyff made sure that he received the attention he deserved.

Wim Kieft was the man preferred as centre forward by Ajax. After all, he was a Holland international. Yet, Marco managed to play 20 matches in the 1982-83 season, scoring 9 goals.
The following year, Kieft left for the Italian Serie A club Pisa. For the 19-year-old Marco van Basten, this proved crucial.

From 1983-84 to 1986-87, he scored 118 goals in 112 matches. Top scorer for four consecutive seasons. The peak was perhaps in 1985-86 when he netted 37 in 26 games, six in a match against Sparta Rotterdam and five in another against Heracles Almelo.  Goals with astonishing regularity and from incredible positions. The most spectacular for Ajax was perhaps the overhead kick against FC Den Bosch in late 1986.

Those were the years that made him.

The Dutch Triumvirate in Milan

Van Basten playing for AC Milan. Photo: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1987 Silvio Berlusconi signed him for AC Milan. Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard joined the club in 1988. Milan defended with Italian internationals Maldini, Baresi and Costacurta, played Donadoni in the midfield, and attacked with the Dutch trio.
The saga of goals continued for van Basten, with the Ballon d’Or and the Capocannoniere along the way; and Milan kept winning—the Scudetto, the European Cup.
And of course there was the 88 Euro Cup triumph for Netherlands.

But there were aggressive defenders in Serie A. And then there were fumbling surgeons. The ankles could not take it for long. His exceptional career was virtually over before he was thirty.

The Swan of Utrecht did not really enjoy a swansong.

Writing down everything

I eagerly await his autobiography that will be available from 5 November 2020.
Very few extraordinary sportsmen have memoirs that extend beyond the ordinary. Marco van Basten can be a genuine exception.

He used to write down everything he did on the football pitch, right from his early days. The habit lingered even as he hung up his footballing boots and put on his coaching cap.
At the very least we can expect his autobiography to be accurate. Another rather rare trait among sporting reminiscences.

Marco van Basten was born in Surinamestraat, Utrecht, on October 31, 1964.

Van Basten in 2018. Photo: Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Arunabha Sengupta
Arunabha Sengupta
Arun is a freelance writer, sports correspondent, statistician and a tour guide. He has lived in The Netherlands for the last 12 years and is in love with the country. He is especially fascinated by the way the country combines fascinating history with modern liberalism, the busy touristic hub with the quaint peaceful countryside.

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