“My first dream as a young boy was to be a gymnast. I found out that I could play football pretty well. I think my gymnastic background helped a great deal with my agility when I took up football seriously.”
At no time was Marco van Basten’s gymnastic – and indeed balletic – ability in evidence more than when he scored the greatest goal in European Championship history.
Yet such a moment seemed a remote possibility when Van Basten, who had been injured in the build-up to the tournament, looked on from the bench as Holland faced the ‘CCCP’ in their opening game. “It was not a big problem for me to sit it out,” insisted the striker later. “I was not in good shape. I had no reason to think that I should be among the first XI. I was just watching and learning and waiting for the moment when I got my chance.”
After the Dutch lost 1-0 to their eventual final opponents, that chance came in the next game against England. Van Basten’s opportunistic hat-trick made him firmly first choice and after drawing a blank in the 1-0 victory against Republic of Ireland, he scored a smartly-taken winner in a tetchy semi-final against West Germany. And so to the final and that goal.
The sweetest of hits
Unlike many great strikes, which are never quite as good as you remember them when you watch them back on YouTube, this one gets better every time you watch it.
As Arnold Mühren’s speculative and overhit left-wing cross in the 54th minute fell from the sky, the isolated striker saw two options. “I can stop it and do things with all these defensive players or I could do it the more easy way, take a risk and shoot. You know, you need a lot of luck with a shot like that.”
A lot of skill too. With the Soviet defenders converging on him and faced with a deep, dropping ball, an impossible angle and a great goalkeeper in Rinat Dasayev, Van Basten needed all his stars to align. And align they did, courtesy of a sweetly-struck volley that he watched right onto his laces before it whizzed into the far corner at exactly the pace and trajectory needed to make the impossible possible. Look at photographs of the moment of impact and you can see what he means about his gymnastic background. Suspended several feet off the ground, Van Basten is a picture of sinewy perfection.
“I can tell a lot of stories, but it was just a fantastic feeling,” he said of the goal. “I did not really understand it what I did. You can also see that in my reaction. I am asking: ‘What is happening?’”
His teammates were less matter of fact. “You cannot shoot from that angle,” said Ronald Koeman, as if it were somehow not too late for his teammate to change his mind and bring the ball down. “It really was too high,” agreed Frank Rijkaard. “He will do that another million times and still not score that goal,” laughed Ruud Gullit, who had given the Dutch a first-half lead with a powerful header from Van Basten’s centre.
And that’s what makes it such a great goal. It’s audacious, it’s impossible, it’s perfection... it’s the final for goodness sake! And yet, looking back, this was no fluke. Van Basten would win the first of three European Footballer of the Year awards off the back of his performances at Euro ’88, his third coming in 1992 when he scored an overhead kick in the Champions League that was almost this goal’s equal.
But was his strike against the Soviets the greatest volley ever? Better than Jamie Vardy’s against Liverpool this season? Despite Claudio Ranieri’s comparisons, yes. Better, even, than Zinedine Zidane’s in the 2002 Champions League Final. “I don’t know,” said Van Basten. “It’s just a matter of taste, and it’s difficult to answer questions about taste.”
Oh Marco, you’re too modest.
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