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Marco van Basten's volley, Euro 88: The story behind the Netherlands' most famous goal

Marco van Basten, Netherlands Euro 88
(Image credit: Getty Images)

This feature on Marco van Basten at Euro 88 first appeared in the May 2020 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe now!

Triumph sows the seeds of tragedy. The definition of a career high is that it can never be recaptured; what follows can move only downwards, either quickly or slowly, gradually or decisively. But, oh, what a high. To score the crucial goal in a major final for your country, to win their first trophy, and to do it with what a significant slice of the commentariat still regard as the greatest goal ever scored in a final. It may be all downhill from there, but what a view from the top. 

Footballers these days look like sprinters: mesomorphic body type, upper-body weight work and a six-pack you could grate cheese with. In contrast, players in the pre-Premier League era were more six-packs of lager and grated-cheese sandwiches. 

That isn’t to say there hadn’t been slender strikers. Denis Law was so wiry, his habitual long-sleeved shirt flapped in the breeze like laundry hung out to dry. Ian Rush resembled a bag of limbs tied up with his moustache. Gary Lineker’s hamstrings were polished and perma-tanned even before he went to Spain. 

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But there was something different about Marco van Basten. For a start, he was 6ft 2in – the same height as potential markers Alan Hansen and Paolo Maldini, and taller than Ronald Koeman and Mick McCarthy. The age of the giants had not yet dawned. 

Unlike many a big lad, the Dutchman was graceful in his movement and calculating with his corporeality. “My dream as a young boy was to become a gymnast, but I found out that I could play football pretty well,” he understated. “I think my background helped a great deal with my agility when I took up football seriously.”

Lithe and sinuous, ‘The Swan of Utrecht’ possessed an Ajax ability to read the game. Combined with his physical grace, it allowed him to spirit into places that defenders could neither predict nor protect. Once there, that calculating brain of his knew how to finish: head or foot, power or placement. 

In the contemporary micro-shorted fashion, his legs could look spindly; in fact, they were slim but strong like a concert pianist’s fingers. Ringo Starr once said of Billy Preston, the only guest musician ever to receive a co-credit on a Beatles record: “He never put his fingers in the wrong place.” Van Basten had the same relationship with a football.

Born on Halloween 1964, Marco van Basten began playing for a local team at the age of six and a decade later joined Ajax, who had just snubbed elder brother Stanley. In April 1982 he made his debut – replacing a bloke called Johan Cruyff – and scored within 20 minutes. In 1982-83, he bagged nine goals in 20 league games, so Ajax decided to sell striker Wim Kieft to Pisa.

It was a good call: over the next four seasons Van Basten hit 28 in 26, 22 in 33, a European Golden Boot-winning 37 in 26, and then 31 in 27. When Cruyff, now managing the side, led Ajax to the 1986-87 European Cup Winners’ Cup, Van Basten scored six in nine, including a powerful header at the near post for the solitary goal of a tense showpiece with Lokomotive Leipzig.

Football’s biggest league at the time was Serie A, where Silvio Berlusconi was making Milan a proto-superclub. Coach Arrigo Sacchi bought Van Basten (for a measly £875,000, enraging Cruyff) and Ruud Gullit (to replace Ray Wilkins). Both Dutchmen scored on their league debut, but in November Van Basten suffered the first of several ankle injuries. As Simon Kuper would write, “As a player, the young Van Basten was already dying, though nobody then knew it.”

He bounced back in the spring, coming off the substitutes’ bench to score the winner at Diego Maradona’s Napoli, the reigning league champions, to wrestle the title north again. Recovered and rested, Van Basten was ready for a summer of love – and hate – that would ring down the decades.

He travelled to Euro 88 in West Germany as the Oranje’s third-choice forward. Boss Rinus Michels, the Total Football inventor back in his nation’s dugout, preferred the 23-year-old’s former Ajax comrades, Wim Kieft and Johnny Bosman (not to be confused with Jean-Marc Bosman, of Belgium and Bosman Rule fame). Kieft had just top-scored in the Eredivisie for Guus Hiddink’s European Cup winners, PSV, while Bosman had impressed Michels during Van Basten’s injury. Speaking later from the comfortable armchair of achievement, Van Basten admitted, “Bosman had played a few games and done well, so there was no reason to change. Never change a winning team... and Holland were winning.”

In The Times’ preview of the tournament, Gullit said: “Van Basten could be our greatest weapon. He has a special ability to see goals and make space when there appears to be none.” But in an era when squad numbers were used only in international competitions, Bosman got the No.9 shirt, Kieft was gifted Cruyff’s hallowed No.14 and Van Basten was handed No.12: the substitute. 

Seeking advice back in Amsterdam during a one-on-one training session with mentor Cruyff, the frontman received some typically Cruyffian counsel: walk out. Thankfully for the Dutch he didn’t, instead hiding from Michels while smoking crafty cigarettes at the camp. Keen to play in his country’s first tournament for eight years, he knew his time would come: in his words, “I was just watching and learning, waiting for the moment when I got my chance.”

The chance would come soon enough, after a substandard opener against the USSR at Cologne’s old Mungersdorfer Stadion – it was the second-smallest of Euro 88’s venues, with a mere 60,584 capacity. Scientific Soviet gaffer Valeriy Lobanovskyi had selected 11 squad members from his own hyper-drilled Dynamo Kiev side; one of them, Vasily Rats, powered a shot past Hans van Breukelen early in the second half and Lobanovskyi packed his midfield, forcing the Dutch long. Introduced on the hour, Van Basten hit the woodwork with a late header. His team lost 1-0 but he won back his place for the next game: one of unexpectedly high stakes against England.

Like the Dutch, Bobby Robson’s Mexico 86 quarter-finalists had entered Euro 88 among the favourites. And, like the Dutch, they had lost their first match 1-0, to Jack Charlton’s unheralded Irish debutants.

The Rheinstadion showdown was presaged by three-way Dusseldorf dust-ups between the worst elements of the English, Dutch and local neo-Nazis. On the field, the Netherlands looked the better side, but Gary Lineker and Glenn Hoddle hit the same post. Just before half-time, Frank Rijkaard sent Gullit flying up the left, and Gullit found Van Basten with the outside of his boot. The striker pirouetted to flick the ball past Tony Adams with his right foot, then, as Gary Stevens closed in for the tackle, he slid the ball home left-footed past Peter Shilton. England levelled through their captain, Bryan Robson – but this day would be remembered for one man. 

Jan Wouters mishit a volley towards Gullit, who expertly trapped the unintended pass and calmly laid a short diagonal in front of Van Basten, 18 yards out. Left-foot control,

right-foot touch to shield the ball away from Stevens, left-foot finish: 2-1. Shilton’s 100th cap was not going to plan – England were on their way out. Bobby Robson threw on Mark Hateley, but before the Monaco man could draw a bead of sweat, the game was beyond England as a swivelling volley completed Van Basten’s hat-trick. “This was a special day,” he later told FourFourTwo. “From that game onwards, everything in Euro 88 went well.”

It very nearly didn’t, though. The third and final group game was against the Republic of Ireland in Gelsenkirchen. Charlton’s upstarts had followed their victory over England with a 1-1 draw against the USSR, so they needed only one point to reach the semi-finals of an eight-team tournament. They almost went one better: Paul McGrath hit a post from Ray Houghton’s corner, before Gerald Vanenburg scrambled the rebound off the line. 

Michels sent on Kieft, as he had against England, and recent history repeated itself. Again, a Dutch mopper – Ronald Koeman this time – collected a drooping clearance on the volley; again, he miscued; and again, his shot fell kindly. Kieft’s head redirected the ball to send it drifting well wide of Packie Bonner’s far post... until it bounced and spun violently back towards goal, wrong-footing Bonner and ambling apologetically inside the post. 

The Netherlands were through to face their greatest enemy – and their own history. 

The Dutch/German conflict has produced entire books about sociology, and some of our sport’s greatest literature. But given the rivalry’s importance, and Van Basten’s key role in it here, a quick reminder is necessary.

During the Second World War, the Nazis occupied the Netherlands (and indeed much of Europe). This was not a pleasant event, from the mass theft of Dutch bicycles to far worse atrocities. Mutual resentment lingered. Skip forward three decades and the Dutch dominate with Total Football: Ajax lift the European Cup in 1971, ’72 and ’73, and the Oranje waltz to the 1974 World Cup Final – where they face their hosts, West Germany. Rinus Michels’ side lead in the second minute but fail to press home their advantage, which allows Paul Breitner and Gerd Muller to score and break Dutch hearts. Meanwhile, Bayern Munich follow Ajax’s back-to-back-to-back triumphs with three successive European Cups of their own between 1974 and 1976.

So, the stakes were high in 1988. Among the 56,000 at Hamburg’s Volksparkstadion were far more Dutch fans than their official allocation of 6,000; a newspaper back home called it an “invasion in reverse”, while many there chanted, “Give us back our bicycles”. And history was to be undone.

First, as in 1974, a questionable spot-kick – but this time to West Germany, with Lothar Matthaus scoring from 12 yards after Jurgen Klinsmann fell over Rijkaard. Then, as in 1974, an equalising penalty – converted by Ronald Koeman after Van Basten slumped over his marker, Jurgen Kohler.

However, this was ’74 inverted. Instead of all three goals being scored in the first half, they came in the second half; instead of the Dutch taking the lead, it was the Germans; and instead of the Germans coming from behind to win, it was the Dutch. And it was Van Basten with the winner, an 89th-minute moment of clinical ability and adaptability. 

Ronald Koeman found Wouters in space. Wouters sent a straight alley-ball down the inside-right channel. Van Basten outpaced Kohler diagonally at full pelt but just couldn’t reach the speeding ball – until he unfolded his balletic legs to hook it beyond Eike Immel. 

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The Dutch had defeated their ghosts. As Van Basten said, “Winning against Germany – especially in Germany – does not happen very often. After so many years remembering the loss in ’74, Holland finally won.”

Now they had to win again, to banish their World Cup final defeats of 1974 and 1978. “We were on a roll,” Van Basten would recall. “Everything was positive. A lot of players had found their confidence; I don’t think anyone was particularly nervous. We were convinced we could win.” In the second semi, the USSR beat Italy, featuring a teenage Paolo Maldini.

The final in Munich began slowly. With half an hour gone, Erwin Koeman’s cross took an age to fall out of the sky and onto the head of Van Basten, who deftly set up Gullit to score.

And then, on 54 minutes, came the goal.

Adri van Tiggelen fed Arnold Muhren, four diagonal yards from the left-hand corner of the box. The 37-year-old arched a high cross over the whole Soviet back four to a spot two yards inside the far edge of the penalty area, six yards from the goal-line. 

“Everyone said it was the best cross I ever made, but that’s just nonsense: Marco made

a not-very-good pass look very good,” mused Muhren. “I played it first time – I was trying to play the ball about two yards in front of him. I thought he’d bring it into the box.”

Van Basten had his own confession. “I was a little tired,” he remembered. “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’.”

Thankfully, he took a risk and shot. 

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The goal continues to astonish, no matter how often it is viewed. As the ball – maybe 20 feet high at the top of its arc – falls from far above the frame of the video, Van Basten studies it intently. Assessing the angles, his brain gets his body into shape. He strikes it. 

Even wily Rinus Michels knows he has seen history. Rising from the bench, he covers his eyes and mouth, shaking his head. Stunned. Meanwhile, the forward that he had decreed third choice runs away to celebrate his fifth goal in five games.

“It was just a fantastic feeling,” said Van Basten. “But the excitement about the goal, I didn’t really understand it and what I did. You can see that in my reaction. I’m asking: ‘What’s happening?’” 

Team-mates, too, queued up to question its logical possibility. “You cannot shoot from that angle,” said Ronald Koeman. “It really was too high,” agreed Rijkaard. “He’ll do that another million times and still not score that goal,” chuckled Gullit. “You need a lot of luck with a shot like that,” admitted Van Basten. “At that moment it was given to me.”

It wasn’t quite game over at 2-0: the USSR won a penalty. But Igor Belanov’s low blast was blocked by goalkeeper Van Breukelen, and the Dutch partied long into the night. In Amsterdam hotspot, the Leidseplein, some wag replaced the street sign with one that read, ‘Marco van Bastenplein’.

Marco Van Basten, Netherlands

(Image credit: PA)

Van Basten scored 117 goals in his next five seasons, winning the Ballon d’Or three times in 1988, 1989 and 1992, while helping Milan to win European Cups in ’89 and ’90 as well as more Serie A titles in ’92 and ’93. But his body was creaking, and an ankle operation in late 1992 went badly wrong. 

“My life was dominated by pain for the final three years,” he said. “The most frustrating thing is not the way I hurt my ankle, but the way I have been treated by some doctors –the person who damaged my ankle the most was not a player, but a surgeon.”

Although he didn’t officially retire until the summer of 1995, his last game was the first Champions League final on May 26, 1993. As football entered a new era, so did Van Basten: at 28, he was finished. He battled depression, later saying the only highlight of some days was eating dinner. Eventually he got through it and became a manager, but never to the same level. How could he?

But his legacy remains. Fabio Capello called the Dutchman “the greatest forward I ever coached”; Arrigo Sacchi called him “the best striker of all time”; Diego Maradona, asked to pick the best player he had seen live, said, “It is between Romario and Van Basten”.

And he will always have that goal. The one that beggars belief and defies description; the one that we would all love to score. He scored the greatest-ever goal in a final. Forget what might have happened and remember what did: Marco van Basten scaled the pinnacle no other player has.

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