Dutch legend Marco van Basten reflects on childhood tragedy and career

‘I was seven when my friend fell through the ice and I could not save him’: Dutch legend Marco van Basten reflects on horrific childhood tragedy, injuries that blighted his sparkling career and his struggles to come to terms with retirement

  • Marco van Basten’s glittering career was cut short as he entered his prime years
  • The Dutch icon was forced to retire at 28 due to continuous ankle injuries 
  • Van Basten acknowledges that he struggled to come to terms with his retirement
  • However, the 56-year-old reflects he is lucky to have enjoyed a great career  

Marco van Basten is sitting alone in a rectangular room at an office building in Amsterdam. The walls are painted white. There are no posters or pictures. It feels a little like being admitted to a sepulchre, a tomb for football’s lost angel, a resting place for the imaginings of what might have been. Van Basten sits at the head of the table, which is plain, too. The man they called the Swan of Utrecht remains still and regal. 

For a player who won so much, a player so revered and admired, his story is really a story about trying to overcome loss. The loss of his childhood friend, Jopie, who fell through the ice in front of his eyes when Van Basten was seven. The loss of his career, cut short in its prime. The loss of his confidence. The loss of his health. The loss of much of his money.

He lets me talk about it, not attempting to fill silences. ‘I can be very cold and freezy,’ he says later, ‘but that’s really because I am very sensitive. Because I am so sensitive, I try to defend myself and then I become cold and pragmatic. It is a shield for me to react in that way. When you get older and more open and more honest, it is easier to show yourself how you really are.’

Marco van Basten is a man torn by the way his glittering football career was harshly cut short

He listens to me babbling about how the good thing about his career being wrecked by injury is that we never saw him grow old on the pitch. Like football’s James Dean. Preserved for ever in the technical perfection of the glorious volley against the Soviet Union that won the 1988 European Championship final for Holland. Some called it the Goal of the Century. It was only a part of Van Basten’s portfolio.

There was a spell at the beginning of the Nineties when Van Basten was the best player in the world. He still makes most lists of the top 10 of all time. He won the Ballon d’Or three times and when Serie A was king, he was its top scorer twice. He was an elegant assassin, a beautiful player, a deadly finisher. With his compatriots, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard, he led AC Milan to back-to-back European Cup triumphs.

He was voted the FIFA World Player of the Year in 1992 but by 1993, his career was over. His last game was Milan’s Champions League final defeat by Marseille but by then his long battle with a succession of ankle injuries and unsuccessful surgeries had taken a brutal toll and he could no longer continue. He played that last match when he was just 28.

There is haunting footage on the internet of his farewell to the adoring fans at the San Siro before a Milan match on August 18, 1995. Van Basten, dressed in jeans and a suede jacket, jogs a lap of the pitch as the supporters hold up banners in his honour and sing his name. In the dug-out, Milan coach Fabio Capello, a stern man not known for shows of vulnerability, weeps openly for lost greatness.

‘Suddenly it hit me,’ Van Basten writes in his new book, Basta: My Life, My Truth. ‘As clear as day. It struck home. In front of the 80,000. I was witnessing my own farewell. Marco van Basten, footballer, was no more. You were watching someone who had ceased to be. You were clapping for someone who no longer existed. I ran and I clapped, but I was no longer there.

‘Grief rose from the depths of my being. It caught me by surprise. The singing, the applause, forced their way through my armour-plating. I wanted to howl, but I forced myself to remain calm. All under control, as I wanted to be, as I felt I had to be. I’ve always been able to do that if I really wanted to. This time was no different.

The Dutch icon was one of the world’s best footballers and part of the legendary AC Milan side

However, Van Basten was forced to retire at the age of 28 with a series of ankle injuries

‘I ran. And I clapped. But I showed nothing of the pain. I felt that the whole stadium was filled with grief. For what had been. For me. For who I had been. I was on the verge of tears, but I showed nothing. My lap was at an end. Something had changed. Something fundamental. Football had been my life. I had lost my life. That day I died as a footballer. I had been a guest at my own funeral.’

It is impossible not to be tortured by what might have been. Imagine Lionel Messi’s career cut short five years ago. Imagine we had never got to see that incredible solo goal against Athletic Bilbao. Imagine losing him from the Barcelona side that beat Juventus in the 2015 Champions League final. Imagine Cristiano Ronaldo had not been around to shape Real Madrid’s recent history. Imagine what Van Basten could have achieved. Imagine the moments he might have given us.

A quarter of a century on, Van Basten sits in his sepulchre in Amsterdam and smiles when I mention James Dean. ‘You never saw me get old,’ he says. ‘That’s true.’ But in the years since he retired, a battle has raged in his mind between grieving for the years that he lost and giving thanks for the time he had. The older he gets, the more obvious it becomes to him gratitude should be the victor.

‘I see Messi now, still playing at 33, Ronaldo at 35, even Robert Lewandowski at 32,’ says Van Basten, ‘and when I see what they are still achieving, I feel a little bit of regret. Ronaldo is still playing at the highest level and he has been on the highest level for a long time. What can I say? I just have to be happy I had these nice experiences at a young age. It is still lovely to see Messi and Ronaldo giving us these nice moments when we watch football.

The 56-year-old said his farewell at the San Siro felt like the death of his incredible career

‘In the beginning, I was disappointed because I had the feeling I couldn’t finish my career. So I missed 10 years of opportunities to win championships and European trophies. But at least I had 10 years of professional football where I was successful and enjoyed life and earned good money and it was beautiful to have that experience.

‘You always want to have the maximum but in the end, I had to be happy with what I had. That was a good lesson for me. The emotions are in the middle. I had 10 fantastic years and missed 10 fantastic years. Inside, I am not very happy that I couldn’t make these years like Ronaldo and Lewandowski, but I know there are plenty of players who had to stop when they were 17 or 18.’

He comes back several times to two examples. The first is a foot-volleyball player called Jean-Claude he met in Juan les Pins while he was holidaying there soon after his retirement. He was struck by how good the Frenchman was and asked him about his life. He had been a brilliant young footballer until a cruciate ligament injury had effectively ended his career when he was 17. Now he worked as a baggage handler at Nice airport and lived for his time on the sand.

Van Basten acknowledges that some of his best years have been cut short because of his injury

The striker says he could have added another ten years to his career but for the ankle problems

The second is his childhood friend, Jopie, a precocious player full of talent. This time the torture of what might have been is even more poignant. Because no one saw Jopie grow old, either. When Van Basten was seven, he and Jopie decided one winter’s day they would go on an adventure and found themselves hurdling frozen streams. They came to a lake and Jopie went out on the ice first, clutching one end of a rope while Van Basten held the other.

He was some way towards the middle when the ice cracked and Jopie fell through it. He let go of the rope, which was left in Van Basten’s hands. ‘He was wearing a woolly hat that day,’ says Van Basten, ‘a kind of speedskating hat. Blue with a white stripe down the middle and two red stripes either side. That hat was still floating there on the water. I remember it quite clearly.’

Van Basten ran to get help but by the time Jopie was pulled out, he was dead. Van Basten kept a picture of the boy with him for 10 years until his father, worried about the psychological effect it was having, threw it away.

‘It is difficult to understand how much influence it had on my personal life,’ says Van Basten. ‘I was seven and of course it has a major impact on your personality but what really was the effect? I don’t know. I liked to play football and he was one of my friends and at that age, I couldn’t really understand what was life and death.

Van Basten looks to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as examples of success in your thirties


The Dutchman feels he was a combination of Ronaldo and Bayern star Robert Lewandowski

‘I took it with me. It was still very emotional for me when I was starting to talk about it recently. I tried to put it far away. It was just one experience in the youth of a guy. He was a better player than me at that time. He was one year older. I went on and he wasn’t there any more. That was the reality. I kept a small picture of him and I always had it with me. After 10 years or so, I couldn’t find it any more. My father had thrown it away and said I had to forget the past.’

Van Basten turned 56 on Saturday. He is a father and a grandfather. His book details the crippling pain he suffered with his ankle injuries and his botched surgeries. There was a period when he had to drag himself across the floor of his house on his stomach to get to the toilet because of the agony his ankle was causing him.

He had ankle fusion surgery soon after he retired and now he walks without a limp most of the time. He used to play tennis but the court was big enough that it exposed his lack of mobility and he still hates losing so he started playing squash instead and now he plays obsessively. Sometimes, he plays golf with his old Milan team-mates. He is still friends with Gullit and Rijkaard.

Van Basten’s career regrets are rationalised by a tragedy that makes him cherish his success

It is often said that Van Basten was kicked out of the game and that the outlawing of the tackle from behind, for instance, came about because of the brutal treatment he received from defenders. He is put forward sometimes as a part of the game’s guilty conscience and a reason why players like Messi are afforded more protection now.

But that narrative puzzles him. He blames his early retirement on bad medical advice and botched surgeries. He says that his ankle problems had actually begun on December 7 1986 when he was playing for Ajax against Groningen at the Oosterpark Stadium. He dived into a tackle with Edwin Olde Riekerink. ‘I went in hard because I was annoyed at losing the ball,’ he says. ‘Straight away, my right ankle hurt.

‘The first time I got injured, it was a tackle I did. All the advice that physios, doctors and surgeons gave me later always created more problems than helped me. It was not the defender, or football, that kicked me out of the game, it was the wrong decisions and the wrong advice of the medical profession. They didn’t do it on purpose but they didn’t give me the right help.

‘Football is a little bit cleaner than it was 20 years ago and that’s good but no one can say that I don’t like a good tackle and a tackle is part of the job. If you are a defender and you are playing on the edge, that’s good. It has to be safe. If it’s an honest tackle, that’s good. I don’t want to make a game that is very prudent. It is a contact sport. Being tough is also part of the game. It’s good if it’s still part of it.’

Van Basten was a coach, too, but admits he struggled to deal with the mental pressure 

Van Basten was a coach, too, of course, and managed Holland at the 2006 World Cup and the 2008 European Championships but he was honest and courageous about the fact that he struggled with the stress of the job. When he stepped down as coach of AZ Alkmaar just five games into the 2014-15 season, he admitted management was ‘more and more often causing me physical and mental problems’.

‘As a player,’ he says, ‘you play and you have much more influence. As a manager, you talk about the game all week with every player and all of a sudden when it starts, your influence is so small and it was very difficult for me to accept that. I was so obsessed with winning that it really hurt me when we lost and I felt I was not good enough.

‘It was such a disappointment that it took a lot of energy out of me and it took so much energy out of me that I got so tired I couldn’t fight to continue or start again. In the end, I said “This is not good for me, this kind of job doesn’t make me happy, does not give me enough energy so it is better to quit. It is not good for my health”.’

Van Basten still loves football. He is an occasional pundit and last week he made headlines here by saying he felt Donny van de Beek had made the wrong choice by going to Manchester United. The forwards he admires now, he says, are Kylian Mbappe and Robert Lewandowski, as well as Messi and Ronaldo. ‘Lewandowski reminds me a bit of me,’ he says. ‘I was a bit of a mix of him and Ronaldo. I also understood playing with the others and I could give assists.’

In the end, Van Basten realises that his glass is half full after a wonderful footballing career

More and more, he says he feels like a man who has come to terms with what he lost, a man who has fought his way towards peace. ‘Great players, such as Romário and Ronaldo, win trophies between the ages of 19 and 22,’ he says, ‘and so I belong among them. It’s just that I was never able to finish what I had started.

‘But in the end, I increasingly realise that my glass is half full. I think about that Frenchman on the beach in Juan les Pins. Luckily, I’m able to think that way and appreciate everything that I had and everything that I have more and more often now.

‘I’m very happy and thankful. I have a lovely wife. I have three children. My eldest daughter has a son, my second daughter has a girl. I have a nice life and I am grateful. I am happy and I am enjoying every day. When I wake up, I feel good. I am still healthy. Every morning when I wake up and I feel well and I want to do sport, it is a way to understand I have a good life and I am happy.’

l Basta: My Life, My Truth by Marco van Basten published by Cassell on November 5, £20 (octopusbooks.co.uk)

l Basta: My Life, My Truth by Marco van Basten published by Cassell on November 5, £20




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