In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, Marco van Basten discusses his extraordinary career that saw him become the world's best player only to be cut down by injury in his prime...
by Adam Bate
Even Fabio Capello cried.
The emotion of Marco van Basten's farewell at the San Siro is the stuff of Milan legend. It was August 1995 and the Dutchman had not played a game for almost two-and-a-half years but this was the end. The admission that his ankle problems were too much to overcome.
He was just 30 years old.
"It felt like a funeral," Van Basten tells Sky Sports.
"It really felt like a funeral. Not for me as a person but for me as a football player. I felt it. My colleagues felt it. The supporters in the stadium and even those watching at home on television felt it. It was very special and unique worldwide, I think. An historic moment.
"The moment that I died as a football player."
Van Basten should have been at his peak.
Instead, he had become an ex-footballer.
Despite his truncated career, he achieved enough to win the Ballon d'Or on three occasions and be rated by many of his coaches and peers as the greatest striker in the game's history.
Paolo Maldini certainly regarded him as the most complete. As former England captain Tony Adams once put it, 'at least I could beat Maradona in the air'. Van Basten had it all.
There was his triumph at the 1988 European Championships when he scored perhaps the greatest goal ever seen in a major final to secure his country's only international success.
There were the back-to-back European Cup wins with Milan, an achievement not repeated for a generation. Van Basten was the spearhead of one of football’s finest ever sides.
But how can anyone not wonder what might have been.
Even what turned out to be his final appearance as a footballer, the 1993 Champions League final, played in the very same stadium in Munich that had witnessed his most memorable goal, might have brought more glory had he not been severely hampered by his ankle.
"Just think about it," says Van Basten.
"We had that final that we lost because my ankle was so bad. Then, in 1994, we won. In 1995, we lost the final against Ajax. I was still part of the team, I could not train or play but I was there. If I had been healthy and in shape, that is three Champions League finals right away."
It raises the obvious question. How long did it take him to get over it?
"It was when I was about 48," he replies, deadpan.
"I accepted then that it was over."
Van Basten, now 56, has had half a lifetime to reflect on the opportunities that were stolen from him as a result of a failing body undermined by botched operations and bad advice.
He has not always enjoyed looking back, readily admitting to residual feelings of bitterness. But the publication of a new autobiography has proven a cathartic experience for him.
During an hour-long interview that takes in tales of Johan Cruyff and Arrigo Sacchi, glory at home and abroad, his struggles as a coach and his work with FIFA, the subject of the right ankle is never too far away. But there is a sense of satisfaction as well as frustration now.
Even so, he remembers where his difficulties began. It happened in 1986 in a game against Groningen. His elder brother had come over from Canada and was in the stands. Van Basten wonders if perhaps he was throwing himself around that little bit more to impress him.
"I made a tackle and all of a sudden I had an ankle problem," he says. "The big problem at that time was that the doctor told me it was not a big problem and I would be able to continue playing with the injury. So I continued to play but I kept feeling pain."
He had torn his ankle ligaments but the misdiagnosis meant that Cruyff, Ajax's coach at the time, encouraged Van Basten to play on. Given the medical assessment, there was a suspicion that the player's impending move to Italy might be affecting his thinking.
"The doctor told him that playing would not make it worse so I had to play. It was not easy because Johan had a lot of experience. My feeling was that he would know what to do."
A compromise was reached. "We made a deal. Most of the games I could rest but there were a few games I would have to play because it was important for the club."
Van Basten captained the team to victory in the final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup, scoring the only goal of the game and bowing out as a hero. But it came at a price. This was long before Euro '88, before the success at Milan. But it was also, in a sense, the beginning of the long goodbye.
Van Basten does not blame Cruyff. On the contrary, he remained his mentor. That enduring influence on his life, alongside that of his father, is one of the themes of the book.
"Johan was my inspiration," he says. "I wanted to be like him. He was my hero."
Van Basten was just a teenage hopeful when the conqueror returned for his second spell at Ajax. "All of a sudden he was back in Amsterdam. My hero there at the same time."
Symbolically, it was even Cruyff whom Van Basten replaced when making his debut.
"He was very clever in how he played and how he thought about football," he recalls. "He was almost like a teacher. He explained everything that was important on the pitch.
"We had a special feeling, a special relationship. He would take training sessions for the second team when I played for them and he always seemed to take an interest in me."
Cruyff identified a kindred spirit even if his own ambitions for Van Basten differed from what the man himself wanted from his career. The boy from Utrecht, who maintained a childhood notebook of his goals even after making his Netherlands debut in 1983, was too single-minded for that.
"He saw the talent in me but he wanted me to be a No 10 because I could have more influence on the game that way, not just scoring goals but controlling the team’s play.
"That is what he had done in his own career and he wanted that for me. But I was still young. I wanted to score goals and be a star. When he put me as a No 10 and John Bosman as the striker, Bosman was scoring lots of goals and I did not like it. I could not accept it."
Cruyff would re-enter Van Basten's life on numerous occasions over the decades, supporting him when he went on to coach Ajax and the national team. There was a falling out before he died when Van Basten was not prepared to fully commit to Cruyff's vision for his old club.
Two years ago, a chance meeting with Cruyff's widow provided comfort. They reconciled when she told him that the great man had only two favourites – Pep Guardiola and him. "Our relationship had been a bit cold but we spoke again. It was a nice feeling," he says.
Perhaps Cruyff's most significant intervention after those early days together at Ajax came when Van Basten was working his way back to fitness ahead of the Euros in 1988.
The pair met up for one-on-one training sessions together. Van Basten laughs at the suggestion that it sounds like something from a Rocky movie but this preparation work was the catalyst for a comeback that would provide Dutch football's greatest moment.
Van Basten did not even make the starting line-up for the first game – a defeat to the Soviet Union. But his hat-trick against England next time out turned it all around. He scored the late winner against West Germany in the semi-final before volleying home the tournament's last - and best - goal.
The irony for Van Basten is that his outrageous volley against the Soviet Union, executed from the most acute of angles, was only possible, he says, because of his damaged ankle.
"After the operation in 1987, my ankle could not move really. If you had to rate it out of 100, I could maybe move my ankle 80 per cent. That was my limitation. But it was my limitation when I shot at goal against the Soviet Union that probably helped me.
"Without that limitation, I would not have been able to get that effect on the ball to make it dip down. You would normally say that to score a goal like that the ankle must be perfect. The ankle was far from perfect but I made a goal with that ankle.
"It was a strange goal."
Suddenly, Van Basten was a national hero. He won the Ballon d'Or that year despite barely kicking a ball for half of it. Over in Italy, his unavailability for much of that first season might have been a major issue were it not for the fact that Milan were flying without him.
Another Dutchman was playing a starring role.
"I was lucky that Ruud Gullit came with me to Milan and had a wonderful first season," Van Basten explains. "Everything was focused on Ruud so nobody was really complaining about my year – and it had been a really bad year. I was injured before I even went to Italy.
"For the first six to eight months I was in big trouble and it was very hard. But Ruud played so well that the attention went to him. That gave me the peace that I needed to recover."
With his exploits at the Euros, that peace was over.
"In Italy, they were waiting. Now I had to show my qualities."
Arrigo Sacchi, famously, was the jockey who did not need to be a horse. The former shoe salesman who dispensed with the sweeper system to shape one of the game's great sides.
The back four, led by Franco Baresi, is widely regarded as the best ever. The midfield was not bad either and with three Dutchmen adding another layer of quality – Frank Rijkaard joined Van Basten and Gullit in the summer of 1988 – they conquered Europe in style.
"This was our period," he says.
If there is a surprise, it is that Van Basten is not overly effusive in his praise of Sacchi in his autobiography. The endless defensive drills, the relentless focus on shutting down the opposition, did not fit with his ideas of an attacking game. But he is keen to clarify his thoughts.
"I do not know if the book is telling the right story about Sacchi because Sacchi was a good trainer and I had a good feeling with him. It was not that he was not a good trainer. That is not true. But comparing him to how Cruyff approached football, it was very different.
"I think the way that Cruyff treated the team is exactly what football players like. He would talk about the game in a way that made it fun to play. If you play, you want to attack, right? It was always about creating something, it was always positive.
"In Italy, with Sacchi, it was different. It was about building up from the back with the defence. It was a completely different way of coaching football. Cruyff was more adventurous and spectacular. Sacchi was more disciplined. It was just another way."
Italian life, in general, was a culture shock. Van Basten, a self-confessed country bumpkin in comparison to his new colleagues, was taken aback by the experience.
There were fancy washbags and hairdryers in the dressing room – all new to him. Instead of the usual football chatter, there was Carlo Ancelotti advising on the correct way to cut Parma ham.
"When you are growing up in Holland, Italy was another world at that time. Today, if you go from England to Italy, you will probably read the English newspaper, watch the English television, and the connection with your own family and your own country remains close even when you are living in another country.
"At that time, you are going to Italy and that means speaking Italian, because almost nobody speaks English, eating Italian food, watching Italian television and reading Italian newspapers. So you had to learn the language and the life of Italy. That is a good thing but it was something I had to work on."
On the pitch, this was the pinnacle of the club game at that time. Milan were pipped to the title by Diego Maradona's Napoli in 1990 but every team had their own superstar. World-class talent was everywhere – and they had to be good to find a way past ruthless defences.
"The best players in the world were playing in Serie A," says Van Basten. "The level of the Italian competition was so high that just scoring a goal was very difficult."
Van Basten managed it. Twenty-five times in the 1991/92 season. That was the most goals that anyone had scored in a Serie A season in over a quarter of a century. Remember that the back-pass rule was only brought in the following season. It was a monumental feat.
He was named FIFA World Player of the Year at the end of 1992, but the fateful decision to attempt yet another operation on his ankle that same month meant that even as he was being celebrated, and at the age of just 28, his extraordinary career was all but over.
"I had always had the feeling that the doctors could help me because they had done their study and it was their profession," he says, with some sadness. "That was my belief."
Some of the treatment that Van Basten received can feel now like it belongs to the Victorian era of medicine. He was told that the operation in December 1992 would keep him out of action for just four weeks but the surgeon proceeded to saw through the bone.
The pain was sharper afterwards and it was constant. He was never the same. His wedding day was spent on crutches and the subsequent treatments became increasingly desperate.
There was hypnotherapy and acupuncture. Herbal soup in a bag attached to his ankle. Most gruesome of all was the Ilizarov apparatus, used to reshape the bone in the case of severe fractures but very painful. He wore the frame for months, periodically turning a screw protruding from his leg to aid the reshaping process, and had multiple infections.
It did not work.
"I tried lots of different things to save my career but the bone was becoming so fragile that it was almost going to break. In the end, I just wanted the pain to go away."
When one trusted advisor pushed for Van Basten to go to India and speak to a faith healer, he knew the game was up. "That was when I said, 'No, I am done now'."
The problem was that even after accepting that his football career was over, Van Basten still had to deal with the difficulty of the pain – both physical and mental.
"I lived in the darkness," he says.
"As a player, it was all about the physical challenge of the injury. When I stopped playing it became a mental challenge too because I was still only 32 years old and I was still injured.
"I had thought my career would continue until I was 36. I never thought that I would quit. Football was my life. I was eating and sleeping football. It was my whole life.
"So I had to completely change my way of living. I succeeded but at the time it was really difficult. I could not play football but I could not walk either. And I still had pain in my ankle.
"What could I do?"
The decision to fuse his ankle was a tough one.
"That was when it became mentally heavy because I had to accept that I would be limited for the rest of my life. At 32, when you have a career in sport behind you, making a decision that accepts that your movement is going to be debilitated is not an easy decision to make."
Ultimately, there was little choice. He was already sleeping downstairs because of the pain. He could not play with his children. Van Basten would later be told that the ankle he had been taping up since the age of 22 had the sort of damage usually seen in someone aged closer to 80.
"I had so much pain in my ankle that I could not walk. I could not do anything. At that time, I was thinking about what I was going to do with the rest of my life if I could not walk."
Fusing the ankle in 1996 would restrict him for the remainder of his days. But it would also mean an end to the pain. After the operation, the only emotion was relief. Van Basten regards the surgeon, Niek van Dijk, as the only one who ever truly helped him.
“There was sunshine in my life again."
Almost a quarter of a century on, there has been an unfulfilled coaching career. "I don’t have the right mentality for it. I am far too intense." Even a period working at FIFA trying to amend the game's laws. "It was so difficult to make changes. After two years, I left."
But always there are thoughts of a spectacular playing career that was cut short.
Imagine, for example, how Van Basten must have felt when Van Dijk operated on Cristiano Ronaldo's right ankle in Amsterdam in 2008. He was out of action for just six weeks.
"Maybe if I had been playing 20 years later then the medical help would have been better. I could have played more. I wanted more. I wanted to win more important trophies.
"I saw Cruyff at 36 and the way he played was interesting because he was so quick to understand situations. Football can still be very nice at that age because even though you are not as strong or as quick, you can still see things that others see two seconds later.
"If I had been able to play until I was 36, that is 2000. That is a lot of years in which to win something. It is not an easy career to have had when you have the mentality that I have."
It was a chance meeting with a French baggage handler that changed Van Basten’s outlook.
He was on vacation on the Cote d'Azur when he spotted a group playing footvolley on the beach and felt compelled to join in, hoping his touch would make up for his restricted movement. One player, Jean-Claude, aged around 40, stood out from the rest.
Van Basten was taken with his skills and asked whether he had once been a professional. The answer was that he had not – his hopes scuppered by a cruciate ligament injury at 16.
He recounts the tale in his book, explaining how the thought of Jean-Claude's lost career would not leave him for the rest of his holiday. “He was a very talented player. He had a problem and that meant that he could not have all these experiences that I had.”
There are other moments too, one of them particularly harrowing. A tragedy earlier in Van Basten’s life when his childhood friend Jopie fell through the ice and died. He watched the horror unfold in front of his eyes.
Later, there was a narrow escape when the Ajax dugout collapsed. One staff member had to have two toes amputated. Another damaged his neck vertebrae. Van Basten, already substituted, only avoided the incident because he had stopped to speak to a journalist.
They are the moments that he returns to when feeling regret.
“I was only ever thinking about what I had missed in my career. I'd had 10 years but then I had missed 10 years. So I was always thinking about the 10 years that I had missed.
"I was thinking that the bottle was half empty. I came to see that the bottle was half full.
"It is gone now. I am not thinking about it. I have a nice life."
But how does he want to be remembered?
"If I don’t get enough attention, I want more attention. If I have too much attention, I want it to stop. It is not always easy to understand myself."
He smiles at the contradiction, before offering a succinct answer, one that he knows cannot hope to encapsulate the emotions stirred by the career of one of the game's greats.
"I had nice years at Ajax, wonderful years with Milan, and won something with the national team. When I was 25 I wanted to receive so much more of this," adds Van Basten.
“But I know I was a good football player, so I am happy. It is not a problem.
"It took me a lot to understand that what I have done was good enough."
Source: Sky Sports / Adam Bate