European Championships: West Germany 1988
Following the glorious failures of the great Dutch team of the 1970s, Holland finally laid their hands on a major trophy at the European Championships in 1988. The outstanding trio of Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten comprised the spine of the team. And it was Van Basten whose match-winning performances and five goals firmly established himself as Europe’s foremost striker.
Yet after a disappointing opening-match defeat to the Soviet Union with Van Basten on the bench, the Dutch were in danger of an early exit when they faced England in a decisive group clash in Dusseldorf. Bobby Robson’s England started brighter, twice striking the woodwork as Holland struggled to compete. A minute before half-time, the recalled Van Basten exploded into life. Receiving a Gullit cross with his back-to-goal – seemingly well marshalled by Tony Adams – he spun onto his left foot past the Arsenal centre-half and squeezed the ball past Peter Shilton. Despite a Bryan Robson equaliser in the second-half, Van Basten completed his hat-trick with a quickfire double dispatched with the ruthless efficiency that had seen him become the Eredivisie’s top scorer for four consecutive seasons.
After a narrow win over Ireland in the final group match, the Dutch progressed to a semi-final showdown with hosts West Germany, a rematch of the 1974 World Cup Final. The rivals traded penalties as the game edged towards extra-time at 1-1. With just two minutes remaining, Jan Wouters slipped a through-ball into the path of Van Basten who outstretched the imperious Jurgen Kohler and hooked the ball across Eike Immel.
In the final against the Soviet Union, Ruud Gullit headed Holland into a first-half lead. Gullit, an outstanding athlete and charismatic playmaker, was the perfect foil for Van Basten both at club and international level. Early in the second half came the iconic moment which defines every great player: a demonstration of their unparalleled ability when the stakes are highest.
A looping cross from Arnold Muhren drifted out towards the far corner, dropping to the Milan forward a mere five yards off the bye-line and one inside the box. Despite the near impossible angle, Van Basten struck the ball perfectly, fizzing a dipping volley over Rinat Dasayev into the far top corner. It was an angle so acute even the camera-man behind the goal failed to capture the strike.
The volley was as audacious as it was technically immaculate. Such unpredictability was the hallmark of the maverick Dutchman as his Ajax manager during the late-1980s Johan Cruyff testified: “With Marco you never know what he is going to do. He goes left when you expect him to go right, comes inside when it seems he can only go outside.”
For Van Basten, Euro ’88 marked a watershed moment. Not only had he overcome some of the best defenders on the continent by scoring five goals in only four starts, he had inspired the national team to an overdue major trophy. Since joining Milan in 1987 he had experienced ”a difficult year with a lot of injury problems.” The following season he continued to shine winning the Ballon D’Or while his two goals against Benfica in the European Cup Final saw Milan clinch a domestic and continental double. Whether in the red-and-black of Milan, or the orange of Holland, Van Basten pushed his teammates to new heights.
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