There's only one Marco van Basten: AC Milan's Dutch legend may never be surpassed

The striking legend commands a special place in the hearts of Milanisti, and memories of his exploits have been thrust back into the front of the mind of late
By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Writer

His is a name that is never far away from the lips of AC Milan fans. Rare is the time any Rossonero over the age of 20 will let the opportunity to regale you with stories of him at his peak pass by. Old replica shirts and framed photographs of him in the famous red and black continue to enjoy pride of place on the walls of Milanese restaurants, and while players come and players go Marco van Basten remains in the very upper echelons of club legends.

And in recent times, there has been even more talk of the Dutch striking superstar on the streets of Lombardy. Despite his underwhelming coaching career so far, he continues to be considered by supporters whenever there is a vacancy at Milanello, and Massimiliano Allegri’s struggles this season have had many dreaming of a Van Basten return.

Add to that the Heerenveen boss’ attendance at the victory over Juventus at San Siro which sparked the lengthy chanting of his name before, during and after the match, and then the recent comparisons of his scoring record with that of Stephan El Shaarawy this season. But the truth is that if the No.92 has even half the career of Van Basten, he will too will achieve legendary status. If anything, El Shaarawy’s recent exploits – bagging 12 goals in the first 15 rounds of the Serie A season – have simply given rise to even more reminiscing about the storied career of Van Basten amongst Milanisti of late.

Three Ballons d’Or, two Capocannoniere titles, one Fifa World Player award, a European Cup scoring crown ... the individual honours were collected with ease as part of a Milan side that racked up 16 trophies with Van Basten in the side. But it was not just in the number of goals he scored and personal awards he earned that the Flying Dutchman became so beloved.

His grace, his style, his movement and his relentlessness in the last third all came from the very top drawer, and he only became a better player after arriving from Ajax with four successive Eredivisie top scorer’s titles under his belt. Legend has it that Silvio Berlusconi sat down with Adriano Galliani to watch a videotape of potential striker signings in 1987 and switched off the tape after watching a handful of Van Basten goals, satisfied he had already seen enough to be convinced of the Dutchman’s quality.

Goals Games Goals Games Goals Games
1987-88 11 3 3 0 5 5 19 8
1988-89 33 19 9 9 5 4 47 32
1989-90 26 19 7 3 7 2 40 24
1990-91 31 11 2 0 2 0 35 11
1991-92 31 25 0 0 7 4 38 29
1992-93 15 13 5 6 2 1 22 20
1993-94 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
1994-95 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
  147 90 26 18 28 16 201 124

Signed for a fee of 1.75 billion lire (around €875,000), it was clear that Milan had picked up a real bargain from the start, and despite ankle trouble dogging him during his first season in Italy, his value was multiplied manifold thanks to his remarkable exploits at the European Championship in West Germany the following summer when he scored five goals, including the famous lofted volley from an acute angle in the final against the USSR.

He returned to Milan and continued that form over the course of a 1988-89 season which culminated in the 4-0 crushing of Steaua Bucharest at Camp Nou which secured the club’s third European Cup victory. Van Basten and Ruud Gullit scored two apiece in the final, taking the marksman to nine goals in the continental success and 32 in total for the campaign. He would add another 24 the following term as the Rossoneri claimed back-to-back European crowns.

Netting clinical strikes from in and around the area, spectacular efforts from distance and everything else in between was his most magnificent of fortes. His physical strength, two-footedness and fantastic ability in tight spaces made him a nightmare for defenders. He proved during his time in the unforgiving surroundings of Serie A that he was truly one of football’s most complete strikers of all time.

‘San Marco’ was again the club’s top scorer in 1990-91 despite a relative lull seeing him net just 11 times, but he claimed a second Capocanniere award the next time around with 25 league goals, including hat-tricks against Foggia, Cagliari and Atalanta, helping Fabio Capello’s side end the season unbeaten in Serie A.

The 1992-93 campaign started with Van Basten firing like never before. Doubles in a 5-4 win at Pescara,  a 7-3 victory at Fiorentina and the 5-3 success over Lazio suggested the Dutchman was ready to move up another level. In November alone he grabbed two four-goal hauls, single-handedly dominating the fixtures against Napoli and, most memorably, Gothenburg, in which he scored an overhead bicycle kick almost every Milanista has attempted to replicate on the local park at some stage in the 20 years which have since passed.

"Marco was the greatest striker I ever coached. His early retirement was a mortal misfortune for him, for football, and for Milan"

- Fabio Capello

The tragedy was that he would score only one more goal in his career after that famous night against the Swedes as his ankle troubles came back to decimate what should have been his peak years. The Champions League final defeat to Marseille would mark the final 86 minutes of a 28-year-old Van Basten’s time as a professional footballer. It had taken a number of heavy-dosage painkillers to get him out on the pitch and he missed a number of chances. He shouldn't have seen it end so soon, and certainly not on such a disappointing low.

Two years of attempted rehabilitation bore no fruit, and in August 1995 he was forced to announce his retirement. The next day, La Gazzetta dello Sport’s headline asked "Where will we find another like him?” To this day, the world is arguably still looking. Milan certainly are, despite the likes of Andriy Shevchenko and Filippo Inzaghi having had fantastic careers with the Rossoneri in the intervening years. Galliani lamented that football had “lost its Leonardo da Vinci” the day Van Basten retired, while Capello was moved to tears as the striker waved goodbye to the San Siro faithful.

Can El Shaarawy step into those shoes? The comparisons would be unfair on many more established forwards, let alone a 20-year-old whose finishing is not necessarily his best aspect. Certainly, he is not a deadly poacher in the Van Basten mould, more a wide attacker with a flair for seeking out and exploiting space in the last third. Goals will come as a result, but the Dutchman’s star is one that is destined to shine the brightest of all in the eyes of Milanisti for many years to come yet.

Would he ever return as coach? He spoke recently of it remaining a desire. “I have never turned down the Milan bench,” he told Sky Sport Italia. “I spoke with director Ariedo Braida two years ago, but it was only part of exploratory talks and nothing serious. I had to have ankle surgery and then nothing more came of it. Besides, I do not feel ready to be the Milan coach. It takes time to become a good coach.”

If Van Basten is to return as coach one day he will want to do the job justice. He clearly realises that even he would have a lot to live up to after a Milan career that may never been equalled.

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