Van Basten in a class of his own
Netherlands coach Marco van Basten
Netherlands coach Marco van Basten reverts to an old Dutch saying when asked to assess his team's chances at UEFA EURO 2008™. 'De wind in de zeilen hebben' (having the wind in our sails), he explains, will be a crucial factor in the Oranje's bid for a second continental title. "If the wind is at our backs we can go a long way," Van Basten told uefa.com. "But if it blows against us things will be tough. Our first aim is to get out of the group, which is already a hell of a job, but if we do that then with a bit of luck we could go all the way."
Few Dutchmen are better placed to speak about UEFA European Championship triumphs than the legendary former striker. Van Basten, whose four-year spell in the charge of the national team will end when he joins AFC Ajax later this summer, played a starring role in the Netherlands' solitary success in 1988 and now has the opportunity to become the first man to lift the Henri Delaunay trophy both as a player and a coach. "I wasn't aware of that," the 43-year-old smiled, "but now I know I'll be even more motivated."
Not even the strongest of headwinds could have halted Van Basten and the Netherlands in West Germany 20 years ago. The ex-AC Milan star fired in a glorious hat-trick against England, found the net again in the semi-final against the hosts, then struck arguably the greatest goal the competition has ever witnessed in the final – a geometry-defying volley smashed past USSR goalkeeper Rinat Dasaev to secure a 2-0 win.
'I hit it perfectly'
Today Van Basten modestly refers to his sumptuous strike as "a moment of no thinking, just doing", but the three-time Ballon d'Or winner has no hesitation in calling the tournament one of his greatest memories. "When you look back at a career, the European Championship and the UEFA Champions League are the pinnacles after the [FIFA] World Cup, so this is definitely one of my highlights. People often ask me what I was thinking when I scored that goal. I remember it was in the second half, a long ball came over and I was in a position where it would have been difficult to control the ball and go past my opponent. So I thought I'd shoot. I hit it perfectly, but even I was surprised when I saw it had gone in."
It is ironic that a team coached by such a sublime attacking talent and possessing some of the most highly rated forwards in the modern game, scored just 15 in 12 UEFA EURO 2008™ qualifiers. That is eleven fewer than section winners Romania, who twice kept clean sheets against a nation boasting the talents of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Robin van Persie, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Arjen Robben. "We didn't score a lot in qualifying, but it's not as though we didn't create chances," said Van Basten, whose side are pooled again with Romania in the finals, as well as France and Italy in Group C. "Scoring can be simply a matter of confidence. Sometimes it happens easily. Then in the next game you create five chances and don't score. We haven't been very lucky.
Van Basten will be hoping a tactical change gets his team scoring more freely. After consulting his senior players earlier this year, he moved away from the 4-3-3 formation that has been the Oranje's hallmark for so long in favour of a 4-2-3-1. The switch led to instant reward, with a 3-0 friendly win over Croatia followed by an astonishing 4-3 success against Austria – although the manner in which the UEFA EURO 2008™ co-hosts raced into a 3-0 lead will have given the coach food for thought. "The friendlies are an opportunity to look at different players and tactics," he said.
The time for tinkering will be over come 9 June, when the Netherlands open their campaign against the world champions Italy. "When I saw the draw my first thought was 'I'd prefer to be in a different group'," Van Basten said. "We have to play the two teams that appeared in the last World Cup final, so it's going to be really difficult." Yet should the Dutch succeed in emulating their 1988 heroics, Van Basten could again walk away a proud man. He insists, however, that there will be no room for sentiment. "Winning the tournament would be beautiful, but not because I'm leaving. Whatever the situation, winning is always the most important thing."