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 By Simon Kuper

Van Basten and the greatest European Championship goal ever scored

Arnold Muhren's cross was wafting slowly, aimlessly, over the Soviet Union's penalty area. Muhren, then 37, had a crafty left foot and had been aiming to supply Dutch striker Marco van Basten at the back post. But he knew he had overhit this one.

It was the 54th minute of the final of the 1988 European Championship, and Holland was beating the Soviets 1-0. I was an 18-year-old Holland supporter, sitting behind the goal in Munich's Olympic Stadium (amid many empty seats) and wasn't expecting anything to happen.

But then Van Basten volleyed in a goal that is now considered one of the best ever scored in a big game. (For those in regions without rights to see the above video, watch Van Basten's goal here.) 

Let's rewind to set the scene: the Dutch left-back Adri van Tiggelen had intercepted a poor Soviet pass and started a counterattack. He slipped the ball sideways to Muhren. At this point four Soviet defenders entered the box, with Holland's Ruud Gullit in the middle, a possible target. But then there was Van Basten, peeling away on the outside, behind the defenders.

To reach Muhren's cross, Van Basten had to run away from the Soviet goal toward the edge of the penalty area. When he got there, he rotated his hips such that he was facing goal, jumped and let fly. Any striker could have gotten lucky and scored it. Only with Van Basten in his form of that summer would you have bet on his doing so. His shot rose over the leaping Soviet keeper Rinat Dasaev and then fell into the goal at the far post: a drive and a lob in one. Dasaev landed tottering on his feet. Dutch coach Rinus Michels -- an old man who had seen it all, a father of the "Total Football" strategy who had just witnessed something decidedly more direct, more smash-and-grab -- rose from his bench, covering his face in disbelief.

Just 23 that day, Van Basten seemed to have his career ahead of him. Instead, that moment turned out to be a zenith he never quite reached again, either as a player or in his life since.

It was a surprise that he was even playing in the tournament. The ankle injury that would end his career had already begun to trouble him, and he had missed most of the 1987-88 season, his first with Milan. As a player, the young Van Basten was already dying, though nobody then knew it.

When Holland went into training camp for Euro '88 in West Germany, he still wasn't match-fit. Michels told him he would start the tournament as Holland's third striker behind Johnny Bosman and Wim Kieft. Van Basten had played with both Bosman and Kieft at Ajax. He knew he was better than they were. Even Bosman and Kieft knew it. During one-on-one training sessions in Amsterdam with his mentor and former coach Johan Cruyff, Van Basten asked him what to do. Cruyff counseled the traditional Dutch solution: walk out of the tournament.

Luckily, Van Basten ignored the advice and went to West Germany. After all, this was his first major tournament. Holland had failed to qualify for Euro '84 and the World Cup in Mexico.

In West Germany, he secretly smoked cigarettes in camp when Michels wasn't looking, got onto the team for the second game against England and scored a hat trick.

Then he decided Holland's semifinal against hosts West Germany with an 87th-minute goal that still looks impossible: sliding at top pace to his right, he hooked the ball to his left to beat the keeper from outside the area. In Holland, millions took to the streets that night for the largest public gathering since the liberation in 1945. That semifinal, drenched in Dutch anger about Germany and World War II -- was the Dutch emotional climax of the tournament. Sitting in the stands an hour or so before the final, a fellow Dutch fan told me: "I don't really mind what happens today, now that we've beaten the Germans."

Van Basten (still wearing the substitute's number 12) was mostly invisible against the Soviets. Before Muhren's cross began floating his way, he had had just one moment: a headed assist to Gullit for Holland's first goal.

Watching that second goal now on YouTube, what is immediately striking is how skinny Van Basten looks, compared with modern players. He is wearing the horrible tiger-striped orange shirt that Holland wore only that summer. The ankle injury has affected his balance; he is no longer at the height of his physical powers. But what he does have in that moment is the total self-confidence that even great athletes attain only occasionally.

Henk Spaan, Dutch author of various soccer books, says: "He could hit that volley because at that moment he was absolutely the master of the ball, and of that team." In the previous 10 days, Van Basten had scored four goals. Against West Germany, he had been personally responsible for the best moment in Holland's soccer history. So he felt good enough to have a crack from an impossible angle. In his own, typically downbeat, words: "It's the kind of ball that you think, 'What can I do with it?' I had to take it in the air and in the middle of the busyness. Well, then you just try something."

The sight of the ball in the net was so unexpected that fans behind the goal didn't immediately cheer -- it took a second or two to register what had happened. Even Van Basten looked surprised as he hugged his teammates. "This happens to you," he told Dutch journalist Hugo Borst years later. "If I try it another 10 times now, I'll never do it again. This is the moment that is given to you."

"We'll both always be reminded of that one moment," Dasaev told the Dutch magazine Voetbal International in 2014, when Van Basten turned 50. "He a bit more than me, obviously. Nobody expected him to shoot, not me either. Muhren's cross was in the air so long. There was a defender in between; he should have prevented Van Basten from shooting." Dasaev said that for a long time afterward he hadn't wanted to watch videos of the goal: "I knew I couldn't reach the ball. You see that you have no chance, whereas you're always in goal believing that you can get any ball."

Back in Holland, the celebrations that had begun with victory over West Germany simply continued. On the Leidseplein, Amsterdam's traditional nightlife square, someone replaced the street sign with an official-looking board that read, "Marco van Bastenplein".

Van Basten, now assistant manager of Holland, never hit the heights of Euro 1988.

Euro '88 remains the only trophy that Holland has won. With hindsight, it kicked off the 23 most glorious months of Van Basten's career. With Il Grande Milan, "the great Milan", he won the European Cups of 1989 and 1990. But then in the only World Cup he would ever play, Italia '90, he and Holland flopped.

He had one more excellent season in 1991-92, without winning the biggest trophies, and late in 1992, at only 28, he had an ankle operation that went horribly wrong. Despite a couple of attempts at a return, he never made it back.

Unable to accept his early retirement, he fell into depression. He later said that some days his only highlight was dinner. Eventually he found a new passion in golf. He got so good at it that with his club team he became amateur champion of the Netherlands.

Later he went into soccer coaching. He was made manager of Holland before he had even coached a club. But he never shined, either in that post or later at Dutch clubs. The confidence he had displayed in volleying home Muhren's cross utterly eluded him as a coach. He thought he was a bad coach and a couple of times asked an assistant to do the job for him. Finally, at only 49, heart problems forced him out of coaching.

Today he is a rather cerebral Dutch soccer analyst who ponders the problems of FIFA and suggests changes to the offside rule. The striker who scored that goal in Munich faded away at a young age, and Van Basten never managed to reinvent himself. But then very few are granted even one moment like that.

Simon Kuper is a contributor to ESPN FC and co-author, with Stefan Szymanski, of Soccernomics.

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