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Megaphones, diagrams, champagne: the making of Marco van Basten

16 Th11 2021 | 06:39 | Football

Marco van Basten had a very particular character. He was meteoropathic, he could literally change with the weather – a difference in air pressure or temperature seemed to provoke an injury. But he was also a brilliant player whom I wouldn’t have swapped even for the best striker of the modern era – the Brazilian Ronaldo.

He was a good guy and an exceptional champion whose talent was truly unique. In the beginning, I worked hard to make him understand that we Italians were not primitive beasts. If he had a callus on his foot, he went to a Dutch podiatrist. If he had toothache, he went to a Dutch dentist. If he needed a haircut, he went to a Dutch barber.

I used to say to him: “Just remember, Marco, that when we were winning World Cups, you were still under water.” In the end, we convinced him, not least because it was at Milan that he became Van Basten. He never won the Ballon d’Or in the Netherlands. One time when he came back from national team duty, Marco said to me: “Boss, Milan play better than Holland and I have more fun here.”

On another occasion, we were watching a Pescara v Napoli game on TV together at Milanello [Milan’s training ground]. Giovanni Galeone’s Pescara laid siege to Napoli, who just couldn’t manage to get out or connect with their strikers. I said, “Marco, would you have liked to play in Maradona’s Napoli?”

His response? “If that’s the way they play, I’d soon be leaving.”

It took time and quite a few cases of champagne to win his trust and overcome his very Dutch snobbery, but in the end he became one of the most convinced champions of the cause, because he understood that our game made him great.

Someone like Frank Rijkaard would have done well in another Italian club – they would have taken the same advantage of his athletic strength. But Van Basten could not have found another team built to always attack, to stay tight and compact around him, ready to service him continually.

Champagne? We bet a case each time.

I would needle him: “Marco, I’ll set out four defenders, you put together a team of 10 – you’ll not be needing a goalkeeper. We get to clear the ball beyond half-way, then you go and retrieve it. If you manage to score once in 15 minutes, your team wins.”

I wanted to show him that four well-organised players are stronger than 10 who improvise. His team attacked and attacked but they never scored. If I had made Van Basten hand over all the cases of champagne I won from him, I’d still be drinking now.

I challenged him to an arm wrestle, too. Neither of us managed to get the other man’s arm down. He began to suspect that I hadn’t been fully trying, and indeed he was right. I had really strong, well-trained arms. I could chest press 90 kilos. Once I challenged Edgar Davids to see who could manage more reps with the bar using a single arm: it finished 10-apiece.

To show Marco the right position to take up when pressing, I had to shout into the megaphone a thousand times. Another thousand times, I had to draw him a diagram. I had to make him understand that, when our attack was over, he shouldn’t just take a rest up a siding – he needed to stay in an active position, ready to receive a pass or to hunt down the ball. When the lesson entered his brain and he was fully convinced of his own worth, Marco became a phenomenon at pressing, too.

Everyone remembers Franco Baresi’s forward runs, him leading forth the defensive line with his arms spread wide like an aeroplane. Or Ruud Gullit furiously chasing down the ball with his dreadlocks billowing in the wind. Few recall the spite with which Marco hunted an opponent when he pressed. Awareness, that little burst and then – bang! – he was on top of him. Van Basten was a piranha.

Not long ago, out for dinner with Rijkaard, Marco confessed: “Frank, we should put up a statue to Sacchi for teaching us pressing.”

As a coach, he [Van Basten] learned the lesson even more fully and was able to see differently the misunderstandings that had often caused us to argue in the early days.

When I left Milan, I gave the team a talk. Despite what some have written, it’s not true that I said: “Without me, you’ll not win anything any more.” I said something quite different. “You can still win trophies, but not in the same way. Not with our style.”

Trophies aren’t the only thing that makes a team. It’s also about its recognisability, its way of being unique – its style. I then said something else. “With everything you’ve learned, you’re football professors now. You can all become good coaches.”

From that side, three national-team managers (Roberto Donadoni, Rijkaard and Van Basten) have emerged, as well as two Champions League-winning coaches (Carlo Ancelotti and Rijkaard). Knowledge isn’t enough to become a good coach, however.

You also need passion and professionalism. Gullit, for example, did not have passion. Naturally, I’m very fond of Ancelotti, who started coaching at my side, but I have to say that it’s in Van Basten’s teams that I’ve seen my football, done well.

One time, when he was coaching the Netherlands, he confessed to me: “Boss, now that I’ve gone over to the other side, I can see how many problems I caused you.”

I replied: “Marco, if it’s any consolation, you should know that you solved plenty for me too.”

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