Dutch football from Ajax to the Zuider Zee
Marco van Basten is no stranger to comebacks: his playing career was filled with them. Ultimately, he could no longer continue the act, retiring in 1995. He returned as a manager, then left again; now he’s back and this time it’s personal.
After injury ended his playing career in 1995, Van Basten vowed never to return to football but relented by returning to Ajax as a youth team coach in 2003. Within a year, the KNVB came calling on the recommendation of Van Basten's mentor Johan Cruyff – and ‘San Marco’ answered the appeal.
He succeeded Dick Advocaat after Oranje’s semi-final elimination at Euro 2004 – a decision he looks back on with slight regret. It was a move that drew parallels with Frank Rijkaard’s appointment prior to Euro 2000, but unlike his former teammate he inherited a side at a crossroads between two generations.
Having instigated a mutiny against Leo Beenhakker at Italia 90, Van Basten found the shoe on the other foot as he slowly fell out with the dressing room's more stubborn personalities – notably Mark van Bommel, Edgar Davids and Clarence Seedorf. Ruud van Nistelrooy went as far as to retire, but returned after Edwin van der Sar intervened.
Van Basten's stated concentration on Euro 2008, dismissing the 2006 World Cup, didn’t sit well; their subsequent failure only intensified criticism. Despite KNVB overtures about extending his contract to 2010 he pre-arranged a return to Ajax before presiding over a rollercoaster Euro 2008 in which the Dutch beat both World Cup finalists before losing to Guus Hiddink's Russia in the quarter-finals.
Van Basten in the Euro 2008 quarters
His return to Amsterdam was meant to usher a new period; after years of upheaval, here came a bright young coach full of ideas as well as commanding respect. It turned out very differently, and Johan Cruyff was adamant the club had set Van Basten up to fail. “I warned Marco. I saw all this coming and it has been happening for years and years. The organisation is rotten to the core.”
Cruyff had been scheduled to return as technical director around February 2009, but in an uncharacteristic change of mind pulled out stating a "professional difference of opinion" with Van Basten, who in turn opined Cruyff’s plans were "going too fast". Indeed, it would be another three years before Ajax would adopt his proposed reforms.
Van Basten, for all the external issues, isn’t immune or innocent. Unfairly or not, exuberant promises and extravagant purchases – including Oleguer Presas and Miralem Sulejmani for a club-record €16.25m – only led to increased scrutiny from the club's fifth column, and the subsequent pressure was unbearable. Ajax, like many clubs, can turn into a snake pit.
Getting his players to adhere to his approach was often a struggle; understanding the theory was no problem, putting it into practice was, especially when positive steps were countered by inconsistency. Nor did it help to lose leading scorer Klaas-Jan Huntelaar midway through the campaign.
The side lost all hope of Champions League football in their penultimate game – a 4-0 defeat at Sparta Rotterdam. “How in God's name is it possible that we can't beat Sparta when it really matters?" he asked. "Is it even fun to be manager anymore?”
Van Basten unceremoniously left before the season ended, admitting "I am not able to fulfil the demands that Ajax have for a coach.” The club were left in a worse shape than before Van Basten's return.
Marco faces the music at Ajax
The departure threatened to end a once-promising managerial career. Many expected him to head back to the golf course, but not Guus Hiddink. "This doesn't have to be the end of his coaching career," Hiddink said. "He also has the experience of four years as national coach. He should take time to consider his future."
He took his time alright; perhaps self-doubt crept in. This cut-throat business wasn’t made for the Utrechter. His name would pop up whenever a position became available – notably at Chelsea, AC Milan and Sporting CP – but nothing concrete… until this year, nearly three full seasons after his exile began.
In a bolt from the blue the day before Valentine’s Day, SC Heerenveen called a press conference and announced Van Basten’s return. The Friesian club had not long confirmed that incumbent Ron Jans would be leaving in the summer, but no one could have predicted his successor.
"This feels like a good and new challenge," said Van Basten. "I will bring with me the experience I have gained working with the Dutch national team and at Ajax. I am wiser now than then.”
The upcoming challenge is daunting. For a while last season, Heerenveen contested a six-way title race in one of the most open top-flight campaigns for a generation; however, they're set to lose three key individuals from the quartet that made their participation possible.
Bas Dost has already left for Wolfsburg; Luciano Narsingh and Oussama Assaidi are also set to depart. At least the creative Serbian Filip Đuričić, favourably compared to Kaka, should remain. Van Basten would have known of those likely departures before putting pen to paper, but equally he will have been encouraged by the club's longstanding reputation.
Heerenveen are the masters of reinvention, season after season, providing a perfect blueprint for those in the provinces. Whenever it seems, after losing influential figures, that they're dead certainties to struggle, they defy expectations and bounce back.
There are three simple and effective reasons: scouting – they have a very good network at home and abroad; a strong youth programme; and a frugal business model overseen by Robert Veenstra, their chairman since 2010. Nothing is left to chance for this club seemingly going places. There are plans in place to build their own ‘MilanLab’ and state-of-the-art training facilities.
The motive behind Van Basten’s emphatic ‘yes’ is their promising future. Heerenveen will play in Europe next season; the hope for a few years' time is not just to be a constant presence but to consistently reach the latter stages. “This is an ambitious club that wants to play at a higher level, but is also realistic,” says Van Basten. "I want to do all I can to build on that next season."
His approach and willingness to play an attacking brand of football will fit right in at Heerenveen. The Friesian club were the most entertaining side to watch last season with their carefree and expansive style under Jans. Their outlook was typified a few days before the Van Basten news broke in a 4-3 win over Roda JC which had everything: snow, goals, comebacks and more goals. It was nearly postponed, but those in attendance were glad it wasn’t.
Van Basten's latest return presents an opportunity to exorcise past demons and convince those who still doubt him. But he warned not to expect fireworks straight off the bat and he’s right to be cautious. Heerenveen's start isn’t what you call straightforward: home games against NEC and Ajax with trips to Feyenoord and AZ sandwiched in between.
It's to be hoped that Van Basten’s claim of newfound wisdom is true. His mere presence elevates the Eredivisie and football as a whole. Being self-critical, he admitted he should have taken an alternative route.
In an honest personal evaluation, he acknowledged that his management style was heavily based on intuition and that he would rather have stayed on as a youth team coach, in order to develop a stronger acumen and communication skills. “My career took off quickly,” he told de Volkskrant. “I missed the education you need. In this regard, [Ajax coach] Frank de Boer has done better.”
There’s no jealousy when he muses over De Boer’s unbridled success in such a short space of time. Instead, Van Basten reveres him as a model for any aspiring coaches. The assertion that great players don’t always make good coaches is one that has often been levelled at him, although he agrees still wants a fair crack at the whip. “Having such a background can be a benefit to your credibility,” he stressed. “But what matters is how I perform.”
Not many can say they’ve studied under Fabio Capello, Rinus Michels, Arrigo Sacchi and Johan Cruyff. Understandably, much of Van Basten's philosophy is drawn from their tenets. The expectations that originally burdened him were unrealistic. He made errors, such as being a disciplinarian when it wasn’t required, and tactically chaotic. If those lessons are learned, then this comeback could end up better than the last.
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