“It was very difficult because I went from the highest level in football down to the lowest level of personal unhappiness. It was a very big fall and a really dark time.”
Marco Van Basten, three-time Balon D’or winner
The pain in Marco Van Basten’s damaged ankle was so severe that by 1994, he would have to crawl from his bed to the bathroom. His only solace and way of diverting his attention from the excruciating pain he felt was to count the time it would take him to reach the toilet. He remembers: “Whispering, I never reach the toilet before I get to 120. The door sills are the most challenging part because my ankle must go over them without touching them. Even the slightest touch makes me bite my lip to prevent a scream.”
It was only two years earlier that he had won the Balon D’or for a third time and was named FIFA’s World Player of the Year. That season would culminate in his final game for AC Milan with who he won three European cups and in the previous season won the scudetto going unbeaten for the whole season. His final game would be the 1993 Champions League Final against Marseille. After missing six months of the season already through issues with his troublesome ankle again, he would come off injured in the defeat to Marseille in the 86th minute.
This was the result of a hard tackle from behind from match-winner Basile Boli and would once again require surgery on his ankle – the third of his career already on the same ankle. He still had hopes of taking part in the World Cup 1994 for the Dutch National team, but instead would spend two years on the sidelines. It was then on 17 August 1995 he admitted defeat in his battle against his injury, retiring from football and playing his last game at only 28.
Van Basten would make an emotional appearance before Milan fans one more time at a home game at the San Siro, which left not only fans devastated but also manager Fabio Capello in tears. Capello said this on Van Basten’s retirement, “Marco was the greatest striker I ever coached. His early retirement was a mortal misfortune for him, for football, and for Milan.”
His issues with his ankle however dated back to his time at Ajax. “I first got injured in December 1986 and it didn’t get better. Johan (Cruyff) had a discussion with the doctor who said: ‘He has a problem but it’s not going to be worse. He can play.’ I had a feeling this is not good. I’m in so much pain. Johan said: ‘Listen, we make a deal. You don’t play all the competitions and some training you can skip. But you must play in Europe. No matter what happens, you must play the final.’ That was the deal we made.” That year would see him score the winning goal against Lokomotive Leipzig, in the final of the UEFA cup winners cup in 1987. His scoring feats for Ajax was the reason Cruyff felt the need to ensure he played at all costs in Europe.
“Marco was the greatest striker I ever coached. His early retirement was a mortal misfortune for him, for football, and for Milan.” Capello
He would leave that summer after scoring 128 goals in 133 league matches for Ajax. He would move to Milan with his fellow Dutch international Ruud Gullit, but although Milan would win their first Scudetto in eight years, would see Van Basten only play 11 games due to his ankle. The following year would see Van Basten at his peak though as he recovered to score 32 goals in all competitions as he won the European Cup with Milan and Euro 1988 with Holland, scoring the spectacular volley remembered by all in the final against the Soviet Union, whilst scoring 5 goals at the tournament. Had Van Basten taken a break instead of continuing to play in 1987 at the request of his hero Johan Cruyff, would he have avoided the issues that caused him to retire?
In an interview with The Guardian in 2020 he said, “In the beginning, the doctors didn’t give me good advice. I went on and on and the damage got worse. The next season I went to Milan with Gullit. I played the first few matches in August-September, then I went to another doctor in Barcelona, and we made the decision to have an operation. It was too late, because the damage was done.”
As his career continued although to most, he was still one of the best in the world, evidenced by his Balon D’or wins in 1988, 89 and 92, the pain in his ankle became too much and his future way of life took precedence over his football career. “After a lot of problems with operations, I was limping. I couldn’t do anything without pain. I was really handicapped, and the doctors couldn’t help me. I was a little afraid. It had gone from bad to worse. After many operations, and seeing doctors from all over the world, I had tried everything, but we couldn’t find the solution. There was a moment in 1996 I had to say: ‘I have to try to get healthy.’ We decided to fuse my ankle. For a sportsman, and I was still only 32, that’s the worst choice. But I had to stop the pain.”
Even at 56 Van Basten was still limited in what he could do now, showing the tolls football takes on players’ bodies long term and what they put themselves through for the sport they love. “I don’t have any pain, but I am limited. I can’t play tennis or football. But I play squash and I am thankful. Looking back, I was feeling it was a pity I couldn’t finish my career after winning more Champions League [titles]. I wanted to show more of myself. Some players have 18 years in football. But some players are injured before they start. When I thought like that I said: ‘If I compare with that, I have been very lucky. At least I had 10 years of a beautiful experience that changed my life for ever.’”
Van Basten despite playing his last game at 28 was ranked sixth in the FIFA Player of the Century internet poll. He was also ranked by Sky Sports in 2007, first on their list of great athletes who had their careers cut short. This probably not an award Van Basten longed to achieve but there are so many examples from English football of players who have had their career cut short by injury, ruining their dreams of playing the sport they loved at the very top for as long as possible. Something that we all know from playing football and any sport can sometimes not be avoided.
However, there are also others like Van Basten, who felt pressured to play despite the long-term effects it had not only on their career but their health and mental health. Whilst others did it for fear of losing their place in teams to positional rivals and combated this with the use of painkillers to numb their pain. Painkillers that would then cause them as many issues as their injuries had already done previously if not worse. All this though to continue to play the sport they love, that would leave some unable to do the simplest of physical tasks; due to the permanent damage of an accidental injury during games or training, but in some cases due to tackles with malice bore out of anger towards them. The prime example most think of when they first think of tackles with malice is Roy Keane on Alfe-Inge Haaland.
There have also been cases of a terrible tackle from the player dishing out the tackle ending up causing more harm to themselves. A tackle that took place in the FA Cup Final 1991 between Spurs and Nottingham Forest, was a miracle that only one player came out of the horrendous tackle seriously injured and anybody watching the tackle would not believe the player on the receiving end would be the one coming off relatively unscathed. The player injured was Paul Gascoigne in the FA Cup final at Wembley.
Gascoigne playing for Spurs had scored a 30-yard free kick in the semi-final to see them past their north London rivals Arsenal. At the time he was one of the hottest properties in Europe and was set to join Lazio that summer in 1990. In some people’s minds and hopefully for Lazio, he could have the same effect Van Basten had on Milan, he had the potential to be one of the best players in the world. If you ask some Newcastle and Spurs fans, they will say he was up there with one of the best they saw. A Spurs fan I have recently spoken to on a Twitter thread I did about ‘Gazza’ said he was still the ‘remains the best player I have ever seen’. This is a testament some 30 years after his last appearance for the club.
However, his tackle on Forest player Gary Charles would see his game end after ten minutes. In today’s game, it wouldn’t have just ended for him due to his injury but a red card. Possibly more shocking was the fact he had got away with a similar horror tackle only minutes before, the occasion clearly getting to him. “I remember Charles coming down the right,” he recalls. “His touch brought him inside and I was off balance. I tried to get a good challenge on him to let him know he was in a game.”
It wasn’t a good challenge – for Spurs or Gascoigne. It gave Forest the free kick that Stuart Pearce would convert to give them the lead. And it meant a premature end to what should have been a momentous day for Gascoigne in his last game as a Tottenham player. “I got up and knew I wasn’t feeling right,” says Gascoigne. “I got back in the wall and Pearce scored but I wasn’t bothered about that. All I was thinking about was my injury.”
“His touch brought him inside and I was off balance. I tried to get a good challenge on him to let him know he was in a game.”
Straight after the restart, he would fall to the floor and his game was over and he now faced a lengthy spell on the sidelines. Tottenham’s physio John Sheridan remembers this about the whole situation in his autobiography ‘The Limping Physio: A life in Football”. Sheridan said: “Paul tried to play on at first, then I ran on to the pitch the second time and we both knew it was a serious injury straight away. I remember after he came off, waiting for the doctor and we both had tears in our eyes. I went to the hospital the next morning, got up at 6.30am, I was in the operating theatre and watched the surgery. I remember at the time that there was a fear that he would not play at the top level again. There was so much pressure at the time. Tottenham’s finances meant they were counting on the transfer, and it was a huge deal at the time. The pressure on me was huge. Lazio gave him a deadline to get fit.”
Luckily for Spurs Lazio didn’t pull out of the deal and signed him for £5.5million, after waiting for Gascoigne to return to fitness before buying him the following summer, with Spurs still willing to sell him due to their poor financial position. The original fee was expected to be £8.5million, which would have seen him become the second-highest signing in the world at the time behind Roberto Baggio. Gazza became even more of a household name in England even after his move to Serie A, with Channel 4 building their newly purchased coverage of the league around the England star from the Italia World Cup 1990. Football Italia become a huge success due to the pull of Gazza, other excellent talents such as Van Basten and the fact there was a huge audience due to it being shown on terrestrial TV. Gazza nursing the injury he suffered a year ago prior, finally showed the Lazio faithful what he could produce in his fourth game, scoring the winning goal against archrivals Roma, in the Derby della Capaitale. Scoring the winner from a powerful header in the 86th minute, jumping over the advertising hoardings to join his new adoring faithful.
Some believe that he didn’t reach the same heights during his three seasons in Rome but is still revered by the Lazio fans. What started as a love affair with Gazza and his journey to Italy, allowed many households to develop a love for excellent talents such as Alessandro Del Piero, Francesco Totti and Gabriel Batistuta to name just a personal few of my own favourites.
Many believe the injury never just stole Gascoigne of his dream of lifting the FA Cup in person and not just watching from a hospital bed, but affected the rest of his playing career, never being quite the same again. This is something that angers Sheridan.
“People ask whether he was still the same player afterwards or if he would have been a better player but for that injury,” said Sheridan.“But he played more games for England after that injury than before, and would a fully fit player been able to score that goal against Scotland in Euro 96? Looking back, I’m incredibly proud of what we achieved.” The injury still haunts Gascoigne to this day and mixed with a lot of complex issues in his past is another lasting memory that upsets him to this day. “The minute I started crying was the minute they started walking up the steps,” he says. “That was my dream. I still get a lump in my throat when I talk about it. I wasn’t bothered with lifting the trophy, I just wanted to walk up those steps.”
Gazza never reached the heights of Van Basten and maybe due to injury we may never know what both may have fully achieved in football and whether he would’ve ever been considered the best player in the world like Van Basten found himself three times. But what can’t be questioned is the natural talent both possessed. Hopefully like Van Basten alluded to, “At least I had 10 years of a beautiful experience that changed my life forever.”
Maybe if Gazza was able to look back and see his time in football as a beautiful experience, that he could find some solace in his life. Much has been made in the media witch hunt of his demise, but to fall to his lowest he also had to reach the top – which many in football he was destined to be at or already on his way to when he injured himself in the FA Cup final in 1991, which for many young kids in England would be the pinnacle of their life anyway.