Marco van Basten: “they saw me as very determined or autistic.”

Dutch Translation: “Of course I have to become stronger, but I guess I’m on the right track.” Marco van Basten interviewed after scoring three imported goals against England at the European Championship 1988. One might say this is rather an understatement. Marco van Basten agrees. Nowadays, he finds it hard to look at himself in this video. Why? “I miss openness”.

History repeats itself, first as a tragedy, then as a farce. You don’t have to be a Marxist to appreciate the truth of this observation. Supporting football leads to much the same conclusion. However, there is an exception and his name is Marco van Basten.

I’m the best besides myself, Marco van Basten wrote in his ring binder as a child. A statement he proved as a football player but not as a football coach. At the time of his resignation as coach of Ajax, he asks himself whether he is good enough. This form of self-reflection is rare in the world of football. Just as rare as his football talent.

After his resignation in 2009, he has taken the time to mentally mature. Something that was sorely needed in his eyes. In a frank and extensive interview with Voetbal International he now reflects on his career as a football player and he looks forward to his future as coach. What lessons has he learned in his absence of three years that he can use at his new club SC Heerenveen?

This article is a must-read for everyone how wants to know how a extraordinary talented football player and human being deals with failure, criticism, stress and heroism. Or for everyone who wants to know how to cope with these things in their own lives. I find the answers of Marco van Basten honest and uplifting. Maybe history repeats itself but some people try to avoid this by developing themselves. Marco van Basten did.

The Football Player:

After your resignation as coach of Ajax you used three seasons for personal development. What did you learn about yourself in this period?

‘I am a somewhat closed person. I like to decide when I’m open and when I’m not. That is not easy in football. They want to know everything about you. As a young boy you don’t know how to handle that. You are expected to be a grownup overnight and have lots of opinions about everything. That’s pretty complicated because you are just another kid. A good football player, but still a kid. People don’t see you that way. They want to know everything about you. I was still a long way from that.

You were self-involved?

I was just minding my own business. Discovering what kind of person I was and what kind of life I wanted to lead. I dreamed of a beautiful football career as a child. I would make nice goals and would be important for the team. But I didn’t want the life of a celebrity. Or become a hero. I wasn’t prepared for it. Because of these expectations I had little time to develop myself. This is actually a development of the last few years.

You find it hard to look at yourself?

I find it hard to watch video or images of myself from the past. It makes me feel uncomfortable. I see myself developing as a football player but not as a human. I miss openness. I didn’t dare to open up as an person. I was very closed. I see that now. It is part of my character. These are discoveries that you become aware of gradually. But there were a lot of people looking at me while I was becoming aware of my emotions. Having totally different opinions about me. One says: It’s a stubborn bastard, the other will find you a steady, smart guy. It is often what you want to see. In the Dutch national team, I was very determined or autistic. I am the same person.’

The Coach

Will you become as good a trainer as you were a footballer?

‘The fact that I used to be a good footballer, doesn’t say anything about my work as a coach. In terms of credibility it is nice to have a background like that, but in the end it is about getting results with the boys. Because I always worked in the top, everyone hopes that will be the key to success, but of course that is no more than a nice thought. That is the way I see it.

I found out that this is a job that requires practice. As a trainer you have to do things, taking on jobs to push forward and see if you can make the difference. You won’t be a better coach by talking a lot about football or thinking about it. You have to find out by doing. I am very aware of that and it is also what I want.’

You left Ajax in 2009 with the statement: “Maybe I’m not good enough.”

‘Yes, that was very open and honest. I was convinced that it was the best thing to do without harming others or myself. I didn’t win the championship, hadn’t done it very well and drew my own conclusions and left the job.’

Did you became coach of the Dutch National Team too early?

‘(smiling): ‘Yes, that was clearly the case. I was totally overtaken by the appointment. It gave me a very hard time in the beginning. Very hard. It was a too big step. Too big for sure. I missed the experience to feel comfortable as a manager. Dealing with people is something you always do better as you get more experienced. The affairs with Seedorf, Van Bommel and Van Nistelrooy were things that were all new to me. My opinion in these matters is unchanged and we acted in all honesty, but it would have been nice if I had more experience at that time. A footballer can be quite introverted, but as a trainer you need to show yourself. That I’ve found really hard.’

It’s almost your fate as a former soccer star. They expect so much from you, they see so much in you.

‘The outside world turns me into a person in which I don’t recognize myself, a person I don’t feel comfortable with. I wasn’t mature as a person at all. I was standing on thin ice then. I’m still standing on thin ice now, ice that might easily break down under me. I’m very aware of that.’

Does your coaching career compensate for your broken career as football player?

‘I don’t see it that way. In the end football is simply the foundation of my existence. I could sit still for the rest of my life but that would gave me a very empty life. After my rejection as a football player I felt over and over again: football attracts me the most.’

It took a long time. Between 1996 and 2003 it seemed as if you didn’t want to have anything to do with football.

‘I couldn’t watch football. It hurt looking at football players like Maldini and Costacurta playing for AC Milan because – considering my age – I could have been with them on the pitch. That was difficult for me to cope with. It wasn’t finished for me. I still had the feeling there had been a lot more to come. For me the bottle was half empty.’

Can you deal with criticism?

‘No, that is something I had to learn as a coach. As a football player it wasn’t something I had to deal with. You’re one of the team. Criticism isn’t personal. As a coach it’s different. It is personal. It’s about you. It felt as personal attacks. Sometimes even below the belt. But anyway, in the end it’s all what you make of it. The way you cope with criticism reveals more about you than the criticism as such. It is in the eye of the beholder. These are all things I had to learn on the job, it was completely new for me.’

One would think; Van Basten is used to a lot of pressure, he can handle that.

‘That is a misconception’.

It doesn’t seem to affect you at all.

‘Yes, it does look that way. But it isn’t the case. I am a very sensitive person. I keep my distance because I know I’m sensitive. It seems I’m cold as ice, but I’m not. Far from it. It is complicated. Unknowingly I had stored all the criticism I was in for as the coach of Ajax. It was in my system and it made me very tired. That’s the reason I had to quit. At times like these I make radical decisions. This is as far I’m willing to go. I was fed up with it. Simple. Stop. I don’t regret the decision. It was a very wise thing to do, also for my health. I’ve become a much wiser man these recent years, more wise than I would have been working with these dark clouds above me at Ajax.’

No doubt whatsoever?

‘Of course I had doubts. We’re not robots. I’m convinced that a lot of top coaches and football players are much more sensitive than they’re willing to show. It is believed quickly: he is a super hero. But what they don’t see is all the pain and efforts he had to overcome to bring him that far. You have a lot of nervousness as a coach because you never know the result beforehand. The result of your work isn’t in your hands. This gives a lot of tension of course. How you deal with tension is a very beautiful and interesting phenomenon, that is very underrated in my opinion.’

Everyone saw on television how a person from the stands abuses you by yelling “pancake”

‘Some people even enjoyed it. I heard sardonic laughter. Of course that wasn’t funny. But it was no drama either. There are worse things in life. I learned a valuable lesson, because I gave him too much attention. Nothing would have happened if I hadn’t given him any attention and just walked down. In hindsight: not smart.’

How would you describe your relationship with Johan Cruijff

‘The best time I had with him was when he was working as my coach with Ajax. That was fun, I thought of him as a nice person. But later on it became more and more his way or the highway. You should have been graduated at the Johan Cruijff academy to be taken seriously by him, so to speak. His way of working and his work ethics in the crisis at Ajax I simply find below par.’

SC Heerenveen

What tipped the scales in your choice for SC Heerenveen, feeling or sense?

‘They have to be in harmony. When you only decide with your senses it is going to be hard to believe in it wholeheartedly. At the end I listened foremost to my feelings, to my body. I found out myself I didn’t want to go abroad. There were opportunities but in the end it didn’t feel right. I have a son who is 15 years old and is attending school in Amsterdam, my wife didn’t want to go, I have a 81 year old father, I have two daughters – at this moment it doesn’t feel right to go abroad.’

Out standers think of it as a modest choice – they associate your name with top clubs.

‘Yes, maybe. I don’t know what to make of it. It’s quite simple: I like the club, I like the way they play, I like the stadium and I like the surrounding in every aspect. I don’t know how it all works. Newspapers were writing about me and clubs who were supposed to be interested, but I always tend to think: who says it’s true?’

You never received any phone-call?

‘No. AC Milan is the only club I had actual contact with. But that was two years ago. During that time I had to be operated on my ankle again and I found it totally inappropriate to undergo this surgery when I was supposed to work.’

What do you want to achieve at SC Heerenveen?

‘I’ve signed for two years and my main purpose is to work pleasantly. I could say that I’m only willing to work at a top club but then I have to consider working in a different country, speaking a different language and all other sorts of difficult things. Why complicate the hell out of it when you can work in a pleasant way. It isn’t necessarily true that you’re a good trainer only because you worked at the top. With a less talented team it’s still possible to deliver very good work. Being a football player I was willing to reach for the top. An aspiration I have less as a coach. Do I love this profession enough, do I have the capabilities to keep me standing and to proceed, that’s my challenge for now. That is the question. I am very curious for the answer. Very curious.’

This interview is not mine and it isn’t the whole interview. I edited into a international version because I’m convinced that a larger audience than only Dutch speaking people will enjoy and learn from it. The original, Dutch version of the interview (04062012), can be ordered here and was written by Frans van den Nieuwenhof:

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