Marco van Basten: Why stress prompted manager to leave role

By Amy LawrenceFootball writer
Marco van Basten
Marco van Basten was a prolific striker for Ajax, AC Milan and the Dutch national side

Pressure. Responsibility. People counting on you, looking to you, doubting you, challenging you. The burden. The problems. The relentlessness. And then the palpitations.

Last autumn, Marco van Basten reached a defining moment in his personal and professional life. He accepted that he had to make public his private difficulties and step away from the heavy load of football management.

To those of us who have only known Van Basten from the distance of the audience's perspective, who admired and revered him as one of the world's greatest players with a gentlemanly image off the pitch, it was a stark reminder that the appearance of control and confidence can be so badly deceptive.

Even to those who knew Van Basten, who was coach at Dutch club AZ Alkmaar, it was alarming. For years Ruud Gullit played alongside him - and along with Frank Rijkaard the trio defined a sublime era for AC Milan and the Netherlands. "Him quitting as head coach came as a shock to me," said Gullit. "I was under the impression he liked his job.

"It only goes to show that you shouldn't judge people too quickly. What you see on the outside is not always what goes on in one's mind. I think it's a brave decision of Marco to take up a role a bit more in the shade."

It must have taken huge courage for Van Basten to approach the hierarchy at AZ Alkmaar, who had only recently installed him as manager, to tell them he could not cope.

He didn't want to leave the club, or the game, so after a short break they came up with a solution for him to become assistant manager instead, so that he could still be around to pass on his wealth of experience and love for football.

"As a coach, I felt I couldn't offer what I should offer," Van Basten, 50, explained in an interview with Voetball International. "That made things too difficult for me. It was specifically my problem. I couldn't do it. I kept suffering from stress. I was the one who needed to take the decisions. Everybody's looking at you. 'What, when, who, how and where?'"

Marco van Basten
As player:
Ajax (1981-87): 172 games, 152 goals
Milan (1987-95): 201 games, 124 goals
As manager:
Netherlands (2004-08): 52 games; 35 wins, 11 draws, 6 defeats
Ajax (2008-09): 45 games; 26 wins, 8 draws, 11 defeats
Heerenveen (2012-14): 72 games; 27 wins, 18 draws, 27 defeats
AZ (July-September 2014): 5 games; 2 wins, 3 defeats

Absorbing the news of Van Basten's decision to downsize his job responsibilities, the first reaction was naturally one of compassion. But there is a broader conversation worth having about the increasing stress levels in elite football.

Was it always this severe? Is high finance a factor? Do agents and transfer windows bring unrelenting problems?

How much does the unforgiving environment of 21st Century criticism take its toll?

So much noise. The fans who project opinions, the razor-sharp analysts, the highly charged keyboard warriors, the dressing-room wise guys - everyone tends to assume those in football have to be tough enough to withstand the expectations. It is not a very realistic assumption.

The size of someone's reputation, or the scale of their brilliance, or the noughts on their salary, does not make anyone impervious to going home and feeling distressed.

Marco van Basten
Van Basten lasted just five matches as manager of AZ before relinquishing his duties

Van Basten as a player embodied a kind of perfection. Consider the status of Cristiano Ronaldo, recent recipient of his third Ballon d'Or trophy.

Van Basten, the most elegant and electrifying of strikers during the 1980s, achieved that. Stylistically he was completely different to Ronaldo, but there is a similarity in that he redefined forward play in his era, and he amazed people because of his ability to do almost everything a footballer could wish for, and so naturally.

His glittering ability inspired a flurry of prizes - three Eredivisie titles with Ajax, four Serie A triumphs with AC Milan, two European Cups and one Cup Winners' Cup, and of course, his starring role in propelling the Netherlands to become 1988 European champions.

A volley of startling ingenuity in the final against Russia is regarded even by his eminent team-mates as a thing of wonder. "You cannot shoot from that angle," smiled Southampton boss Ronald Koeman.

"The cross was really too high," noted Rijkaard. "He will do that another million times and he will not score that goal," laughed Gullit. Actually, of all people, he probably would.

Such was his influence on the game that the demise of his playing career - the consequence of reckless, dangerous tackles - was serious enough for the football authorities to change the rules on tackling.

The professional foul became a red card offence in 1990 and in 1998, the tackle from behind was outlawed. Van Basten was only 28 when he played his last match in 1993.

Initially, he did not want to go into management. After a while he changed his mind, took a coaching course, and his taster came as he assisted with the second team of Ajax. A year later he was thrust into the spotlight as the manager of the Dutch national team. That is some start in the hotseat.

He turned out to be a modest manager. In the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2008, the Netherlands came out of their groups but did not progress much further.

A spell at Ajax was cut short as he resigned when the club missed out on Champions League qualification. For a player who had been at the summit, anything less was awkward to accept.

Still, the draw of being in football took him back into the game. He spent two seasons with Heerenveen, then moved to AZ Alkmaar last summer. But very quickly, he realised all was not well and he needed to get out.

Van Basten had been known for his composure when he was Dutch national manager, but he explained that it can be a facade: "It's a role you play," he said. "It has an effect when the man in charge comes across calm and wise. I have tried to play that role to my best strengths.

Frank Rijkaard, Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit
Netherlands internationals Frank Rijkaard, Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit all signed for AC Milan in the 1980s

"You are expectant of your players, so you have to give them guidance. But every day you're being judged by everyone and everything and that became too much for me."

Football remains an environment which can pile unhealthy levels of psychological pressure on people.

A number of players have suffered depression - a word that was not far off taboo in football until a few cases that forced the game to remove its blinkers.

The death of Robert Enke, the German goalkeeper who took his own life in 2009, prompted Bundesliga clubs to reassess the support they offer their players and a network of sports psychiatrists were set up to talk to anyone with concerns.

The former Liverpool and Aston Villa striker Stan Collymore has shared how moments of depression left "mind, body and soul withering". Sebastian Deisler, a prodigy in Germany, was treated for depression while he was a youngster at Bayern Munich and felt the need to be asked to be "left in peace".

In the Netherlands, Jordi Hoogstrate was tipped to be a sensation following in the footsteps of Arjen Robben. He signed for PSV Eindhoven in 2003 and the pressure began to mount immediately.

"I started to look at players like Robben and Robin van Persie. I saw them doing things that I should be able to do," he said. "I felt I had to show it to everyone. Must, must, must. Instead of relying on my qualities, I started to pressure myself. My head started to spin and I didn't know why and how.

Marco van Basten
Van Basten scored 24 goals in 58 games for Netherlands

"What was there left of my life if my career would fail?" He was given medication, but struggled to contain his fears and spent six months in a clinic suffering from psychosis.

Fitness problems hindered him in the aftermath of that episode, and he retired at the age of 25, having played only 11 games for PSV over a six-year period.

Is it fair to expect those producing the show we love to have the thickest of skins? Are they supposed to evolve ears that have a mute button?

Van Basten turned 50 last October. AZ gave him a party, a cake and a tracksuit with "50 Marco" on the back. He smiled for the cameras to mark the occasion.

The role of assistant manager suits him these days. He is in the dugout, but evidently less stressed. He is involved in how the club is trying to progress - contributing at meetings, a spokesman where necessary, a face of the club. He has found a comfortable level.

"I am very happy that I said, 'From now on, I am going to try to do things in a different way'. The joy is coming back, bit by bit. The contact I have with the players now is way more pleasant. I've got more time to talk things through with the boys, actually do things with them. Through that I am way more valuable for AZ than before.

"And I must say, at the moment I am having a great time."

Because he has shown us how a man on the highest pedestal felt the need to step down, the greatness of Marco van Basten is perhaps even greater.

Additional reporting by Michiel Jongsma

Top Stories