Marco Van Basten’s legendary status at Ajax has taken a hit after an unhappy spell managing the club
By Klaas-Jan Droppert in The Hague
The king has fallen from his throne. Ten months ago Marco Van Basten entered the Amsterdam Arena making it perfectly clear that he was in sole charge of Ajax. A fortnight ago, following the penultimate league match of the Dutch season, he resigned as Ajax coach, claiming he lacked the quality needed to achieve results.
Van Basten called it a day following a humiliating 4-0 defeat at Sparta, when Ajax lost the second spot and a place in the Champions League qualifying round to FC Twente.
“I came to the conclusion that my qualities aren’t good enough to do better with this squad next season,” Van Basten said. “I’m not able to meet the requirements that Ajax have for a coach. They deserve better than what I have achieved this year.”
The decision came as a surprise, although the former striker had looked shaken following a similarly heavy defeat by PSV (6-2).
His admirers were quick to praise him for his brave decision. However, his critics pointed out that Van Basten had made the same rookie mistakes during his spell in charge of the national team.
Things were looking bright back in July last year, when Van Basten had just finished his four years at the helm of the national team by showing the world dazzling football at Euro 2008 (though they still made an early exit in the quarter finals).
The general feeling was that the lost boy had returned home. As a player Marco Van Basten performed in the famous Ajax shirt between 1982 and 1987, scoring 128 goals before becoming one of the world’s best strikers at Milan.
Van Basten signed a four-year contract and immediately made it clear that nobody could interfere in his affairs. The club, surprisingly, gave him carte blanche.
Even before his first day at the office, Van Basten had broken with legend Johan Cruyff by vetoing his ideas about reorganising the youth section. It gave Van Basten a lot of respect because nobody in Holland dares to challenge Cruyff.
Van Basten spent no fewer than 34 million euros by buying Dario Cvitanich (Banfield), Miralem Sulejmani (Heerenveen), Ismail Aissati (PSV), Oleguer (Barcelona) and Evander Sno (Celtic).
With Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Luis Suarez already available, Ajax had the best attack and most expensive squad in the league. Understandably, hopes were high that the Amsterdam club would finally clinch the title after a four-year drought.
Ajax started well and were only three points behind eventual champions AZ at the halfway stage. However, performances were inconsistent, partly due to Van Basten’s constant line-up changes, which undermined players’ confidence.
After a 5-2 defeat at Heerenveen Van Basten openly deserted his players, claiming: “It looked as if they were playing in the rain for the first time.” The next day he was forced to apologise in public.
As a coach Van Basten has struggled to understand his players. Less talented players, who sometimes need an arm around their shoulder, found out that their coach lacked communication skills. He isn’t a people’s manager like Guus Hiddink.
Van Basten could have solved that problem, and his lack of experience, by picking a well balanced coaching staff. But just as with the Oranje, Van Basten ignored that option. Instead he turned to John Van‘t Schip and Rob Witschge, his former team-mates and friends who had been his assistants at the national team.
It all went wrong when Huntelaar, who Van Basten had insisted stuck to his contract, was allowed to move to Real Madrid. His successor Cvitanich simply wasn’t ready. Within a few weeks Ajax had dropped 10 points and lost the title race. There was further trouble when they were eliminated from the Cup by the league’s bottom club Volendam.
The focus switched to the battle for second place and the Champions League qualifiers. However, again Van Basten kept making inexplicable decisions by fielding a “goblin” midfield, consisting of Aissati, Vernon Anita and Eyong Enoh.
His most disastrous decision was to replace Holland’s number one goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg with the unsafe Kenneth Vermeer.
Meanwhile, fans had lost patience. Twice (on the training ground and after Sparta when the coach was ambushed) he was forced to explain the poor performances to the supporters and after the 1-0 home defeat against Heerenveen one fan abused him as a “pancake”. Respect for the former all-time Ajax great had vanished within a couple of months.
So Van Basten quit. Like Co Adriaanse, Ronald Koeman, Danny Blind and Henk Ten Cate in recent years, he couldn’t survive in what is becoming Ajax’s coaches graveyard. The names of Adriaanse, Koeman and Frank Rijkaard are frequently mentioned as a successor; Rijkaard would be the most popular candidate.
As for Van Basten, he will take a good look in the mirror, wondering if he wants to return coaching – or go back to the golf course (where he entertained himself for 10 years after being forced to quit as a player).
If he stays on the scene probably only at Milan will he be welcomed as a hero. Right now it’s the only place where the myth of San Marco is still alive.