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Van Basten sparks Netherlands joy

Marco van Basten shook off injury to inspire the Netherlands to their first major title, culminating in an incredible final volley.

Van Basten sparks Netherlands joy
Van Basten sparks Netherlands joy ©UEFA.com

After bowing out of the tournament in agonising circumstances in 1984, West Germany expected far greater things when they finally got their chance to stage the UEFA European Championship for the first time in 1988.

Franz Beckenbauer was masterminding their effort for a start, and most neutrals envisaged his side steamrollering the field after reaching their second straight FIFA World Cup final two years earlier. Their lineup looked stronger too, with the injection of newcomers Jürgen Klinsmann, Jürgen Kohler and Thomas Berthold, plus a fit-again Rudi Völler.

Holders France failed to qualify, which left Italy as the one team expected to trouble Germany, and their youthful crop of players including Paolo Maldini and Gianluca Vialli managed just that in the Group 1 curtain-raiser. The two title aspirants contested a 1-1 draw before both went on to beat Denmark and Spain. Superior goal difference placed the hosts top above Italy.

Group 2 contained an England side impressive in qualifying, but their bid began unravelling with a 1-0 defeat to Jack Charlton's Republic of Ireland. Ultimately, neither team progressed as the Soviet Union and the Netherlands took the semi-final spots on offer, although the Irish came within eight minutes of a goalless draw with the Dutch that would have seen them progress instead.

Wim Kieft's deflected effort made the difference in that encounter, but the real stars in Rinus Michels' team were the AC Milan trio of Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten. Merely a substitute for their opening 1-0 loss to the USSR, instinctive finisher Van Basten was particularly inspired in the Oranje's next outing, plundering a hat-trick in the crucial 3-1 success over England.

The Soviets matched that result against England and then sunk Italy 2-0 in the semi-finals, with danger-man Oleg Protassov among the goals. But the real sensation unfolded in Hamburg, where the Dutch overcame their German neighbours for the first time in 32 years, despite falling behind to Lothar Matthäus's penalty. Ronald Koeman levelled from the spot and Van Basten converted a late chance to avenge their 1974 FIFA World Cup final loss and earn another crack at the USSR.

Nearly 60% of the Dutch population tuned in to see their heroes succeed in the final where the 'total footballers' of the 1970s had failed. With dreadlocks flailing about him, Gullit headed in the opener before an absolute masterpiece sealed the result. Meeting Arnold Mühren's looping crossfield ball in a seemingly impossible position on the right, Van Basten crashed an acrobatic volley over goalkeeper Rinat Dasaev and just inside the far post. Hans van Breukelen later contributed a penalty save, yet it is that spearing, plunging, schoolboy's dream of a second goal that will forever capture the imagination.