Van Basten just the daddy for Alex
Marco''s son *
)The Holland coach was the world''s top striker - but don''t tell his son Sunday May 28, 2006
One by one the Pancratius boys emerge. Alex van Basten is the last to leave changing-room 4. Immediately he throws himself into a battle for the ball, more out of playfulness than in a real effort to win the thing. Just as quickly he leaves the fray and gazes around.
His father is a couple of metres away, his face brown from a skiing holiday. Marco has just tied the laces of his son''s boots.
''Are you playing today?'' I ask him.
Marco nods. ''At noon. But I always only play the second half. I get there at half time.''
It''s 9.20 on Saturday morning. We''re walking to pitch two, where the eighth team of Pancratius under-eights face their away match against Vlug & Vaardig''s second team. Marco says this is Alex''s first away match. Until now the boys have played only at their own club, in a tournament called the Champions League. Then Alex van Basten would play for Barcelona and in all his matches put together scored only one goal. The temptation is to compare, but one glance at the seven-year-old during pre-match shooting cautions us not to do so.
Alex, unlike his two elder sisters, is still unaware of his father''s past. Marco doesn''t make a show of it. Quietly he chooses his spot behind the goal of the fat little keeper of Vlug & Vaardig, at some distance from the other fathers and mothers, who are practically on the pitch. He watches the match in silence. Only in the second half is the invisible man noticed. The fat little keeper''s daddy requests an autograph for his son.
It''s a couple of degrees above freezing, but there''s no wind. The last drops of dew will soon melt. The sun is so low that you could almost head it away.
We both experience the Saturday-morning feeling again. Up early to play a football match. The game Marco continues to play is fun, but nothing compared with the football he played when he was Alex''s age. ''It keeps getting harder. I now have to get my happiness from a square pass.'' Marco grins at his own remark.
Driving around near Opmeer sports park in Amsterdam this morning, he recognised some club names. DCG, for instance - he once played against them with Ajax under-18s. He started out at the club of which his uncle was a member, EDO uit Utrecht. Legendary first training session, he says. He had been waiting an hour when it turned out they had forgotten to collect him.
One minute into the match, Pancratius under-eights open the scoring. Alex has yet to touch the ball. He takes up position in the no-man''s land between forwards and defenders. He is the central pivot in the famous ''egg-timer'' formation: 3-1-3.
''Defensive midfielder,'' I comment.
''So it would appear,'' says Marco, who is not about to give his son any instructions.
Alex''s first touch of the ball is a vain attempt to win it. It doesn''t seem to bother him much. A little later, far from the madding crowd, he makes vigorous feints with his arms. We see him talking to himself. It''s not clear to Marco what game he is playing. It has nothing to do with football, but Alex is having an excellent time.
Meanwhile, Pancratius go 4-0 up. They will be taking the three points home to Badhoevedorp, the commuter village outside Amsterdam, but the importance of that seems to elude Alex. Very occasionally he gets the ball. As a footballer he closely resembles PSV Eindhoven''s Andre Ooijer, I think. Ooijer, too, frequently spits on the ground.
At half time Marco calls Alex over. Alex doesn''t hear. ''Come here, Alex.''
Close up, I see that his face, too, looks very like his mother''s. Big eyes, full eyelashes, gap between the teeth.
I''m curious to hear what Marco will say. Should Alex take a better look before he passes? Run into space? Ask for the ball? Come into the box behind the dangerous strikers? Cover the zone better? But Marco just asks: ''Are you going to score a goal for Daddy?''
Father and son press their foreheads together. When they separate again, Alex acts as if he is thinking deeply. Then he says: ''Maybe.'' He skips away.
''He runs quite well, you see,'' says Marco a little later, ''but he''s not flexible. That''s because he watches TV all the time.''
''What does it matter?'' I say. ''My son Charlie''s the same. He has lots of hobbies, but not football. Out of courtesy he sometimes watches a couple of minutes of a match with me. Who cares, man? As long as they''re happy.''
I''m suddenly ashamed of the dreadful cliche. I only wanted to say that as a father you shouldn''t project your dreams on your child, but Marco has got there before me.
''I''ve said to him a couple of times, "Do you enjoy it, Alex? Daddy won''t make you play football." After I said it the first time, he did his best especially. But football means nothing to him. He doesn''t support a club, either. It really doesn''t bother me. It''s just good for him to move a little, to play sport. But he likes K''nex much more - the toys you have to put together. His grandpa, Liesbeth''s father, is handy, too. He must have got it from him. Alex can put together a K''nex fairground in an hour. And yesterday he was doing a puzzle.''
The ball thuds against a team-mate''s arm. Alex is the first to reach the kid. ''Does it hurt?'' he asks sweetly, and briefly touches him.
The ensuing corner disappears behind the goal. Alex hangs on to the goalpost, then dives into the side netting, sticks his head through one of the holes and looks dreamy. Perhaps he is thinking of his puzzle.
A little later we see him pulling funny faces in the middle of the pitch.
Again he disappears within himself. His hands and fingers look like pistols being fired. Meanwhile the game for which he has pulled on his boots continues. It will finish 9-3, a score that passes by Marco''s son like the barges passing his grandpa''s house in Utrecht, unseen.
''I mustn''t interfere,'' says Marco. ''That wouldn''t be nice for him.''
''The way your father drilled you, you mean?'' I remark.
''To me it didn''t feel like that at all. That''s how he experienced it.''
''Does he ever come and watch Alex, or go and see your daughters play hockey or ride?''
''No, never. He always has my mother on the weekends.''
''That''s good. Nice.''
''Well, you see, I don''t know. Because of that he has no social life.''
''But I mean the loyalty. Every day, year after year.''
''You could call it guilt,'' says Marco.
''Do you still see him often?''
''I drop by every two or three weeks.''
The match is over. The player by the name of Van Basten has accounted for none of the nine goals.
''I thought you were going to score a goal for me?'' Alex thinks about it. ''I said maybe.''
He has one more chance. Every match in the under-eights finishes with penalties.
''Oh yes,'' says Alex, who immediately runs off to join his team-mates, doesn''t push in front and joins the back of the queue. I''m curious about his run-up. It doesn''t feature Marco van Basten''s trademark skip. He shoots... It''s a hard shot. It goes straight at the little Schmeichel of Vlug & Vaardig. A save.
''He struck it well,'' notes Marco.
Alex is a blessed child. No inheritance to burden him: he has his father''s surname but his mother''s sporting genes and therefore none of the expectations that saddled someone such as Jordi Cruyff.
Silently they walk side by side towards the dressing room. ''OK, off you go, shower,'' says Marco.