Following on from the frankly unexpected success of the Legends of La Liga series, the time has come to switch things up a bit. Spain has had its time in the spotlight but as the phrase goes, “all good series on historic players must come to an end”. With that, we must leave La Liga and roll on to a league which has produced the same amount, if not more, legendary players; Italy.
Naturally, to kick the series off with a bang we start with a Dutchman. Not just any Dutchman though, but a complete, graceful midfielder who was more than capable of playing anywhere so long as he had his moustache and dreadlocks. I am of course talking about Ruud Gullit.
From The Streets To Haarlem
Born on September 1 1962 to George Gullit and Ria Dil, Ruud’s parents emigrated to Holland from Suriname, travelling with their friend Herman Rijkaard. Herman also had a son, Frank, and together with Ruud they grew up playing football on the streets of Amsterdam. Little did they know they would go from the streets to winning league titles and European Cups together, and join a long list of Surinamese-Dutch footballers who made it to the very top of the game.
But first, Ruud had to make a name for himself, and wasted no time, making his professional debut at just 16 for HFC Haarlem, and in doing so became the youngest-ever player in the Eredivisie. His team were relegated in his debut season, however, were promoted straight away in the 1980-81 season, with Gullit crowned the best player in the Eerste Divise.
Back in the Dutch big time, the teenage Gullit was instrumental in Haarlem finishing fourth and whilst he played at centre-back, that didn’t stop him from scoring an average of a goal every three games, including some spectacular solo goals.
“OK, now how am I going to get the ball off him”
By now, the rest of Holland was sitting up and paying attention to this burning young talent. Gullit made his national team debut on his 19th birthday and earned a move to Feyenoord in 1982. He was now playing for his favourite club as well as being teammate to his idol, Johan Cruyff. It was a crucial time in Gullit’s career as he became the embodiment of Total Football as he played alongside its pioneer.
At 36, Cruyff was 16 years older than Gullit when the two played together at Feyenoord and won the 1983-84 Eredivise, but his interview with The Guardian proves the old saying that class is permanent.
“There were moments when I thought: ‘OK, now how am I going to get the ball off him’- but I couldn’t” Gullit said.
“Thirty-six? Imagine how good he must have been at 24? While we were playing he was indicating to the players where to stand, where to move, guiding them.”
It really should have been a glorious time in Gullit’s career but instead, he was subject to racial abuse from the manager as well as opposition fans.
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He then moved to PSV in 1985, where his lessons with Cruyff meant he now started to dominate games, which bolstered his goalscoring record even more. In three seasons with the club he managed 46 goals in 68 league games, as PSV dominated the league and won the Eredivise twice in a row in 1985-86 and 86-87.
Having won Dutch Footballer of the Year twice in his time in Holland, it was time to take his talents to a bigger stage.
That Dutch Trio
In 1987, he signed for Arrigo Sacchi’s ACMilan side, for a world-record fee of 18 million guilders (around £7 million nowadays).
As many football fans will remember fondly, he was a key part of Milan’s incredible Dutch trio of Gullit, Marco Van Basten, and his childhood friend, Rijkaard. The trio were so famous they could arguably rival the Milan’s current front-three of Fabio Borini, Nikola Kalinic and Suso. Truly the stuff of dreams…
Gullit now had the awards to go with his transfer fee, as he won the 1987 Ballon D’or and that year’s Scudetto.
Gullit was now in his prime as a player who could comfortably play any position on the park. At 6ft 2, he was a dominating presence in midfield. His tactical intelligence was as visible as his physical strength, knowing when to make unstoppable runs and when to dictate games with precise passing. His eye for goal was impressive as well as he played behind a front two of Van Basten and Pietro Paolo Virdis.
Sacchi’s team went about becoming one of the greatest club sides in history, casting Real Madrid aside 5-0 in the European Cup semi-final in 1989, before a Gullit brace in the 4-0 victory over Steaua Bucharest in the final.
They defended the cup the next season against Benfica, whilst adding two more Serie A titles in 1991-92 and 1992-93.
As Gullit himself said, Milan were almost unstoppable at the time,
“We used to set a trap. In the opponent’s half they would have the ball, then when they came over the halfway line we would spring the trap. We would press as a team in our own half and win the ball back as quickly as we could.”
Like his Dutch teammate Van Basten, Gullit’s time at Milan was hampered by injuries and by 1992 his role at the club was becoming less and less influential. Being left out of the 1993 Champions League final signalled the end of his time at the club.
Gullit finished with 56 goals in 171 games for the club, before he moved to Sampdoria at the end of the season, but hopped back and forth between Samp and Milan over the next few years.
In 1995, Gullit’s powers were waning as he moved to Chelsea, but not before one last hurrah. The 1995-96 season was disappointing for the club but not for Gullit, who played the season of his life as a sweeper. Then-manager, Glenn Hoddle, moved Gullit into midfield as the Dutchman was clearly stuck in his ways as an expansive midfielder.
He finished the season by being voted Chelsea’s Player of the Year and finishing second in the Premier League’s Footballer of the Year, behind Eric Cantona.
Double Dutch at Euro ‘88
Gullit’s international career typifies the Dutch national team’s fortunes. They failed to qualify for the 1982 and 1986 World Cup, as well as Euro ’84, before suddenly dominating Euro ’88 under Rinus Michels.
The Milan duo of Van Basten and Gullit were on form for the final against the Soviet Union. Gullit’s header opened the scoring before Van Basten scored THAT historic volley to win the tournament.
Sadly, it was to be Gullit’s only silverware with the national team as by 1993 he had fallen out with manager Dick Advocaat and refused to play internationally again.
He retired from football in 1998 and despite mixed fortunes as a manager, his place in history as one of the great box-to-box players is untouchable. For that, we give a warm welcome to the first, and probably only dreadlocked member, of our Icons in Italy club, Ruud Gullit.