Imagine playing in the best league in the world. Imagine playing in one of the best teams ever to play professional football. Imagine being one of the best players in that team. Welcome to the career of Ruud Gullit.
In full flight, Ruud Gullit was a blistering force of nature, the complete box to box footballer able to dribble, cross, beat a man, strike a ball and finish a move with inimitable style. Part of Milan’s famous “Dutch invasion” of the late 1980’s along with his legendary compatriots Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard, Gullit’s professional brand of “street football” tore a series of notoriously tough Italian defences to shreds. Although his time at the very top was brief, very few players in the history of the game can boast anything like the level of performance with which he consistently dazzled.
With well over 100 goals already tucked away at the tender age of 25, Gullit joined Milan in 1987 off the back of a rip-roaring two years with PSV Eindhoven, netting 46 goals in just 65 appearances. The Rossoneri paid a then record of £6 million for the dynamic, dreadlocked Dutchman. His career at Milan could not have begun any better, with Gullit’s nine goals helping the club pick up their first Scudetto in nine years, a victory that would set in motion one of the most dominant, awe-inspiring eras of Italian football. That same year, based largely on his assault on world football, Gullit deservedly picked up the much coveted Ballon d’Or.
With the arrival of the Dutch trio, Coach Arrigo Sacchi had put the finishing touches to what would be remembered as arguably the greatest side ever to compete as Gullit, along with Rijkaard and Van Basten, was surrounded by a team of glittering talent. Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Mauro Tassotti and Alessandro Costacurta kept sheets so clean, they were blinding. Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Donadoni, Alberigo Evani and Filippo Galli were supporting players who kept the fundamentals ticking over like clockwork, but it was the Flying Dutchmen who helped spur Il Diavolo to the European Cup in 1988-89, a run that included a 5-0 demolition of Real Madrid in the semi-finals and a comprehensive 4-0 defeat of an otherwise very impressive Steaua Bucharest in the final. In typically spectacular style, Gullit scored two goals in that game, after weeks out with injury. This would go down as one of the most convincing European Cup successes of the modern era, with the Dutchman at the very heart of it.
During his time with Milan, Gullit’s iconic hairstyle and relentless momentum was akin to some kind of footballing whirlwind tearing through the league. His exploits with the national team only served to bolster his domestic confidence and Milan’s trio of 1988 European Championship winners were the hottest properties in the game. Looking back on the goals and clips of the great man gives the false impression that half of Serie A consisted of off-balance drones and half-blind goalkeepers. In twenty years, that is what videos of Lionel Messi will fool viewers into believing about La Liga, The truth is, every so often, a player comes along who simply looks an entire generation ahead of his opposition. Like Messi, Gullit fearlessly attacked his opponents, always moving forward, as comfortable running with the ball as he was laying off a beautifully disguised pass.
Although injured for much of the 1989-90 season with a troublesome knee problem, in the years that followed he helped Milan claim domestic dominance, contributing a smattering of exquisite goals, spectacular moments of improvisation and countless assists. Of course, he was also an integral part of the now legendary 1991-92 team that sailed effortlessly through Serie A without registering a single defeat.
However, by the start of the 1992-93 season, something had changed and Gullit’s well publicised dressing room confrontations with new manager Fabio Capello had reached boiling point. The player had become an increasingly peripheral part of Don Fabio’s plans and, unthinkable just a few years before, was left out of the 1993-94 Champions League final, in which the Rossoneri slammed Barcelona 4-0. A new set of players had begun to make their name, Dejan Savićević, Marcel Desailly, Zvonimir Boban and Jean-Pierre Papin among them, and Gullit’s increasingly cantankerous nature made him surplus to the authoritarian’s requirements. It was not long before he was shipped off to Sampdoria for a nominal fee, slipped shamefully out the back door, despite handing them 3 league titles and 3 European Cups.
However, this move would be a breath of fresh air to the Dutchman and he was handed a free-role within a side that had just lost the Champion’s League final and seemed to be on the crest of a wave. Ghosting in and around the elegant Roberto Mancini and Attilio Lombardo he claimed his highest ever season’s goal tally in Serie A, with 16. An instant hero among the Blucerchiati, Gullit enjoyed a blissful time in Genoa and his single season ended with a trophy, lifting the Coppa Italia and guiding this entertaining team to a very respectable third place. His time with Sampdoria was much like Roberto Baggio’s wonderful tenure with Bologna a few year’s later, acting like a rehabilitation clinic for aggravated footballers.
Impressed by his coastal sojourn, Milan temped Gullit back to the industrial hub, but little had changed and after scant playing time and the startling fact that Don Fabio was still Don Fabio, he promptly returned to Sampdoria, netting nine goals and just missing out on a Champions League spot. For an attacking player who had only scored more than ten goals once in his Serie A career, Gullit was a living, breathing fulcrum who had the ability to knock a whole team into synch. Milan have at last found a real replacement for him in Kaká, who shares the Dutchman’s natural gift for running, thinking and deciding his next move faster than anyone else.
If you only remember Gullit from his last days at Chelsea, or his managerial nightmare at Newcastle United (and recently LA Galaxy), take a few minutes to consider his impact on Serie A – one of the most dazzling and exclamatory of modern times. His irascible personality may have cost him the kind of longevity that players like Donadoni and Albertini enjoyed, as well as countless appearances for his national team (including the 1994 World Cup, which he walked out on), but the fire that fuelled those instinctive decisions also brought with it the heat that scorched so many unsuspecting Italian defences, turning them to cinder as he wheeled away, shaking his dreadlocked mane in celebration, leaving everyone else bewildered.
Past Lessons in Calcio