Seeing the Netherlands and Dutch footballers linked with aesthetic beauty and suave is not uncommon. For years, this tiny nation has enlightened the world with their mastery on the ball, attract their admiration for their philosophy towards the sport and entice them with their well-versed skill.
From the successful 1970s when Ajax and Johan Cruyff dominated the headlines to the near-misses of Bert van Marwijk and Louis van Gaal’s sides in the World Cup, which was led by the fiery attacking triumvirate of Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder, they have always been a topic of attention.
However, it was the 1980s that was their most successful period, at least in terms of trophies anyways. That team had its own glorious trio which included Frank Rijkaard, the stylish midfielder who had a wand of a foot, Marco van Basten, the sharpshooter who was near-faultless in front of goal and Ruud Gullit, arguably, the best of the lot. Together, they would lift the Netherlands’ first and only major trophy – the European Championships in 1988 – but their careers were defined by more than just that, and it was Gullit who got a lot of the limelight.
Prior to their years of taking the Dutch national side to European domination in the late 1980s, both Gullit and Rijkaard were inseparable before they became international superstars. It was football that linked them, but their ethnicity that linked their meeting and subsequent friendship. Both their families were part of the large wave of Surinamese migrants that moved from the nation to find settlement in the Netherlands in the 1960s and ‘70s and both their fathers were footballers back in Suriname.
It was only natural that the two, separated by just 29 days in age, took their football heritage even further and befriended each other through the sport. The two started off at different youth clubs but were united at the age of 11, when they were both at Door Wilskracht Sterk, or DWS as it is commonly known – a club in Amsterdam. Given that the Surinamese migration hadn’t hit full flow at the time and their population was still growing in the country, the two were easy to distinguish by the colour of their skin and backgrounds, and that encouraged Gullit to prove himself.
He said in a later interview: “My father was [part of] the first black generation to come from Suriname to Holland. So, at school I was one of the few black kids; I was the only black player on my team. The only thing I thought to myself was ‘look, I’m standing out here, so I have to be good because they will look at me. If there is one ginger boy in the team, they will look at the ginger boy and you have to be good’. So I knew I was noticed and needed to do extra.” It was extra that he did, and it pushed him to become one of the finest footballers of his generation.
In 1979, at 16 years of age, Gullit started his career at HFC Haarlem – this after interest that was unacted upon by Ajax. Rijkaard, however, would indeed end up at Ajax and that would see the separation of the two on the field, but they would still remain close friends off it. At Haarlem, he made history by becoming the Eredivisie’s youngest-ever player in his debut and a promising career was ahead of him.
His youth and potential were identified, but he couldn’t control his surroundings. Haarlem were relegated in Gullit’s first season as a professional, but as the club saw this as a hindrance, the player saw an opportunity. Going down a division would mean more time on the pitch and a chance to prove himself, and Gullit did just that. In the Eerste Divisie, Gullit would star as he would lead Haarlem’s charge to bounce back. They gained automatic promotion as champions of the second-tier, while Gullit was voted as the Player of the Season.
Back in the Eredivisie, his performances in the Eerste Divisie warranted Gullit a greater role in the top-flight, and he would shine there too. Haarlem finished a surprising fourth in the league and qualified for Europe, while he would also earn a spot on the Dutch national team making his debut in the same match as his old friend, Rijkaard.
There were encouraging signs that Gullit could become the country’s next big thing, but Haarlem was not the place to achieve it. Clubs around Europe were keen on his signature, but the sweeper would stay at home, moving to Feyenoord.
A footballer of many talents, Gullit’s role on the pitch was unique. Ideally, he would play as a centre-half with the freedom to move forward and aid the attack and with the ability he had on the ball, he would do well that way. Along the way, he was moved further up front at Haarlem, often featuring as a forward. This was a huge testament to the player’s versatility.
At Feyenoord, Gullit would pick up a more advanced role in midfield, but that didn’t stop him from contributing elsewhere on the pitch. His first season in Rotterdam was rather dull, as the club failed to mount a serious challenge for any trophies. The second, however, was far more inspiring and that was contributed to by two icons of Dutch football: Willem van Hanegem, who was the team’s assistant manager, and Johan Cruyff, who was in the twilight of his playing career.
The two inspired Gullit’s playing style, being keen disciples of the famed Dutch Total Football philosophy and they would leave a lasting impression on the young midfielder. That season, the club would lift the league and cup double, whilst in Europe, they were knocked out by eventual winners Tottenham Hotspur in the UEFA Cup. A 20-year-old Gullit was in incredible form throughout the season, scoring in key matches, such as a 4-1 win over Ajax that eased their way to the league title. The team was great too, featuring the likes of Ivan Nielsen, Ben Wijnstekers, Joop Hiele, and Peter Houtman, amongst others.
Cruyff would remain at the club for just a solitary season and despite having a decent team, the two trophies in the 1983-84 campaign would be Gullit’s only silverware at the club. He would win the Dutch Footballer of the Year gong in 1985, but there was more to come from him.
He was still a potent goalscorer and a young player that was hungry to improve, but his next move would be controversial. In 1985, he swapped Feyenoord for rivals PSV Eindhoven and this shocked many. The Rotterdam faithful believed he chose money over loyalty, with the player himself having later confessed that Feyenoord was the club he supported, and this move was met with great backlash.
On a more personal note, however, it was at PSV Eindhoven that Gullit truly established himself amongst the world’s best. Combining a strong supporting cast with the fact that he was approaching his peak years in terms of age and footballing maturity, this was a match made in heaven. With Marco van Basten spearheading Ajax’s charge to the previous Eredivisie title, PSV were determined to break their stranglehold and a premium 1.2 million guilders were paid to Feyenoord for the midfielder’s services.
The fee paid off, as the Eindhoven side would win back-to-back titles as Gullit was crowned as the Dutch Footballer of the Year for the second successive year in 1986. At PSV, Gullit was at his best, adding to his repertoire and becoming the best sweeper in the business. He would dominate all aspects of the game and become the most complete footballer. Whether it was Haarlem, Feyenoord or PSV, it came as no surprise that wherever Gullit went, success followed.
The year of 1987 was a turning point for the midfielder. There were two key personal moments that signified how great Gullit was. First, he would win the Jaap Eden trophy for Dutch Sportsman of the Year, becoming only the second footballer after Cruyff to win the esteemed prize. Secondly, he would finally get away from the comforts of home and seal a record-breaking transfer to AC Milan, who paid a staggering €7.5 million for his signature.
While the Eredivisie lost arguably its best talent, there was some benefit to the national team. Alongside greats such as Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi, Gullit was joined in Milan by his compatriot, Van Basten, who had caused the midfielder’s many teams problems in the past and the two could form a strong bonding here.
In only the second year of his Presidency, Silvio Berlusconi was adamant on ending the Rossoneri’s league title drought, which had begun in 1979 and with this shrewd double deal, Milan were now favourites to bring the Scudetto back to their side of San Siro.
With this being his first experience away from the Netherlands and having a small grasp of the local language, Gullit struggled in his initial months at the club. Learning under the great Arrigo Sacchi, there was huge pressure on the Dutchman’s shoulders seeing as he had the weight of being the most expensive player in the game as well as being a direct replacement for the departed Ray Wilkins, who did a fine job in his time at the club.
Eventually, he caught on, with Gullit chipping in with nine goals – the second-most at the club – and clicking well with his team-mates as they finally won the league. In the middle of that championship-winning campaign, as he was still finding his feet in Italy, Gullit won the most prestigious honour of all – the Ballon d’Or, thus, confirming his status as the best player in the world.
After the success in Italy, Gullit would join the national team for the European Championships in Germany. Placed in a tricky group along with the Soviet Union, England and the Republic of Ireland, the Dutch had a difficult task. However, the Netherlands were enjoying a good time in the game.
They had the best player in the world in Gullit, one of the best forwards in Van Basten, who, together, won the league in Italy. Other than that, they also had the best club in Europe as PSV Eindhoven had just won the European Cup. Highly motivated, this was their chance to add some silverware for the national team.
The Dutch started on a low note, losing the opener against the Soviet Union, but they would pick up from there, winning their other two group games convincingly to qualify for the semi-finals, where they would meet the hosts, West Germany. Van Basten was in top form, with his hat-trick against England making him one of the most feared strikers in the tournament.
Sadly, with Rijkaard and Gullit being one of the few black players in the tournament and the only two in the knockout rounds, they faced a lot of vile racist abuse and that could’ve affected them, but they didn’t let it get to them. Seeing as they were up against the hosts who were almost perfect in their run thus far, the Dutch weren’t fancied. However, a masterful comeback after going a goal down saw them come out on top, with Van Basten scoring a sweet late winner as they were just one win away from silverware.
In the final, they would meet the team that beat them in the opening match: Soviet Union. This encounter, however, was far more controlled. Gullit opened the scoring with a header in the first-half and Van Basten, the tournament’s top scorer, added to his tally with one of the greatest goals of all time – a volley from the tightest of angles. The win was sealed, and this capped off a historic period for Dutch football, who now hosted the European champions at domestic and international level as well as the best footballer in the world.
Back in Milan, Gullit was re-united with Rijkaard as Berlusconi felt that he could convert domestic dominance into European dominance. The Dutch trio that contributed heavily to the Netherlands’ success in West Germany was now in Milan, and the European Cup was their next target.
Rijkaard slotted in perfectly alongside Carlo Ancelotti in the Milan midfield, as Gullit and Van Basten sorted the attacking work. The team would score goals at free will, as Sacchi’s style complemented his players’ best qualities perfectly. On their way to the semi-final, Dundalk, Red Star Belgrade, and Werder Bremen would all fall and in the last four itself, the Rossoneri put on one of the great European Cup displays against Real Madrid.
After the first-leg in the Spanish capital finished 1-1, there was the expectation of another tight encounter in the second-leg. However, the Milanese had different ideas as Ancelotti, Rijkaard, Gullit, Van Basten and Roberto Donadoni all scored one each in a 5-0 demolition of the Madrid club. This was an unstoppable force, and they wouldn’t let go in the final too, as Steaua Bucharest found out.
AC Milan returned to Spain for the ultimate game, this time in Barcelona’s Camp Nou. In another steamroll of a match, Gullit and Van Basten scored two apiece as Milan would win 4-0 this time to win their third European Cup and the first of Gullit’s career.
In the next season, Milan would defend the European Cup, with Rijkaard scoring in the final against Benfica. The season was not good for Gullit, however, as damaged knee ligaments restricted him to just two league appearances all season. He played the European Cup final, however, but how much impact he could have during the World Cup was in doubt.
The Dutch, unlike two years ago, were strong favourites to do well in the tournament, but Gullit’s problems combined with disputes at the top of the KNVB restricted them to a shocking last 16 exit against eventual winners and age-old rivals, Germany.
This would, however, be the start of a dire phase for the player. He would add two more league titles as well as a European Cup runners-up medal in 1993, but his poor fitness and constant struggle with injury meant that he was hardly the player he once was. He finally ended his relationship with AC Milan on a sour note, citing that the club lacked faith in his ability to carry on performing at the highest level.
He would move to Sampdoria, winning the Coppa Italia in 1994 and even scoring a sweet winner against AC Milan in a thrilling 3-2 encounter – a win that had massive meaning to him. That sole season was productive and prompted Milan to re-sign the Dutchman, however, he quickly returned to Sampdoria for the 1994-95 season and did well under the tutelage of Sven-Göran Eriksson.
In 1995, he ended his Italian journey and signed for Chelsea in England. Like Italy, Gullit had a slow start, but he ended the season being one of the best in the league. However, his club’s form wasn’t too great, and he was hardly able to muster any success. The Blues reached the FA Cup final in 1995, but their league form was disappointing. In the end, to further boost his personal greatness, he finished second behind Eric Cantona in the running for the Footballer of the Year gong in England.
That would, however, spell the end of his career and he left the game as one of the greats. A complete package, he was a dominant force in the glory years of Feyenoord, PSV Eindhoven, AC Milan, and the Dutch national team, casting a spell and giving new meaning to the sweeper role. A man for the big occasions, Gullit was always reliable and throughout his career, he carried on the Dutch tradition of enthralling and is undoubtedly one of his nation’s finest.