As the owner of the most famous dreadlocks football has ever seen, Ruud Gullit was a distinctive looking character back in calcio’s heyday. One of the world’s most prestigious talents during his time in Serie A, Gullit began working on his technique and skills from a very early age. Indeed, it is said he could be found running around the streets of Amsterdam practicing against walls and dancing around lampposts as if they were opposing defenders.
Born and bred in Amsterdam, Gullit was brought up on the Dutch ‘Total Football’ way of playing the game. Gullit was a versatile player and in his early days it was unclear which position was his best, playing defence, midfield and attack. At the age of 16 the young talent was picked up by HFC Haarlem after he turned down one of the most prestigious football schools in world football, Ajax, after famously describing them as ‘arrogant individuals’.
Despite being relegated in his first season the young Gullit was making a name for himself as the teenager single handily won HFC Haarlem the second division title. The youngster was going from strength to strength and was the driving force behind Haarlem’s fourth placed finish the following season, securing European qualification. This kind of form wasn’t going unnoticed as Holland’s big boys began to monitor the young star.
Feyenoord would win the race for Gullit’s signature in 1982 as he signed for a fee of around £300,000. During his time there, Gullit achieved many of his dreams such as playing alongside Dutch great Johan Cruyff, and then winning top-flight silverware as Feyenoord claimed the league and cup double. After three successful years at Feyenoord, the lure of PSV Eindhoven proved too much for Gullit and in his two years at the Lempkes, Gullit won another Eredivisie title and was again named Dutch footballer of the year.
While Gullit was setting Dutch football alight, some 9000km south of Eindhoven AC Milan president, Silvio Berlusconi, was plotting a means by which the Rossoneri could return to the top and dominate Europe. Berlusconi was only in his second year at AC Milan but with the club having failed to win a Scudetto since 1979, the media magnate meant business. With coach Arrigo Sacchi at the helm, Milan had already snapped up Dutch superstar Marco Van Basten from PSV’s fierce rivals Ajax. The summer of 1987 saw Milan lose midfielder Ray Wilkins to PSG and this prompted Berlusconi to bring the cheque book out. He broke a world record transfer fee by bringing Ruud Gullit to the San Siro for £18 million.
The pressure of being the most expensive player in the world meant it took Gullit time to settle at Milan. He did not speak a word of Italian and it was his first experience living abroad. Sacchi used Gullit as a direct replacement for Wilkins and played him on the right hand side of an attacking three. Berlusconi’s spending spree worked as AC Milan were crowned Italian champions for the first time in nine years. Gullit chipped in with nine goals in his debut season, just two behind top scorer Pietro Paolo Virdis. Gullit was on top of the world. He was the most expensive player in the world, he had a Scudetto under his belt and to top it all off, he won the 1987 Ballon D’or. He dedicated the award to future South African president and anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela, who at the time was still in prison. It wasn’t until his release that Mandela referenced Gullit as one of his only friends who supported him throughout his time in prison.
The following season Berlusconi made it a hat-trick of Dutch signings, this time bringing Frank Rijkaard to the Milan giants as they aimed to conquer Europe as well as Italy. With players like Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Roberto Donadoni and the Dutch trio they did just that, steamrollering some of Europe’s finest on their way as they battered Real Madrid 5-0 in the semi–final of the European Cup. Yet despite the victory, the Diavolo were left with a bitter taste as Gullit picked up a nasty injury. Milan’s talisman was forced to have surgery in order to be fit for the final but the Dutchman recovered in time and Milan would go on to crush Steaua Bucharest 4-0.
Gullit scored two of the four goals, cementing his name in Milan history forever. His first was a simple tap-in however his second was fit for a final occasion. Having controlled a cross with an exquisite touch on the edge of the area, Gullit allowed the ball to drop and with minimal back lift, rifled a volley into the corner of the goal. It was a quintessential example of the quality the Dutchman possessed.
Just as Gullit was on cloud nine, serious injury to his knee ligaments would limit the star to just two league appearances during the 1989-90 season. The Dutchman returned to the field and played in the European Cup final as Milan successfully defended their trophy against Portuguese giants Benfica. However his knee injury combined with a reduction in playing time spelled the beginning of the end for Gullit at Milan. In a Sky Sports documentary on Gullit’s career, the Dutchman lamented the club’s lack of faith in his ability. “Milan didn’t believe I could play three matches in a week because I had problems with my knees, and the bad thing for me was that I couldn’t prove it because they didn’t give me the possibility.”
In 1993, coach Fabio Capello decided to omit Gullit from the Rossoneri’s 1993 UEFA Champions League Final squad as Milan were only allowed to name three foreign players. This would prove the final straw. Gullit’s six incredible years in a Milan jersey were over as he opted to join Sven Goran Eriksson at Sampdoria for the 1993-94 season. Gullit would line up alongside Roberto Mancini as he tried to recapture the glittering form he showed at MIlan. Following his undignified departure from the Rossoneri, Gullit had a point to prove and he quickly became one of the Blucerchiati’s most influential players, guiding them to a third placed finish during his debut season.
Gullit’s sweetest moment of the season came during an encounter with his former club. Still irked by the way in which his former employers had treated him during his final days in Milan, Gullit would go on to score the winning goal in a thrilling 3-2 victory for his new club. It was a moment of vindication for Gullit who believed his performances at Sampdoria proved the doubters wrong. Indeed the Diavolo promptly re-signed the Dutch international in 1994. Nonetheless, the damage done in the latter stages of his first spell at Milan was irreparable. After just eight appearances with the Rossoneri, Gullit found himself back in the blue of Sampdoria where he would spend the rest of the 1994-95 season.
In 1995, Ruud Gullit’s Italian love affair came to an end after he joined Premier League outfit Chelsea. However despite enduring a sour end to his Milan career, Gullit remains a club icon and a symbol of the days in which the black and reds ruled both Italy and Europe.
By Giovanni Dougall