Ruud Gullit is one of the most recognizable faces in football, his affable persona and analytical perspectives always a pleasure to be around whenever there is any topic needing to be discussed.
A key part of an AC Milan side that had for so long been the only team to have won the Champions League in back-to-back seasons, Gullit had already been a champion, winning the Dutch Eredivisie with Feyenoord in 1983/84 and then PSV in 1985/85 and 1986/87 before the move to Italy and the San Siro allowed him to become a part of history.
This week we met up with the Dutch legend, speaking to him about various things including that move to Milan.
“I didn't know that Milan at that time were making some moves. I knew they were interested in me, but I didn't hear or see it and then all of a sudden (AC Milan owner Silvio) Berlusconi was in Eindhoven and made the deal with PSV.”
A world record transfer at the time, surpassing the fee Barcelona had paid for Diego Maradona in 1984, Gullit arrived in Milan with much fanfare, and he would win the Ballon d’Or later that year while playing scintillating football alongside the likes of Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini and formed part of an iconic trio of flying Dutchmen when Marco Van Basten and later Frank Rijkaard also joined Milan. But had he played a part in getting his Oranje team-mates to join the Rossoneri?
“The Van Basten deal was not at the same time as my deal. We knew of it, of course, but I had nothing to do with it. We had to do something with the deal for Frank Rijkaard the next year. We wanted him because we thought that he was the missing piece of the puzzle and so, therefore, we did everything in our power to get Rijkaard to Milan.”
With their puzzle complete, Milan began their march towards the Nou Camp, the venue for the 1988/89 Champions League final. Gullit would start the game, alongside Marco Van Basten in attack, with Rijkaard and Carlo Ancelotti in central midfield behind them.
The Steaua Bucharest had arrived in Barcelona having dispatched with Galatasaray and IFK Gothenburg and were a team made up entirely of Romanian players, including Gullit’s future team-mate at Chelsea, Dan Petrescu. It would take only 18 minutes for Gullit to make his mark, opening the scoring in the Champions League final.
“My first final in the Champions League against Steaua Bucharest, of course, was unbelievable. Scoring two goals in the final is always special. What I remember of it... in Romania, the Romanian fans were not allowed to travel. For that reason, the Nou Camp in Barcelona was all red and black. All Milan fans, so it was an unbelievable feeling. So to win in such an atmosphere in a final was the best feeling that I ever had.”
Gullit’s brace was paired with two from strike partner Van Basten, and Milan would secure their third European Cup with that 4-0 rout of the Romanian side. The final could hardly have gone better, then, but at one point Milan had seemed on the brink of crashing out of the competition entirely, during the second leg of their second-round tie against Red Star Belgrade, where they had actually been 2-1 down, and a man down as well.
The first leg had ended 1-1, and in early November, Milan would travel to Belgrade to face Red Star (now known as Crvena Zvezda). A heavy fog would descend on the pitch, almost entirely obscuring visibility and forcing referee Dieter Pauly to call the game off, though Red Star was shocked to see that their manager would agree for the entire game to be replayed the next day, a decision that would echo in eternity for Milan, and especially their Dutch gladiator Gullit, who saw it as a turning point of the season.
“The most important game of that season was against Red Star Belgrade. They had an unbelievable team. We just passed that (round) on penalties, and that game was also postponed that day because of the fog."
"The first day I couldn't play because I was injured, but the second day I could. A special physiotherapist from Holland came in on a private plane to treat me, so for that reason I was able to at least play 45 minutes.”
That fog of fate allowed Gullit and Milan to progress, and after beating Werder Bremen Milan would book a Semi-final date Real Madrid, who had eliminated Gullit’s former club PSV in the Quarter-finals. While still decades from La Decima (indeed, the concept of La Decima had not even been considered yet), Real was still a stern test, but Milan would waltz past the Spanish giants with ease.
For Gullit, however, there was a real concern.
“The year that we won the Champions League, in the semi-final against Real Madrid I got injured. My meniscus was broken. I got a very quick operation so that I could play the final."
"The next season when I started to train again, not only my meniscus was damaged but also the cartilage, so for that reason, I couldn't play almost the whole season. It was hard because I was on the edge of maybe not playing football anymore."
"I had a very strict schedule where I had to be swimming and on a bike, and after 7 months I was able to train again. And even play the final against Benfica! So that was very unusual because I had hardly played that season.”
A heroic comeback then, for Gullit, dragging himself from the verge of retirement to the summit of European football. Much of the Milan side that would defend their title in Vienna in the 1990 final would be the same as those which had thrashed Steaua Bucharest, and this second final would be decided by a single Rijkaard goal, enough to defeat a Benfica side led by Sven-Göran Eriksson.
Milan’s successful defence of their European crown would not be repeated until 2017, but for Gullit, something had changed.
“After my injury, I was not the Ruud Gullit anymore what I was before. I had to adjust myself to a different way of playing football, because of the injury and because I was that much out of the game."
"I had to adapt my game, but I could deal with it. But of course, the role at Milan was less important than before, because at that moment the rotation system was introduced. So we were only allowed to have three foreigners. So sometimes you couldn't play. So that was also hard. When you are used to playing most of the games and all of a sudden you have to rest, so that was hard.”
The new foreigner rule meant that Gullit was forced to sit out 1993 final, a game where Milan would lose to Marseille - and the last game for Marco Van Basten who would be forced to retire due to injury. Milan would lose that match, and Gullit would later leave the San Siro for Sampdoria before joining Chelsea in 1995.
Despite this, Gullit has always spoken highly of his time in Milan, his time there marked by those two European Cup triumphs, 3 Serie A titles, the aforementioned Ballon d’Or, a UEFA Super Cup and an Intercontinental Cup.
He also won the European Championships with the Netherlands in 1988, scoring in that final as well (alongside Van Basten), and so it is hard to label him anything aside from legend, icon, and hero. Having a distinguished career that most players could only dream of, there are few bigger names in the game especially when you look at those who made their mark at the very summit of European football.
In that regard, there is truly only one Ruud Gullit, Dutch dynamo and Milan Maestro.