The glory days are back for British soccer. Thanks to the money poured into the game by television, Britain has come to rival Italy as a magnet for international stars. Brian Glanville portrays the Dutchman who is the glamorous emblem of the soccer renaissanceby Brian Glanville / December 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Ruud Gullit has enjoyed a King’s Road honeymoon since he arrived last season-a deus ex machina-at Chelsea football club, to play, and subsequently to manage. With his famous dreadlocks, his sporting talents, his polyglot charm, Gullit has enraptured London. Last month he acted with typical poise and dignity during the public mourning for Matthew Harding, the Chelsea director; so many other football stars would have been at best trite, at worst an embarrassment.
Of his prowess as a player, there has never been any doubt; he is one of the great footballers of his age, a glorious amalgam of technique and power. The Gullit of today, now 34, clearly cannot have the pace he once did, not least after a series of operations on his right knee which cost him a whole season with AC Milan in 1989-90, and which could so easily have ended his career. That he should come back to the field at all was remarkable. That he should do so to such effect was even more so.
Under full galleon sail, there have been few more exciting players; and very few more versatile. After a season with DWS Amsterdam and then three with Haarlem, it was with the Feyenoord club of Rotterdam that Gullit made his name; there he blossomed as a sweeper, playing behind the defence, but always ready to make forays upfield. But by the time he was transferred to PSV Eindhoven in 1985, he was best known as a midfield player, a stupendous sight when, dreadlocks flying, he launched his huge frame upfield. For such a big man-indeed, for any man-his touch was delicate, and he used his height to dominant purpose when the ball was in the air.
Arriving so unexpectedly in London after eight years in Milan and Genoa, Gullit delighted football reporters by the way he would slip into the press room-quite unbidden-to hold court after Chelsea’s games at Stamford Bridge. Speaking very serviceable English, which he learned at school (his Italian is perfect), Gullit would chat away in a most engaging manner, often laughing, always amenable-a welcome change from the grudging suspicion of so many English players and managers. All this makes you wonder why, after he had left Sampdoria of Genoa in 1995, a Genoese journalist should describe him, caustically, as “an opportunist,” comparing him unfavourably with the Englishman, David Platt.
But Gullit’s brilliant career has inevitably had its darker moments. A hero for so long in Italy, his last season was an unhappy one as he oscillated between AC Milan and Sampdoria, increasingly unwelcome at both clubs. And for all his prowess, Gullit has never received the true accolade of a great player: success in a world cup.
In 1988, when Holland so emphatically won the European championship in West Germany, Gullit bestrode the field, supported by AC Milan’s other two Dutch stars, Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten. Two years later, when it came to the world cup in Italy, Gullit, who had still not fully recovered from his knee operations, was never at full throttle; and the Dutch, quarrelling among themselves as their footballers (like the Germans) often do, stuttered out of the tournament.
Four years later, Holland were among the favourites for the 1994 world cup in the US, with Gullit their trump card. It was never played, for Gullit walked out of the training camp before the tournament began, to the bitter dismay of his team mates. In the event, Holland were knocked out by Brazil, a game which they lost only narrowly, and which they might have won had Gullit been playing.
On that occasion at least, it was not a case of cherchez la femme. Gullit might be-indeed he was-accused of acting like a prima donna. But his motives and objections, such as they were, involved football, rather than his personal life. The same cannot be said of his flitting between Milan and Genoa. After leaving his first wife, Yvonne, with whom he had two daughters, he married a young Italian journalist called Christina. She, it is said, was bored by the provinciality of Genoa after Gullit had moved there to play for Sampdoria. She longed for the lights of Milan and urged him to return. This, in mid-season, he did, but he no longer fitted in with the way AC Milan were playing, so back he went to Genoa. The plan was that he would next play in Monaco, where Christina wished to live, and that he would leave Monaco before the end of the ensuing season to play, for a fortune, in Japan. In the event, his second marriage broke up, he formed a new liaison, and went, not to Monaco but to London.
Gullit was born in Amsterdam but, like many outstanding Dutch footballers of his time, his father came from the former Dutch colony of Surinam. The contribution made by Surinamese players to Dutch football has been immense. Twenty years ago, the famous Ajax Amsterdam team and the fine Dutch international team (almost one and the same) were entirely white. Johan Cruyff, the centre-forward and inspiration of both teams, was born of Dutch parents and brought up in Amsterdam. Dutch journalists of the period lamented that after Cruyff and company, there would be a steep decline; young talent was simply not emerging. But it did and it was largely Surinamese, with none more refulgent than Gullit.
Is Gullit a greater player than Cruyff? He is certainly more versatile, although possibly less technically remarkable. In Italy, he emerged as a centre-forward in his latter seasons, as effective in his own way as Cruyff-larger, more muscular, and probably better in the air. In his earlier days, he used to say that the best goal he had ever scored was for the unfashionable Haarlem club in the 1981-82 season, before he grew dreadlocks. “Playing against Utrecht, I went past four defenders then the goalkeeper, and scored. It was an unforgettable goal for me”-a memory which must have been obscured by so many other goals since then.
It was while he was playing for his next club, Feyenoord, that he locked horns with the club’s manager, Thijs Libregts-a clash which would bear bitter fruit when Libregts was made manager of the Dutch international team a few years later. Gullit, a public critic of apartheid and devotee of Bob Marley, found it hard to forgive a racist remark.
Libregts has done his best to explain his gaffe away, but to scant effect: “That’s an old story from when I was with Gullit in 1984,” he said. “Remember in football, you have black people, tall people, short people and some with glasses. It’s normal to have nicknames, you say, ‘Okay, Blackie, kick the ball, then.’ And then we had some discussion and I said, ‘Blackie must run more because he’s a little bit lazy.’ And they wrote down, ‘The coach said all black people are lazy.’ And then all that started.”
It was inevitable that, like any talented, strong willed player, Gullit should have had his brushes with authority. Libregts was no longer in charge by the time of the 1994 world cup but Dick Advocaat, the new manager, was little more accommodating. Advocaat wanted Gullit to play out on the right flank. Gullit wanted to play a more focal role in the centre. Matters came to a head when Holland played England at Wembley in the preliminary world cup tournament in 1992.
Initially deployed on the right flank, Gullit kept moving into the middle, so Advocaat substituted him. For Gullit, this was a humiliation, exacerbated by the fact that Mark Overmars, who proceeded to play on the right wing, was instrumental in gaining Holland a draw. Gullit refused to play for the national team, then changed his mind only to walk out of the pre-world cup training camp.
Why did he do it? His own explanation never quite carried conviction. When a French journalist suggested, the year after the finals, that Holland might have won had he played, Gullit laughed and said in English: “There’s a proverb which more or less says this: if my aunt had a dick, she would be my uncle.” He added: “I knew Holland couldn’t be world champions with the tactics and players they had announced. I tried to make my reasons known. There was no appropriate response, so things went ahead without me. My departure took place at a surprising moment, I admit, but that’s how it is. That’s how I am.”
He expanded on this in an Italian interview. “Almost everything I know, I have learned in Italy,” he said. (He joined the Milan team in 1987, a ?5.5m transfer from PSV, replacing England’s Ray Wilkins.) “I’ve had long experience in the strongest championship in the world. When I knew I was going back to play for my international team, I also heard people saying: you can come, but you must keep quiet. We shall play as we want. My experience was being discounted; everything I had won counted for nothing. But you cannot always say yes. For me, the world cup was very important, it was my last great chance. The heat, the humidity and the times of the games were going to condition the championship. You had to play with your brains. Anyone who went for all out attack would have used up his energy in no time. Holland was incredibly overrated by the press and the fans. I was sceptical. Advocaat told me I was right, but then the two wingers who should have been playing in midfield went back to being wingers after ten minutes and we were all in trouble and out of breath… I said these things, but the others laughed in my face. I felt a sense of frustration. And then I left. I didn’t want to expend my energy for nothing. I didn’t want to put my prestige on the line and then get slaps from the press.”
His Dutch team mates have not been sympathetic. Wim Jonk, the Dutch midfielder, who came to play for Internazionale in Milan, was especially cutting. “It’s never nice when a player leaves the national team,” he said, “and all the less so when he walks out the way Gullit did. He just said, ‘Ciao, goodbye, everybody,’ promising he would explain his reasons only after the world cup. If Ruud had behaved like the great star we all knew he was, he wouldn’t have gone like that. He would have stayed there with us, he would have argued to impose his views. But he didn’t, he didn’t even deign to explain anything to us after the world cup. Now he’s speaking, but it’s too late, and it isn’t right to say that Holland deserved to be knocked out, because they played badly. In fact we played well, we beat Ireland and were knocked out by Brazil at the end of an intense, dramatic clash, in which we played on equal terms with the South Americans… All things considered, though, Gullit did well to desert Holland. We forgot about him at once. We were more at ease without Ruud.”
One doubts that, but the bitterness over what Jonk and others clearly regarded as a betrayal is all too apparent. It is unlikely that this would have bothered Gullit too much. He is a man who manifestly follows his own star, as the journalists in Genoa noticed. But it would be unfair to regard Gullit only as a calculating individualist. Like any decent middle class Dutchman, he has a highly developed social conscience and emphasises his public duties as a star footballer. “I try to speak prudently, looking for the right words, and to tell people things face to face. Football has given me a place in society which obliges me not to avoid any subject, however difficult. I cannot play the ostrich; too many supporters, too many children hang on my words.”
But he is also, by his own admission, something of a latter day troubadour. He once cheerfully told a French interviewer-in immaculate French-“I have no house, even in Holland. I live like a nomad, like a citizen of the world. I am a gypsy!” When Gullit did decide to sign for Chelsea, one wondered how long he would stay, which was perhaps another way of wondering how long his current liaison would last. In the event, he did stay and when, in 1996, with Glenn Hoddle’s elevation to the England job, he was appointed player-manager at the club, he went to work with a will, drawing on his huge store of experience. In pre-season training he put great emphasis on stamina, employing a former international sprinter to put the players through their paces. On the field, he tried to persuade them to run less and think more, so that when the moment arrived, a forward, such as Scotland’s little John Spencer, would have the breath and energy to accelerate.
To Chelsea’s dismay, he was out of the game for several months at the start of this season after a calf operation. He was determined not to play again before he was completely ready. Simply to recover from an injury is not enough; there has to be a further period of recuperation. “One spends one’s time listening to, assessing one’s body,” Gullit says. “The human body isn’t made to play football. So you have to force it, gently, above all when age begins to weigh on you. I spend time talking with my body. The body never lies. I know that one day it will say, ‘Stop! I can no longer bear what you’re asking me!’ I cannot say whether that day is coming. The better I know my body, the more able I am to decide if it’s demanding a massage or some training, some work, some effort, or a rest. Thanks to such attention, I am still capable of playing.”
At Chelsea, he seems to have struck up a good relationship with the club’s demanding chairman, Ken Bates. But in Italy he was badly bitten, and a falling out is quite possible, especially if Chelsea’s early success this season fades. He was justifiably aggrieved when AC Milan so readily let him go to Sampdoria. Silvio Berlusconi, Milan’s president, was quoted as saying in private that he thought Gullit was “finished”-a spur for Gullit to prove that he was nothing of the sort. In happier times Gullit was full of praise for Berlusconi. He said in 1993 that the good spirit in the Milan dressing room “reflects the personality of Berlusconi. Since he bought the club, he has fashioned it in his own way.” But by 1995 he was saying: “Let’s say that my leaving Milan can be explained by the fact that I did not rediscover the atmosphere there that I had left. The way Milan played had changed, too. My first departure from Milan took place in circumstances that I didn’t like.”
The fans at Chelsea, who not so long ago were notorious for a significant racist element, have taken Gullit to their hearts. His appointment as player-manager was immensely popular at a club which has won little for decades. Beginning as libero, or sweeper, subsequently moving up into midfield, setting doubts about his stamina to rest, Gullit has delighted the fans with his inventiveness, and shooting. On the training field, he was virtually working as a coach even before he was made manager. And the training field, if not the playing field, is where he wants to be; office work has no appeal for him.
Gullit’s international prestige enabled him to sign for this season such foreign players as the Italians Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Di Matteo, and the less well known but immediately successful French centre-back, Frank Leboeuf. Vialli, the prolific striker discarded by Juventus, after helping them to win the European Cup final in Rome last season, could have gone where he liked, but Gullit charmed him to Chelsea.
If the “gypsy” does stop wandering and stay at Stamford Bridge, he will surely bring some success. Perhaps his problem will be, as he says, that he so much enjoys playing football. When the time comes, as eventually it must, that his body tells him enough is enough, will he be satisfied with what must ultimately be a secondary managerial role? Chelsea and their fans must hope he will.