Ruud Gullit is number 25 in 90min's Top 50 Greatest Footballers of All Time series


When you hear the phrase 'total football', your mind immediately turns to Johan Cruyff and the great Netherlands team of the 1970s.


Cruyff was a flamboyant revolutionary who, with the guidance and assistance of head coach ​Rinus Michels, helped change the game we all love forever; combining seamless movement, relentless pressing and extreme athleticism, designed to run opponents ragged from beginning to end.


The end product was beautiful to watch.


But it was a system that wouldn't work unless the players who were working within it were adaptable, versatile and always striving for perfection.

Dutch midfielder Johann Cruyff dribbles

And those traits, along with so many more, suitably describe the footballing genius of one man who would take on the Dutch mantle after his retirement.


Ruud Gullit.


Born in Amsterdam in 1962, Gullit spent his formative years playing street football alongside fellow Dutch great Frank Rijkaard, where he'd learn the art and importance of impeccable close control, as well as mastering the art of quick, relentless movement.


His talent was obvious from a very early age, and it wasn't long until he became the youngest player to ever play in the Eredivisie - when he debuted for HFC Haarlem at just 16.


There, Gullit would sample the despair of relegation and the ecstasy of promotion, but more importantly would establish himself as one of the world's finest young talents. His manager at the time, Barry Hughes, described the brash, fearless Gullit as a "Dutch Duncan Edwards", the standout star of ​Manchester United's 'Busby Babes' during the 1950s, and allowed him to dictate play from an orthodox sweeper role.


I had the privilege and the luck of having him (Johan Cruyff) in my life. I am very grateful because he looked after me." Ruud Gullit.


With his reputation growing, there was soon a clamour for Gullit's signature - and it was a race that would be won by Feyenoord in 1982, the club he supported as a boy. There, he would team up with Cruyff for a year, and the experience was one that he'd take forward with him for the remainder of his career, becoming a talismanic figure for Netherlands throughout the late 1980s.


It was also around this time that it became apparent that Gullit wasn't just a run-of-the-mill good footballer; he had the potential to become a great one.


Feyenoord, spotting his natural ability to gracefully roam forward with the ball, while demonstrating tremendous pace and power, and moved him further up the pitch. It was a ploy that would pay off handsomely, as Gullit scooped the Dutch Footballer of the Year award in 1984.


A league and cup double were the rewards for Gullit's sensational individual season, but the stage was set for him to go on and achieve bigger and better things.


Two goal laden years at PSV Eindhoven acted as the catalyst for a then world record move to ​AC Milan, and it's here - alongside his exploits for his country - where Gullit would become a footballing great, inspiring I Rossoneri to domestic and European dominance.


Led by ​Arrigo Sacchi, who only had two years of prior coaching experience under his belt, Milan became the standard bearers of European football, with Gullit's versatility and understanding of the Italian's footballing philosophy a key staple of their unprecedented success.

Milan's style of play was unlike anything that had been seen in club football, and resonated well - after initial skepticism and a lot of convincing - with Gullit, at least in an attacking sense, because of it's reliance of good athleticism, a high-pressing work ethic and working of the ball in tight, secluded spaces.


It was a new spin on Cruyff's 'total football' ideology, and was a system that helped reward Gullit for his stellar year with the 1987 Ballon d'Or, the most prestigious individual honour in the game.


But that was just the beginning of something special for Gullit, both in Milan and for his country, as he won back-to-back European Cups in 1989 and 1990, a feat not achieved since, and the European Championship with Netherlands in 1988.


His success with his country, first and foremost, was all the more remarkable because of Netherlands' ineptitude for the past decade, where they had failed to qualify for the 1982 and 1986 World Cups, as well as the 1984 European Championship.

World Cup qualifier - Netherlands v Belgium

But Gullit was fortunate enough to blossom alongside a generation of great talents - Rijkaard, Ronald Koeman, Marco van Basten to name just three - and together, they put their country's past miseries behind them to comprehensively outclass all those put before them.


He even scored in the final, though his game winning header is largely overshadowed - and rightly so - by Van Basten's iconic volley into the Soviet Union top corner.


As great as that success was, Gullit's real bread and butter success came back in Italy. Alongside Rijkaard and Van Basten, he helped Sacchi transform Milan into one of the greatest teams to have ever played, as I Rossoneri tore teams to shreds with their insatiable appetite for goals.


Defensively, Milan were solid as a rock too - stoutly orchestrated by Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta and Paolo Maldini, among many, many others.


Gullit, though, was at the forefront of attack, often playing in a central two with Van Basten after being moved back into the centre. He played a starring role during the 5-0 demolition of Real Madrid in the European Cup semi-final, which is widely regarded as one of the greatest performances ever seen on the European stage.

Ruud Gullit

The coup de grace to Gullit's scintillating 88/89 season was still to come and would be administered to Steaua Bucharest in the final, as Gullit overcame surgery to score twice in a resounding 4-0 win, putting in a man-of-the-match performance.


That achievement is perhaps the pinnacle of Gullit's career from a personal perspective, but he'd still play an influential role in Milan's successes for years to come. An unbeaten 1991/92 ​Serie A season - which ultimately extended to 58 games - further demonstrates just how good this side were, albeit with Gullit's role becoming more and more marginalised as time, and restrictions on foreign imports, went on.


He remains synonymous to this day with Rijkaard and Van Basten, as well as Milan as a whole, and Gullit's outlook on football can perhaps be summed up by his words while working as a pundit during Euro '96...words that, to this day, still apply to many footballing purists.


"I'm looking forward to seeing some sexy football."


For more from Toby Cudworth, follow him on Twitter!


90min's 'Top 50 Greatest Footballers of All Time' can be found here.


Number 50: Luka Modric

Number 49: John Charles

Number 48: Hugo Sanchez

Number 47: Jairzinho

Number 46: Omar Sivori

Number 45: Paolo Rossi

Number 44: Paul Breitner

Number 43: George Weah

Number 42: Kaka

Number 41: Lev Yashin

Number 40: Gunnar Nordahl

Number 39: Kevin Keegan

Number 38: Hristo Stoichkov

Number 37: Gianluigi Buffon

Number 36: Johan Neeskens

Number 35: Xavi Hernandez

Number 34: Luis Suarez

Number 33: Karl-Heinz Rummenigge

Number 32: Andres Iniesta

Number 31: Rivelino

Number 30: Bobby Moore

Number 29: Socrates

Number 28: Sandor Kocsis

Number 27: Lothar Matthaus

Number 26: ​Ronaldinho