Ruud Gullit: The Brilliant Embodiment of Total Football

Oct 7, 2020, 6:15 PM GMT+1
Portraits - 2020 Laureus World Sports Awards - Berlin
Portraits - 2020 Laureus World Sports Awards - Berlin | Simon Hofmann/Getty Images

Back in the 90's, football was a very different game. Italy was home to a star-studded string of the greatest players on the planet, and calcio giants Milan were at the very top of the pile.

Silvio Berlusconi was a shining example of how to successfully run a football club, and he was exploiting the transfer market to sign the very best talents around the globe. I Rossoneri had taken particular interest in the rise of 'Total Football', a style of play that had turned the Netherlands into one of the most feared nations in the game.

The Dutch had produced a crop of young, naturally gifted and well-taught stars who could play the sport at their own pace and in their own unique style. They were a joy to watch, and Milan fancied a piece of that pie.

Determined to add to their impenetrable base of Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta and Franco Baresi, three stars of the Dutch game were brought across to Serie A to provide some extra sparkle and class to the side.

Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit all joined the Italian giants towards the end of the 1980's, and they went on to change the landscape of the league forever. But our particular focus falls on the latter of the trio, who was the most complete player that football may have ever seen.

Standing six feet and three inches tall, Gullit was a man mountain at the heart of the Milan team. For a player with such an intimidating and imposing physique, you may have expected him to be a destroyer in the centre of the park, crushing his adversary with all his might.

But he was no ordinary footballer. The Dutchman had been blessed with a set of skills which were incomparable to any other footballer at that time - so much so that he earned the Ballon d'Or in 1987, following his move from PSV Eindhoven to Italy.

It was his goalscoring heroics that had caught the world's attention during his two years with the Dutch side, where he bagged 46 league goals in 68 appearances, and it was only a matter of time before one of Europe's heavyweights came knocking.

As it was, Milan came to town - and they never looked back. I Rossoneri exploited his killer instinct in front of goal from the off, by lining him up on the right of a front three, which included his compatriot Van Basten. He hit nine goals in the 1987/88 campaign, helping his new club win their first league title in almost a decade. Not a bad start.

So, goals were his thing. But they weren't his only thing. Gullit was immensely talented all over the pitch, in a variety of different positions, and his flexibility and versatility made him a glorious player to witness in full flow.

He simply had an unrivalled understanding of the sport. His education of the game allowed him to occupy any role on the pitch, and he could adapt seamlessly to his new surroundings. His reading of the game was second to none, and his ability to be in the right place at the right time was unparalleled.

And obviously, he was a physical specimen.

Standing so tall and strong, it was almost impossible to knock Gullit off the ball. But it wasn't all power. He had unbelievable technique with the ball at his feet, and he could slalom through any number of hacking challenges.

As he got older, the Dutchman began the match in a deeper role, and he would break up play, nick the ball or execute intelligent interceptions before driving forward and launching rapid attacks. He was the ultimate box to box midfielder, and box office.

Tactical awareness, technical ability and physical presence. He could do everything. And he did.

His arrival at Milan kickstarted the glory years that soon unfolded. The first Scudetto success was followed up by European glory in 1989, where the man himself bagged a brace in a 4-0 victory over Steaua București in the competition's finale.

I Rossoneri went on to defend their European title in 1990, although Gullit's influence was restricted due to a serious injury. This would be a recurring theme throughout his career, as niggling injuries hampered his time with Milan over the next few years.

However, they were able to win back to back Scudetti in 1992 and 1993, with their Dutch talisman featuring 26 times in both campaigns. He was mercurial. He possessed the balance of a ballet dancer, combined with the devastation of a sledge hammer. It was beautiful, yet surgical.

Gullit's fitness issues meant he fell down the pecking order with I Rossoneri, and he did make a move to Sampdoria in 1993. He recaptured some of his best form in that iconic blue and white shirt, ironically scoring the winning goal for his new side against ex-club Milan. Did he celebrate, you ask? Of course he did. It was a cracking finish, too.

He joined Chelsea in 1995, where he would go on to make more history in the Premier League. But England's gain was Italy's loss, as Serie A was forced to wave goodbye to one of the greatest they'd ever seen.