Ruud Gullit’s eventful and highly successful career as a player and coach has taken him from Haarlem to Milan, London, Los Angeles and, most recently, the Chechen capital of Grozny.
On the pitch the multi-faceted “Black Tulip” played a starring role in the Netherlands’ 1988 UEFA European Championship win and was no less influential in helping Arrigo Sacchi’s legendary AC Milan become European club champions on two occasions. Off it he has performed a number of high-profile roles, from passionate and innovative coach, to TV pundit, reggae singer and the president of his country’s joint bid with neighbours Belgium to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup™.
“I love trying my hand at things, making discoveries and, more than anything else, having fun,” the extrovert Dutchman once remarked. Yet no matter what ventures await Gullit in the future, he will always be remembered for his mastery of the ball and, with his dancing dreadlocks, the distinctive presence he cut on the field of play. Unpredictable yet reliable with it, he has made an indelible mark on the game.
Libero with an eye for goal
Learning the tricks of his trade in the streets of Jordaan, the Amsterdam suburb where he was born and brought up. After playing for local team DWS, the young Gullit signed his first professional contract with Eredivisie side Haarlem at the age of 16.
A colleague of the Koeman brothers, Edwin and Ronald, in the national youth team, the talented teenager forged a reputation as a goalscoring libero in his three seasons with the club, scoring an average of one goal every three games.
That record prompted Dutch giants Feyenoord to come in for him. Joining up with Johan Cruyff among others, Gullit showed his remarkable versatility on the big stage, slotting seamlessly into a more advanced playmaking position despite measuring in at over 6’1”. In scoring 40 goals in 101 appearances during his stay, he made a sterling contribution to Feyenoord’s 1984 league and cup double.
Voted Dutch Player of the Year that season, the dreadlocked phenomenon quickly moved on in search of a fresh challenge, signing for domestic rivals PSV Eindhoven. Such was the impact he would make over the next two seasons that he became a truly global star of the game.
The scorer of 54 goals during a hugely productive spell at the Philips Stadion, Gullit collected two more Eredivisie winners medals, not to mention another Player of the Year accolade and the 1987 Ballon d’Or.
His prodigious skills and good looks demanded an even bigger stage, which was presented to him that same year when he completed a big-money move to Italian aristocrats AC Milan.
An undisputed star with his new club, the free-spirited Gullit was also working wonders for the Netherlands. The crowning moment of his international career came at the 1988 European Championships in Germany, when he skippered the men in orange to their first major trophy, heading their opening goal in a 2-0 victory over USSR in the final.
His hunger for silverware unsated, he formed a high-class triumvirate with compatriots Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard, a childhood friend of his from Amsterdam, and set about the task of conquering Italy and Europe with Milan.
Inspired by the blueprint laid down by Ajax in the 1970s, Rossoneri coach Sacchi fashioned a side that had no equal. Their 1989 European Cup triumph came in spectacular style, Gullit and Co dishing out a memorable 5-0 defeat to Real Madrid in the semi-final at the San Siro before putting four unanswered goals past Steaua Bucharest in the final, the flamboyant Dutchman scoring two of them.
That European title was successfully defended the following year, with Bayern Munich and Benfica their respective victims in the semi-finals and final.
Gullit’s exertions had begun to take their toll, however. Exhausted after a hard season, he made little impression at the 1990 World Cup Italy, and when Marseille ended Milan’s continental reign in 1991, Sacchi’s formidable empire started to crumble. Further disappointment came a year later when Denmark ended the Netherlands' European Championship defence in Sweden with a shock penalty-shootout win in the semi-finals.
Increasingly sidelined at Milan, a flagging Gullit sought fresh inspiration by decamping to Serie A adversaries Sampdoria, rediscovering his powers to such an extent that Silvio Berlusconi was moved to lure him back to the San Siro.
The return was but a fleeting one, however. Within a matter of weeks, the Dutchman was back in Genoa and in among the goals again. Another new challenge presented itself in 1995, when he brought an end to a distinguished eight-year association with Italian football by signing for Chelsea, then a mid-table Premier League side with designs on reaching the big time.
In between times he played his last game for his country, a feud with national coach Dick Advocaat causing him to withdraw from the team in the build-up to USA 1994.
Filling the vacancy created by Glenn Hoddle’s appointment as England boss, Gullit took over as player-coach at Stamford Bridge, leading the Blues to FA Cup in 1997. Despite taking the ambitious Londoners to fourth place in the table, he was sacked the following season and decided to end his playing career.
After a single campaign in the Newcastle United hotseat, he resigned in August 1999, disenchanted with the game and vowing never to take another coaching position. Former employers Feyenoord persuaded him to change his mind in 2004, with a further managerial stint with Los Angeles Galaxy following in 2007, Gullit leaving both jobs within 12 months.
Having since devoted his energies to the unsuccessful Dutch-Belgian bid to host the World Cup, Gullit has just embarked on another adventure, moving to Chechnya to become the coach of Terek Grozny. His time in Russia was short-lived, and he has since spent time as a television pundit, as well as hosting successive FIFA Ballon d'Or Galas. Where will he go next? As his career trajectory so far has shown, Gullit has made a habit of doing the unexpected.
Did You Know?
Gullit dedicated his 1987 Ballon d’Or award to Nelson Mandela, who was still imprisoned on Robben Island at the time.
Performing with the reggae group Revelation Time, Gullit reached No.3 in the Dutch charts in 1988 with the protest song Anti-Apartheid.
Gullit moved to AC Milan in 1987 for what was a world-record fee at the time, surpassing the deal that took Diego Maradona from Barcelona to Napoli in 1984.
Gullit’s third and current wife is Estelle Cruyff, the niece of Dutch legend Johan. The pair wed in 2000.
Football legend George Best considered Ruud Gullit a finer player than Diego Maradona: "He has all the skills, he's not afraid to do things with the ball and he looks as if he's enjoying every second of it. By my reckoning that's what makes him an even better player than Maradona."