Ruud Gullit doesn’t get enough credit. Maybe he can’t – maybe he won’t. I only say this because, despite all the plaudits he received during his playing time, his name doesn’t seem to resonate with the same force today. Perhaps that’s just the passage of time. But perhaps it’s also because what Gullit did was beyond emulation. You can’t really coach players to be as good as that. He combined the craft of a supreme forward with the physique of an elite decathlete. A man from the land of Total Football, he was arguably the most total of them all.
They say that some players can do everything – the difference is that Gullit did do everything. How best to describe him? Well, imagine Michael Ballack with greater mobility and quicker feet. He played with distinction everywhere from sweeper to number ten. There’s little doubt that he would have been a world-class full-back, had his career gone down that route.
But it’s fitting that Gullit was always at the centre of the action. He demanded everyone’s attention both on and off the field. Politically, too, there was so much that was significant about such a prominent sporting the proudest set of dreadlocks – this, remember, was while Nelson Mandela was still in jail. Gullit didn’t just look the part, he talked and sang it too, dedicating his 1987 Ballon D’Or award to Mandela and reaching number three in the Dutch charts with an anti-apartheid reggae tune.
And Gullit didn’t just walk the walk; he swaggered it. This is a man, after all, who once scored a flying volley with his knee. If you watch any of the various YouTube clips where he’s in full flight, you will see someone who didn’t so much run as gallop. You can see, too, why he briefly fancied himself as a musician, since he has the stage presence of a rock star playing Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage.
Gullit’s star was slightly less prominent because he shared the spotlight with Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard, two similarly sublime Dutchmen at AC Milan. It was one of the first times – alongside Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool – that I had seen a team with multiple players who could take control of a game at will. There was a period watching Football Italia on Channel 4 when Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan turned almost every weekend into a carnival of goals. Of course, Gullit – thick black hair soaring above his shoulders, as if Thor had taken a detour via the Caribbean on his way from Asgard – was at the middle of everything.
I never got to see Glenn Hoddle play, but – in terms of long passing – I see Gullit as the Premier League’s link between him and David Beckham. When Gullit arrived at Chelsea, the long ball was a much-maligned element of the English game, seen primarily as a way of clearing your lines. Gullit reminded millions of viewers what a majestic weapon it could be. He routinely sent passes of astonishing precision to either flank, and was dominant even in the later stages of his career; if Gullit was Al Pacino, then the Premier League saw him when he was turning in performances like Scent of a Woman. Even when he had lost much of his ferocious intensity, he was still an elder statesman to be reckoned with.
To look at the Premier League now, long passing is all the rage, and Gullit can take now small credit for that. The virtues of the crossfield ball are now well known. In the English game, there has also long been an affection for the all-action midfielder, which is why Patrick Vieira, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Yaya Toure are so revered. It is possibly difficult for many of their fans to imagine that Gullit could have been greater than them – and, as I type the names of that formidable quartet, even I hesitate. But then I remember Gullit running riot against some of the best defences that world football has seen, and overwhelming them with speed, skill and vision. I remember watching replays of that European Cup semi-final against Real Madrid in 1989, when AC Milan prevailed 5-0, with all of their goals coming within the first hour of play. And I saw how Gullit then, as on many other occasions, seemed to swarm the middle and final thirds of the field almost by himself, a one-man battalion, a lone squadron. And I have to conclude that, though Vieira, Gerrard, Lampard and Toure would be medallists in any era, it’s Gullit who stands proudly atop the podium.