Simon KuperComment


Simon KuperComment

At last - after 30 months, a fit Ruud Gullit is back in football. 

An end to his career crisis was signalled by the goal against Sampdoria which helped earn Milan the European Supercup, then the cross which provided Frank Rijkaard's opening goal in the world club showdown in Tokyo.

Gullit at last looked the defence breaker of old, the man football needs if the last World Cup is to be forgotten. "Gullit is really back," said happy team-mate Marco van Basten.

But is he?

Gullitmania reached its peak in the spring of 1988, in his first season in Italy. He took Milan to the championship and Jimmy Greaves appeared on TV wearing one of his Gullit-hair hats.  He had a strong but relatively anonymous European championship, happily playing to help Van Basten, and while preparing for the new season he damaged his right knee.  He took the original knock in a friendly against Parma, on August 3, 1988. Countless complications and three operations later, he is back.

Since that fateful meeting with Parma, Gullit has played barely 1,000 minutes of competitive football. It is a tribute to his greatness that in 1989 he was voted World Soccer magazine's World Footballer of the Year on the basis of three incomplete matches.

He played in the Champions' Cup semi-final against Real Madrid and was carried off; he scored two goals in an hour in the final against Steaua Bucharest; and he beat five Finnish defenders to let Wim Kieft score Holland's winning goal in a crucial World Cup qualifier, despite playing only the last 20 minutes. Enough, quite rightly for World Soccer's readers.

Those few minutes were enough to keep him out of action for almost another year. While serving the interests of club and country, Gullit severely damaged his own career. It is a choice he now regrets.

He was fit just in time for Milan's next European final, a 1-0 victory against Benfica, but his helplessness must have moved even the Portuguese to pity.  The man in the No. 10 shirt looked like Gullit, he talked like Gullit, but as far as his play went Milan might as well have fielded their bus driver.  The World Cup showed not the slightest improvement. Holland flew home in shame as early as June 24.

Remembering the European Championships - were they only two years ago? - it is no exaggeration to say that Gullit's knee determined the World Cup's destination. Apart from the Supercup, the only thing Gullit won in 1990 was Spitting Image's European Haircut of the Year.

His years out of football were unimaginably hard. In June 1989 he lost many close friends when an aeroplane Carrying a Dutch West Indian team crashed. Then he went through a messy divorce, made infinitely worse than it need have been by the press, which stopped licking his feet and sprang for his throat.

"I'm disillusioned," he said. "I've learned that when people don't need you, you cease to exist." 

One Italian newspaper tried to fake a photograph of Gullit buying drugs in a Milanese park. Others concocted a story that he was having an affair with an Italian journalist. There are many such examples. The media, he was discovering, is much kinder to popular footballers than to sick Rastafarians.

Gullit says the fans kept him going through the torment. "People who spoke to me on the street and gave me advice, what I should eat. People who came with powders. With marrow. Everything. People wrote that they had drawn my horoscope and told me I didn't need to worry." 

Still, there were conspicuously fewer Gullit hats on Dutch heads in 1990 than in 1988. More important, the captain lost friends within the Dutch national team.

It is a public secret that Gullit is the reason why Rijkaard is refusing to play for Holland. The two, friends since boyhood, fell out because Rijkaard felt that Gullit was trying to run the team despite playing badly. During the World Cup, Rijkaard was at his peak and Gullit in a trough, yet Gullit persuaded Holland manager Leo Beenhakker to give him the coveted central role in midfield. Rijkaard also was annoyed that Gullit refused to shut his mouth despite no longer performing with his feet. Gullit brought down former manager Thijs Libregts, and during the World Cup he had a crashing row with Rinus Michels. Embarrassingly, Michels is now Holland's manager again. Van Basten and Rijkaard call Gullit "guru" - a reference to his constant public pronouncements on politics and life.

These conflicts have put Gullit under pressure to play well for Holland. Unfortunately, he played as badly as the rest of the Rijkaard-less team in the recent defeats against Italy and Portugal, He sat out Holland's next match, claiming tiredness, and it was his bad luck that the Dutch played well and won 2-0.

The future is a question mark. Will Gullit reach his old level again? Will he take Holland to another victory in the European Championships in 1992? Will the Dutch qualify at all? Gullit has 50 caps. Will he break Ruud Krol's Dutch record of 83? "I've been out of football and I know how hard it is to come back to the highest level," he says. "Every day is a battle. You have to experience it to understand what I mean. I fail back on my will-power every time."

Not even Gullit knows if he ever Will come back, but what is certain is that he can. At the height of his troubles there were moments of the old Gullit: remember his goal from the one-two against Ireland, his volley into the top of the net against poor Steaua? Such moments are infrequent nowadays: he must be able to do it all the time. When Gullit feels happy again, when he trusts his body again, he will be the man of old.

The World Cup showed that the main problem with modern football is lack of space. Gullit's genius, through tireless running, tears defences apart. He helped Van Basten to five goals in the European Championship, but with Gullit ailing Van Basten failed to score in the World Cup. In the spring Milan gave Gullit a three-year contract worth £850,000 a year. "We have waited a year and if necessary we will wait another one,'" says Arrigo Sacchi, the coach, who prefers Gullit to Gheorge Hagi, KarlHeinz Riedle or any of the other suggested replacements.

Gullit is still only 28. And if Manchester United, Arsenal or Ipswich had been a little more clear sighted ten years agp, he could now be playing in England.

This article originally appeared in the January 1991 edition of World Soccer. Subscribe here for a limited time offer.