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Fifty years of football through Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard’s lifelong friendship

This feature was originally published in the Netherlands issue of These Football Times magazine. If you like it, consider purchasing the magazine and supporting independent journalism by clicking here.

 

 

IN THEORETICAL PHYSICS, there is an intriguing and important concept known as world lines; a particle’s world line is the pathway it takes in a four-dimensional space-time continuum, and it is not too far-fetched to imagine that as humans, we have a certain world line to each of our lives too. In as much, there is great complexity to our interactions when you visualise the world lines of everyone you meet as intersecting yours at some point, before meandering along in their own course.

The world lines of Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard ran parallel, if not even intertwined, for the longest time and in the most remarkable fashion. Beyond just featuring in the same star-studded side under Arrigo Sacchi at AC Milan and lifting the Netherlands’ only major international trophy together, Gullit and Rijkaard – arguably the Dutch Hamlet and Horatio – are two figures through whom we can infer a lot not only about Dutch football but arguably the Dutch psyche and contemporary culture.

 

STREETS

 

GERARD GULLIT AND HERMAN RIJKAARD had both travelled to the Netherlands from Suriname, the now-former Dutch colony in South America. Gullit Sr. had been a talented striker for Transvaal while Rijkaard Sr. plied his trade for Robin Hood as a renowned attacker, both top clubs in Suriname. Having landed in the Netherlands, though, they took slightly different paths.

Herman Rijkaard signed for FC Blauw Wit Amsterdam and played there for five seasons before ending up at Stormvogels – both clubs which have since disbanded and/or merged to form bigger clubs. And so, Herman – who had previously worked at a trading firm called Kersten & Co in Suriname – left football to take up a position with the Dutch Social Services. Meanwhile, George Gullit did not have his heart set on professional football in the Netherlands, and attended the Vrije Universiteit in Amstelveen, studying Economics and eventually becoming a teacher in the same discipline.

Their famous sons were born to Dutch mothers within a month of each other in September of 1962. Gullit’s parents were not legally married at the time of his birth, and Gullit went by his birth name of Rudi Dil until his teenage years.

Having arrived just before a big wave of Surinamese immigrants in the 1970s, young Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard grew up in a very unusual environment. Gullit later remarked: “My father was [part of] the first black generation to come from Suriname to Holland. So, at school I was one of the few black kids; I was the only black player in my team. The only thing I thought to myself was ‘look, I’m standing out here, so I have to be good because they will look at me. If there is one ginger boy in the team, they will look at the ginger boy and you have to be good’. So I knew I was noticed and needed to do extra.”

As youngsters, both Gullit and Rijkaard were very much the type of footballers that most coaches and fans now seem to yearn for – the type of footballers Cruyff’s Foundation and his vision at Ajax want to create again, perhaps paradoxically. They were street footballers.

Gullit started out with Meerboys, a small local team who trained close to Ajax’s old stadium of De Meer; when he was 11, his family moved from Jordaan to the west of Amsterdam. Here, Ruud joined DWS while also kicking around in his free time at the Balboaplein square, where he was joined by a certain Frank.

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Rijkaard had joined Buitenveldert as a seven-year-old, before his father secured him to move to his old side of Blauw-Wit. But soon enough, the charming Gullit convinced Rijkaard to join him at DWS and the two became inseparable. It was as much their love for football, as the fact that they were similar and finally had someone else to relate to in their experiences. The two black youngsters were easy to distinguish from the rest of their team although many – including coaches – sometimes had difficulty telling one apart from the other. By the age of 15, the two sported almost matching afros and dominated their peers easily; they were taller, stronger and technically superior.

Gullit was a defender, but in the days of Total Football, he was perhaps the Total Footballer in his youth team. He was a sweeper but failed to confine to the orthodox requirements of the role; being the brilliant athlete he was, Gullit would start dribbling the ball from deep in defence until he was high up the pitch, in almost an attacking midfield role. He had the perfect blend of skill and physicality to thrive anywhere at that level, and as Gullit put it himself, “I ran my way into all kinds of teams, from Amsterdam’s juniors to the Dutch youth team, and I just kept on running past everyone. All the way from the back. With no idea about positions on the field or coordination with other players, I didn’t even see the other side. I ran past them all.”

Rijkaard was slightly different. To the spectator, he perhaps did not shine as much in the shadow of Gullit, but arguably had the better technical ability. He was quieter and more focused, preferring to keep things steady in the team while Gullit forayed forward and masterminded goals and attacking play.

Gullit and Rijkaard started to gain quite some recognition, playing for the Amsterdam city junior side and then the Dutch youth team together. As with any exciting emerging youngster, inevitably, Ajax were keen on the DWS duo. They tasked Rob Been, a former Ajax youth player himself who did scouting now and then for the club, with approaching Gullit and Rijkaard. Professionally employed as a salesperson at Hoogovens, a steel company, Been was careful in how he went about trying to secure these players for Ajax. Approaching the KNVB for contact details would alert other major clubs to Ajax’s interest, and so Been worked almost in a detective-like way.

With Gullit, Been turned out to be too late, even with his discreet ways. Barry Hughes, who was the manager of FC Haarlem, had heard of potential Ajax interest, and had – according to Gullit – waited outside their door all night to secure the youngster’s signature.

Been was determined not to lose Rijkaard and made his way down to the west Amsterdam neighbourhood where Rijkaard lived. The milkman pointed him to the right house, where Been was greeted by Frank’s mother, Neel, since Rijkaard, 16 at the time, was still at school. She was less than enthusiastic, and concerned that her son’s academic performance was suffering due to football. Been pounced at the chance to emphasise Ajax were keen to tutor their players and help with studies alongside the football, and assured her that she would not have to worry about him.

Once Rijkaard arrived home from school, they agreed for him to come to De Meer over the weekend to sort out details and sign the contract. He was late, due to issues with their family car, but he turned up. Years later, as Been recollected to Het Parool, Rijkaard told him that even if Been had come over a day later, he would have also joined Haarlem, and his father was less than pleased with the Ajax decision. And yet, even though it was but verbal agreement and even faced with potentially upsetting his father, Rijkaard stuck to the word he gave Rob Been that afternoon.

 

BREAKTHROUGH

 

BY THE EARLY 1980s, Rijkaard and Gullit were both starting to successfully make the transition from dominating their age group in the youth team to professional football.

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Gullit, whose career often seems to be well-characterised by the action of ‘bursting’, burst onto the scene as the youngest debutant in the Eredivisie for FC Haarlem. With a tad less weight of expectation upon his shoulders at a relatively small club, Gullit was thrust into the forefront of the first team and took to it like a fish to water. Under Barry Hughes, he continued playing at centre-back with the free role he was accustomed to at youth level, but was soon moved up front to play striker. He absolutely flourished. He came at defenders with his trademark long strides and could strike the ball with thunderous ferocity.

Meanwhile, Rijkaard slowly worked his way up at Ajax. Leo Beenhakker remained a believer of the youngster and slowly blooded him into the first team at Ajax as a central defender. Rijkaard was unique as a player. He was an expert reader of the game and would anticipate actions before they occurred, and when he couldn’t, he was fast enough and strong enough to outmuscle his opponent in a duel. Rijkaard was playing in the same team as Johan Cruyff, who was in his twilight years, and made quite an impression with his technical skills on the Dutch legend.

And yet, their world lines kept colliding. Gullit and Rijkaard made their Dutch national team debuts in the same match, a friendly against Switzerland in 1981. Rijkaard started the game in midfield alongside Johnny Metgod and Gullit replaced him at half-time. According to Simon Kuper, the Swiss commentator did not even notice the switch.

A year later, Gullit’s exploits with Haarlem became too hard to ignore for the top Dutch sides, although then-Arsenal manager Terry Neill did say £30,000 was a very costly fee for a “wild kid”. Ultimately, Ajax’s arch-rivals Feyenoord came calling – the club Gullit still professes to support – and in his second season, he too got the chance to play alongside Cruyff, albeit in an unfamiliar right-forward role.

For both Gullit and Rijkaard, playing alongside Cruyff – as it would for any player – was an educational experience beyond anything. The famous number 14’s way of speaking about the relativity of each position on the field opened up the youngsters’ eyes to look at the team beyond just knowing what each of them had to do in their position. Their thus-far parochial view of the pitch had been blown open.

Gullit, who perhaps shares more than a few qualities in personality with Cruyff, understood that if he wanted to be the best, he would have to stamp his authority in the dressing room and off the pitch as much as he did on the pitch.

Rijkaard’s turning-point perhaps came when he and Gerald Vanenburg were called out by then-Ajax boss Aad de Mos as lacking in willpower to win above all else. “You won’t win the war with lads like Rijkaard and Vanenburg,” remarked the coach, who was dismissed before the end of the 1984/85 season.

Where Gullit seemed to be born with a certain fire in him, Rijkaard was always level-headed and cool. And while Rijkaard was talented, he was prone to the occasional error and wasn’t the kind of all-out visceral player who expresses himself or his emotions exaggeratedly on the pitch. It made him seem distant at times, detached from the cause and at a tribalistic level of football, like someone who didn’t care enough. When question marks arose over his future at Ajax, Rijkaard had to reflect and evolve to understand that winning was central to football.

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The summer of 1985 was a crucial point in both Gullit and Rijkaard’s careers. For Gullit, he made his final step-up in Dutch football, from Feyenoord to PSV. Ajax had waltzed to the title the previous season, with a certain Marco van Basten grabbing headlines and PSV were willing to pay a prize sum of 1.2 million guilders for Gullit. PSV’s investment in Gullit paid off as he delivered two back-to-back Eredivisie titles, driving the team forward with his powerful runs and his graceful passing.

For Rijkaard, it was the summer that Cruyff made his return to the club as manager and completely reinvented the formation and tactics. Rijkaard never won the Eredivisie again with Ajax until his second spell at the club, but managed to pick up the KNVB Beker and the Cup Winners’ Cup along the way.

However, beyond trophies, Rijkaard ended up being a crucial cog to Cruyff’s construction of his ideal 3-3-1-3. The three in defence for Cruyff are compensated numerically by not having a flat three in midfield ahead of them, but having a defensive midfielder who floats between the lines and drops back or pushes forward depending on the state of the game. Rijkaard, equally comfortable in defence and midfield, was the perfect fit for this role and grew by leaps and bounds in his first two seasons under Cruyff.

The year 1987 was yet another significant turning point for the world lines of both Gullit and Rijkaard as both started to gain recognition at a national level. In the summer, Rijkaard pick up the Golden Shoe for Dutch Footballer of the Year while Gullit went one further and won the Jaap Eden trophy for Dutch Sportsman of the Year – an award usually dominated by skating and cycling, whose only previous footballer-winner was Cruyff.

But more importantly, both were involved in important transfer sagas. Back in the summer of 1986, Milan had watched Gullit play for PSV in the Joan Gamper pre-season tournament in Barcelona. Right after the game, AC Milan technical manager, Ariedo Braida, went straight to the distinctively-dreadlocked Gullit and asked him to play for Milan the following season.

Robert Donadoni recounted the first time he saw Gullit to FourFourTwo: “He had such physical power that he could have played anywhere. The first time I saw him, it was at a tournament in Barcelona, he was playing as a sweeper. Then he was out on the right wing, in the midfield, second striker.”

However, PSV have always been shrewd about their own negotiating position and power and do not yield easily. Having recognised they had arguably the world’s best player on their roster, PSV were intransigent for most of the talks and demanded a world-record fee, which they eventually received. Soon to be crowned Footballer of the Year and receive the Ballon d’Or, Gullit was off for an Italian adventure for a mammoth € 7.5 million.

The famed Italian coach Arrigo Sacchi took to Gullit instantaneously. Sacchi wanted his players to possess a will to win, and win in style – a characteristic that was almost genetically imprinted in Gullit’s mentality.

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On the other hand, Rijkaard himself was no stranger to transfer drama and was subject to one of the greatest transfers that never happened. In 1986, on the recommendation of Gullit, Rijkaard actually signed a contract with PSV, and as a signing gift got around 3,000 guilders and a stereo set. However, the clubs came to a gentleman’s agreement and Rijkaard was allowed to extend his Ajax contract, while PSV got a sum of €1.5 million, rising up to €2.5 million if he left Ajax. And that’s how PSV made a profit off a player who never once played for them.

The story, naturally, takes another turn. Early in the 1987/88 season, Rijkaard had fallen out with manager and mentor Cruyff and is alleged to have exited training having vowed to never play for him again. Rijkaard forced a move to Sporting in Portugal for €2.3 million, but the timing of the move meant that Rijkaard could not appear for the Portuguese side and was loaned out to Real Zaragoza for the rest of the season. 

 

1988

 

THE YEAR 1988 saw everything change for both Rijkaard and Gullit. The summer’s Euros were a pivotal moment in their careers, and obviously, for the whole nation. The Netherlands were not outright favourites, but neither were they significant underdogs. After all, PSV under Guus Hiddink had just picked up the European Cup, Ajax had made it to the final of the Cup Winners’ Cup, and Gullit – the reigning Footballer of the Year – and Van Basten were coming off the back of a successful Scudetto-winning first season with AC Milan.

Coached by the legendary Rinus Michels, the Dutch started the tournament with a bit of a stumble, but a tactical tweak and a reinstatement of Van Basten to the team saw them blossom under the pressure. Wearing the iconic orange shirt with a concentric triangular pattern, the Dutch ran rings around their opponents with passing based on forming triangles on the pitch. 

For Gullit, it was the summer he ascended from being just a good player to becoming a cultural phenomenon. As dreadlock-wigs adorned the crowds that thronged the stadiums in Germany, Dutch supporters quipped ‘Ein Reich, Ein Volk, Ein Gullit’. The Dutch stormed to the final, but their celebrations in the semi-final against Germany already captured the mood. There was some retribution to the final of 1974, and to win the final against the Soviet Union with a towering header from Gullit and the now-legendary volley from Van Basten was perhaps the perfect summary of that Dutch side: strong yet immeasurably skilled.

Going into Euro 88, for Rijkaard, the key was to prove Aad de Mos and all the naysayers wrong. Naturally, there was no personal vendetta but for the 25-year-old, with his bushy moustache and curly mop of hair, it was vital to prove that he had it in him to lead his team to victories. Rijkaard was an astute observer of the game, a skill that helped him as a player and in equal measure, as a coach.

‘What I did was watch the striker very closely.”, he said to The Guardian in 2000. “If the ball went to the wing, I would touch him so that I knew if he was going forward or backwards. And then he went forward and I was with him. Very often I was lying in between when someone wanted to shoot, or I gave a little push when someone wanted to head. I mean, it doesn’t always go right, but that was the intention. For me, it was living proof that that is how you defend.”

Both Gullit and Rijkaard – the only black footballers in the knockout stages – had both borne the brunt of racist abuse throughout the tournament, particularly from the German support in the semi-finals. But they had come out on top, which was as much a statement as anything. Gullit, of course, had long been vocal about this and dedicated his 1987 Ballon d’Or to Nelson Mandela. Rijkaard internalises it, as he tends to.

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In the summer of 1988, Gullit – for the fourth time – tries to get Frank Rijkaard to join his club. It was not particularly easy, despite Rijkaard’s stellar showing at the Euros. The club were sceptical about Rijkaard’s recent history of signing contracts and going back on his word, but Gullit and Van Basten managed to convince Sacchi as well as Berlusconi that Frank Rijkaard was the man for them.

In many ways, Rijkaard turned out to be the final piece of Sacchi’s jigsaw. The Dutchman originally started in defence, before Sacchi realised it was better for both him and the team to move him up into midfield. Alongside Carlo Ancelotti, he offered everything Milan required; he was technically proficient and could link up effectively with Gullit, Van Basten and Pietro Paolo Virdis, he was intelligent enough to bring in the wingers and full-backs into play, and he was strong enough to hold his own against opposition of any calibre. Rijkaard also had a superb knack of scoring goals for someone who had played in defensive roles for most of his career up to that point.

Milan lifted the European Cup that season with an emphatic 4-0 defeat of Steaua Bucharest, who to their credit had been a free-scoring side themselves. Between Marius Lăcătuş, Gheorghe Hagi and Ilie Dumitrescu, they notched up 17 goals in Europe going into the final. And yet, they could not find a single goal on the night as the solidity of Sacchi’s defensive organisation provided the perfect foundation for Van Basten and Gullit to wreak havoc.

The next year, Milan went on to defend their title, albeit in less dominant fashion. Rijkaard’s neat finish after a slaloming dribble sealed the deal on the night against Benfica.

 

1990s

 

THE EARLY 1990s were not the best of times for Gullit and Rijkaard. Going into the Italia 90 with most of Euro 88 stars still in peak age, the Dutch should have fared much better than an acrimonious last 16 exit to Germany.

In the lead-up to the tournament, there was significant drama around the national team set-up. The players had asked for Cruyff to be made national team coach, but Michels decided against his old pupil and went with Thijs Libregts, who was sacked before the tournament. He still didn’t go with Cruyff, opting for  Beenhakker instead.

Michels still continued to have a strong influence within the team, which did not necessarily please anyone, and the group that had held him aloft on their shoulders turned against him. Gullit’s standing as captain took a hit, as teammates alleged that he was not at his fittest after many injury woes, and should not be starting and trying to do it all by himself. The senior players started feuding and there was a clear lack of cohesion in the squad.

It was in that aforementioned match against Germany that Rijkaard – fairly uncharacteristically, it must be said – absolutely lost his cool and sent a massive gob of spit towards Rudi Völler. The game had been chaotic in essence but that moment summed up the whole World Cup for the Dutch, in what had been an unmitigated disaster of an implosion.

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Gullit and Rijkaard fell out over the national team, too. Rijkaard temporarily did not want to turn up when selected because he wanted the central midfield role that seemed to go to Gullit at the World Cup, despite suffering from a knee injury. At Milan their relationship soured but they continued playing on the same team – when Gullit was fit of course.

While they picked up two titles and reached another European final in 1993, the sheen on Milan had faded as Van Basten and Gullit declined in fitness and form. Then, Gullit fell out afresh with the new Dutch manager, Dick Advocaat, and refused to play for the national team. He briefly reconsidered it for the World Cup in 1994 and was selected, before informing Advocaat at literally the last minute that he would not join them. Rijkaard did go and retired right after the quarter-final exit to Brazil. It seemed both of their world lines had dropped, and dropped fast.

 

REVIVAL

 

GULLIT AND RIJKAARD DECIDED TO LEAVE MILAN in the same summer, in 1993, and their paths diverged significantly. Gullit stayed in Italy with Sampdoria and briefly rekindled the romance with Milan again, before going back to Sampdoria for the 1994/95 season.

Rijkaard, however, decided to go back to Amsterdam. Ajax had a new, young coach in Louis van Gaal and a tremendously talented group of youngsters who were on the cusp of becoming greats. The likes of Edgar Davids, the De Boer twins, Edwin van der Sar, Michael Reiziger and Marc Overmars were all beginning to blossom, but Van Gaal wanted experience to offset the youthful exuberance that may be accompanied by naivete. 

The reliable Danny Blind needed a partner in defence and Rijkaard slotted in almost seamlessly. Ajax played a variant of the 3-3-1-3 Cruyff had espoused all those years ago, and Rijkaard provided Blind with the support than Wim Jansen did for him. Rijkaard’s career came full circle, as he won the Eredivisie in both of his seasons back in De Meer, and he ended his career in the best way possible by winning the 1995 Champions League final against his old club, Milan, having assisted the winning goal. He even gave the young team a fiery half-time team talk in the final to spur them on to win.

A few weeks after Rijkaard won the European Cup for the third time, Gullit’s world line took him from Italy to the fast-rising Premier League in England. Despite his failing fortunes in the previous few years, Gullit’s move to Chelsea was a major statement; a legitimate world footballing star, the best in the world at one point, now in England.

Player-manager Glenn Hoddle had assured him that he would be able to play in his old sweeper role – interestingly, a position shift Cruyff made in the latter stages of his career too. But for Gullit, this was more a return to his roots. When he was unveiled, still with his trademark dreadlocks but now sans moustache, Gullit remarked, “My skills come out better as a sweeper.”

Gullit transformed the Premier League in a tactical sense. Playing sweeper meant that the position was no longer simply perceived in England as a boot it away avoid danger at all costs position. He tried to recreate precisely what he had done at Haarlem and DWS, foraying forward with those long strides, and it disrupted the opposition’s lines of organisation almost weekly. The only drawback was that it disrupted his own side’s organisation a fair bit too, since they found this incredibly novel themselves.

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When Hoddle left, Gullit was elected to be his replacement, and within a season picked up the FA Cup, the club’s first major trophy in nearly three decades. The Dutchman became the non-British manager and the first black manager to win a major trophy in English football. He was also perhaps the most receptive to bringing in foreign footballers; indeed, his Italian trio of Gianfranco Zola, Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Di Matteo led the club to new heights in their own way. Gullit was a pioneer in the globalisation of the Premier League, and perhaps due to the brevity of his stay in England, has not been acknowledged fully for his impact.

Rijkaard’s path meanwhile, saw him thrust into the spotlight in 1998 as the newly-appointed Dutch coach. However, it was his time at Barcelona in the mid-2000s that will likely come to define Rijkaard’s managerial career. Having just suffered relegation with Sparta Rotterdam a year previously, it came as a surprise to many that it was the relatively inexperienced and unproven Rijkaard who got the Barcelona job in 2003, in the new Joan Laporta era. Naturally, it seemed to come off the back of a Cruyff recommendation, and until the very end, Cruyff held Rijkaard in high esteem as someone who had helped bring back his gospel to Barcelona.

Rijkaard did more than bring back Cruyff’s gospel – he brought back pride to Barcelona. There had been significant financial investment in players like Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o and Ludovic Giuly, but on the pitch, Rijkaard allowed Barcelona to play with a flair and panache that had been severely lacking since the 90s.

He brought a certain calm to a club that is perhaps always in need of it in some form on the pitch to counter the drama behind the scenes. With his calm, he brought the environment Barcelona needed to start winning again. Rijkaard was crucial as a precursor to the Pep Guardiola era because he allowed for a re-introduction of Cruyffian values at the club, as well as bringing them up to a stage where trophies became a common sight again.

 

EPILOGUE

 

NEITHER GULLIT NOR RIJKAARD held an especially high-profile job in management following their impactful tenures at Chelsea and Barcelona respectively. Their world lines perhaps met once again in as much.

Both have experienced a sort of return to their true nature. Gullit, the outspoken, opinionated, thinking footballer has taken up a career in punditry more enthusiastically, although he has recently been appointed as part of Dick Advocaat’s national team staff. Rijkaard, who retired from management in December 2016 and has kept a characteristically low profile, may have some advice to offer him.

It is fascinating to see how the last half-century – if not the definitive history – of Dutch football can be traced through the lives of two of its greatest exports. Their way their world lines merged and deviated allows us to explore the flux in the state of affairs in Dutch football while still having two central characters to anchor the narrative.

For all their similarities, they were not the same. Gullit was choleric; Rijkaard was phlegmatic. Gullit was yin; Rijkaard was yang. Gullit was Hamlet; Rijkaard was Horatio. It is hard to think of another friendship in football that has seen such incredible highs and such dramatic lows together 

By Priya Ramesh