Autumn has come early to Amsterdam but, on the first Sunday in September, a rainy afternoon gives way to watery sunshine as Ruud Gullit arrives with a cheery wave. The calmer currency of his fame these days, even in the Netherlands, means Gullit is in an accommodating mood an hour before our interview is due to begin. In a change from hanging around for a young sporting celebrity, whose talent could never match the brilliance of Gullit in the 1980s, the great old footballer has suggested this earlier start as a way of stretching our time together.
Thirty-five years ago last week, on 1 September 1981, on his 19th birthday, Gullit made his debut for Holland. He played club football for Haarlem and, then, he was still a season away from joining Feyenoord where he would eventually star alongside Johan Cruyff.
Now, five months have slipped past since Cruyff died amid an outpouring of awe for his career as a player and coach. Gullit and Cruyff were always more than just team-mates. When I interviewed Cruyff two years ago he insisted that, as a player, he gave up his place at the helm of Dutch football to Gullit – who eventually married his niece. Estelle Cruyff was Gullit’s third wife and, after his longest marriage of 13 years, part of his third divorce.
So much has changed in Dutch football since Cruyff and Gullit were at their regal peaks in a period spanning almost 20 years from the early 1970s, when Holland were successive World Cup finalists and, also, European champions. But they failed miserably to qualify for Euro 2016 and Dutch club football is a shadow of the elegant power once exemplified by Ajax.
In Holland we still think we know everything, Gullit says wryly as he tucks into a Dutch cheese toastie. We pride ourselves on how good we were with Cruyff in 1974. The same as 1988 [when Gullit led Holland to victory in the European Championship]. But that’s a long time ago. So maybe we don’t know everything. Maybe we need something more.
It seems poignant to meet Gullit at the end of a month in which he had been at the heart of the latest Dutch soap-opera. After accepting an offer to become Danny Blind’s assistant coach to the national team, Gullit changed his mind four days later. Amid the chaotic details of why he rejected Holland, when he appeared determined to re-establish his coaching pedigree, Gullit talks with surging emotion. At the moment Dutch football is a mess, he says. It hurts me because I want Holland to go to the World Cup.
After the departure of Guus Hiddink, who had been chosen ahead of Ronald Koeman, Blind was appointed head coach. His assistant, Dick Advocaat, left his post suddenly to join Fenerbahce – and KNVB [the Dutch FA] turned to Gullit who then fell out with Hans van Breukelen, the new technical director and another of his former team-mates. Van Breukelen also asked the team-manger Hans Jorritsma to leave in a decision the players opposed just as Holland’s World Cup qualifying campaign began.
I found out more about these problems at the top level, Gullit sighs. Bert van Oostveen, the chairman, has also resigned. So I said if you still need me once you have resolved all these problems then come back to me. But not like this. This was a very good decision – by my standards – because my heart says yes but my brain said: ‘Not now, Ruud.’
In Holland we still think we know everything. Maybe we don’t
If you always shout from up high that things are not going well and have an opportunity to do something you take it. So I said: ‘Yes, I want to do it.’ But I asked one question: ‘I’m now assistant coach – what will happen if Blind goes like Hiddink went?’ They said: ‘Then you take this position.’ I said: ‘Not under this contract, I hope.’ They said: ‘No, of course not. We would talk about a new contract.’ I said: ‘Good. Can you put that in this contract?’ [Van Breukelen] said: ‘No. You have to trust me.’ I asked him: ‘If you get fired what happens? Do I have to trust the next guy?’
Two days later Marco van Basten [another assistant coach and Gullit’s former team-mate at Milan] calls me. He says: ‘Ruudy, you need to know I am on the brink of leaving to go work with Fifa.’ The man who was negotiating with me was already negotiating with Marco. But he said nothing to me. And he wants me to trust him? I was so pissed off. I said [to van Breukelen]: ‘Come on! You should have told me.’ Why should I do it? For €75,000 [a year]?
A year? I ask, when such sums are paid often on a weekly basis in football.
Really – a year! Gullit laughs. I said: ‘You can keep it’ I made a very wise decision. But I was so disappointed.
In his new book, which offers an intriguing counterpoint to Cruyff’s systems and philosophies, Gullit rejects the old Dutch love for 4-3-3 and finds a different kind of beauty in alternative ways of playing which extend from his own past success with Milan’s mastery of 4-4-2 to the disciplined order of Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid.
When asked if Ajax have moved away from 4-3-3, Gullit exclaims in disbelief. No! They played last month in Rostov [in a Champions League qualifier which they lost 4-1] and were wiped off the pitch by strength and speed. This is why I wrote the book – to try to be more open-minded. Ajax say we must play football with the philosophy of Cruyff. I said to myself: ‘Is that so? When Johan became coach at Ajax who did he buy? Ronald Spelbos – a fucking robust defender who would kick you and just give the ball from A to B. Same with Jan Wouters. Ask Paul Gascoigne if he knows Jan Wouters.
Gascoigne’s cheekbone was fractured by Wouters’ elbow in a 1993 World Cup qualifier and he wore a Phantom of the Opera mask for months afterwards. Of course, Gullit grins. That’s the kind of player Johan needed in midfield at Ajax. Those were his first key signings – with Danny Blind, a defender who could also play. I said to the Ajax people: ‘Where is your philosophy of Johan Cruyff now? Why are you not having the kind of players he identified?
Gullit had just turned 20 when he began to play alongside Cruyff at Feyenoord. I was more curious than anything, he remembers. He was 36 when he came to Feyenoord. There were moments when I thought: ‘OK, now I’m going to get the ball off him’ – but I couldn’t. I was thinking: ‘Thirty-six? Imagine how good he must have been at 24?’ While we were playing he was indicating to the players where to stand, where to move, guiding them.
At the end of the year he told me, ‘Ruud, the next club you go to, be prepared for the fact that people won’t like you any more. Also, you need to make others around you play better.’ I was thinking: ‘Okaaaayyy … I still have to give attention to my own career. How can I help others?’ But when I went to PSV and then Milan the puzzle suddenly fitted together. I remembered everything Johan had said.
Cruyff told me he was convinced Holland were the real winners of the 1974 World Cup. They lost the final to West Germany but Cruyff argued that Holland’s football had been remembered far more vividly. That’s nonsense, Gullit protests. Sometimes in Holland we fool ourselves. The Germans were very good. Morally, you might win the hearts of the people. But it’s still about lifting the trophy. Johan and me always had these discussions because he had grown up with 4-3-3.
For him it was the only way. But I said: ‘Look, at AC Milan, we won year after year with 4-4-2.’ He would say: ‘Yeah, but that’s because …’ But there was no ‘because’. As we say in Holland, ‘There are different ways to reach Rome.’ I would tell Johan: ‘You can only play your system with very good players.’ He could do it with Barcelona – but not when he was at Levante [in 1981].
Did Cruyff acknowledge the supremacy of Milan when, galvanised by the Dutch trio of Gullit, Van Basten and Frank Rijkaard they won the European Cup in 1989 and 1990? Of course. But for him football is perfect with 4-3-3 and the Barcelona way.
In his book Gullit expresses some doubt that Barcelona would win the Premier League if they were subjected to the weekly physical grind of English football. I’m not saying they definitely would not win the Premier League, he clarifies. I’m just saying I don’t know if they would.
On Saturday lunchtime, in the Manchester derby, José Mourinho and Pep Guardiola will do battle again. Guardiola, of course, has been given the mantle of Cruyff’s disciple – while Mourinho is his scheming antithesis. Gullit smiles. In Holland it’s like swearing in church if I say I like 90% of what José does. Everyone likes the Barça way because of Johan. They ask me: ‘How can you say this about José – you of all people.’ But I don’t agree 100% with José. The other 5% is that I wish he was more adventurous. When he came back to Chelsea his assignment was to win – but with good football. Those first six months [in 2014-15] were unbelievable.’ But then he starts to be calculating. That’s the part of José which makes me …
He scrunches up his face. I cannot argue with José’s wins – but he would have had more grandeur if he had won with more style. Now, with Pep, it is different. Make no mistake – Pep has to adapt to England. We cannot be sure how it will turn out.
Man City, Man United and Chelsea have only played the smaller teams so far. It’s the honeymoon period and I have no idea who is going to win the Premier League. That’s why English football is very interesting to the rest of the world because five or six teams can win it. There are five coaches who have to win it. But there can only be one. How will people – boards, fans – react to those who don’t win it?
It’s easy to sense the hurt in Gullit that he had been cast aside as a manager. His initial success with Chelsea in 1996-97 led to the FA Cup in his first season. It was the club’s first major trophy in 27 years but nine months later, he was sacked when Chelsea were second in the league and still in two cup competitions. Gullit never quite recovered and disappointment followed at Newcastle, Feyenoord, LA Galaxy and Terek Grozny.
Sometimes I laugh about it, he says. There are coaches who never won anything but they are still working. I won in my first season with Chelsea and with Newcastle we made the final and only lost to Man U. I have been harshly judged and that comes with my personality because I am outspoken. But I know football. I don’t have to prove anything.
Having turned 54 last Thursday does he have the hunger for a managerial return? If it’s the right thing, I will do it. I still feel I have a lot in me.
Cruyff was 68 when he died in March. I didn’t see him in the last six months. The last time was at the Dunhill [golf tournament]. The cancer was already there. I had the feeling he knew it could be his last Dunhill because he was so eager to play. But Johan was very proud and he never wanted pity. I had the privilege and the luck of having him in my life. I am very grateful because he looked after me. We also had plenty of arguments because he acknowledged my opinion – even if Johan always wanted to be right. He was like a genius kid of 12 who had to go to university because he was cleverer than the professors. He was thinking so many steps ahead that, for many people, it was almost difficult to follow. Johan was unique.
Like Cruyff, Gullit won the Ballon d’Or as a player. His coaching career lacks Cruyff’s gravitas but, as Gullit points out in the fading light of this autumnal afternoon, he has some personal consolation. Feeling that he’d failed as a father to his six children, he is now looking after his 15-year-old son, Maxim, on his own.
For the last two and a half years my kid lives with me. I am a full father. I travel less. A day to the BBC. The most is five days in Qatar and he goes to his grandmother. But that’s all. I had moments where I was very unhappy in my private life. Not now. One of the reasons I am not in football these last three years is because I said: ‘No. I want to be there for my son.’ When you think where I have come from it’s obvious. This sacrifice is the biggest victory of my whole life.
How To Watch Football by Ruud Gullit [Penguin] is available at Bookshop@TheGuardian.com
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