There are more pounds around the middle and less hair up top these days as perhaps the most powerful yet graceful player ever produced in Europe slides toward his 46th birthday, his playing days long past and an oft-aborted coaching career in its fourth phase.
Along the sidelines, Los Angeles Galaxy head coach
"Ruud Gullit could play left back and probably be as good as
And nobody, before or since, not
Gullit was a total footballer who grew up inspired by a collection of audacious, daring players who twice came agonizing close to a world title. To date, the only trophy-winning Dutch team is the 1988 European Championship squad led by
Gullit's resume is impressive: three Serie A and two European Cup titles with AC Milan; an Italian Cup with Sampdoria; an FA Cup with Chelsea as player-manager; a Dutch League and Cup double with Feyenoord; the '88 European Championship with the Netherlands; World and European Player of the Year honors in '87.
"He was 6-foot-3, 6-4, and he had the balance and poise of a
Yet world-class players, with the exceptions of Cruyff, Beckenbauer and a few others, rarely mature into top-class managers. In Gullit, confidence, arrogance and stubbornness coalesce. Disagreements with club chairman
"It didn't work out with the chairman. It was unlucky," Gullit says of his time at Chelsea, which won its first trophy in 27 years under his tutelage. "I was flabbergasted but I had to deal with it. The only security you have as a coach is that you get fired."
He's come here to America, as did his idol and mentor Cruyff, to taste the American game. Nearly three decades after Cruyff played for NASL teams in Washington and Los Angeles near the end of his playing career, Gullit has landed in L.A. to revive his coaching aspirations.
"Our philosophy is about a passing game," says Gullit of an approach he hopes to adapt for MLS. "We need to pass the ball and go forward and hold position as much as possible. Of course, nowadays that is extremely difficult to maintain that all the time, because players get more athletic, they get stronger all the time, so that was very difficult to keep the ball all the time.
"It's in our system to do it so if we combine it a little more with reality, because sometimes you cannot always resolve a problem like that, then you may have the right cocktail."
Two months into what is reported to be a three-year contract worth slightly more than $6 million, Gullit has already come under criticism -- such as it is in American soccer -- for not instantly converting the richest and most glamorous MLS franchise from faux pas to fabulous. He's not likely to lash out, however, having endured clashes as manager with the cantankerous Bates and iconic Shearer and survived as a player the searing pressure to win at AC Milan.
"There is another game coming," he says of a regimen he compares to military drills under coaches
"And if you can imagine, in my time, you could still play back to the goalkeeper. Therefore you had to start over again all the time. So that was hard work."
As a player, Gullit relished the taxing effort that honed his mind and body to extraordinary levels. In preseason, he drove the Galaxy through rigorous sessions that had even the fittest players gasping and lectured his players about diet, nutrition and rest. During drills and small-sided games and scrimmages, he conducted proceedings in a manner unlike that of most American coaches.
"He's very demanding physically, and very demanding on the better players, the star players," says
Former Galaxy and U.S. attacker
"He's laid-back to a degree, until he sees that things aren't going the way he wants to," says Jones. "Then he'll come down like a hammer. There's no real middle ground.
"He'll let things go, he'll explain things correctly and tell people what he wants, so if you get it right then everything's smooth. But once you go off the path and things aren't getting done, he'll come down on you."
Jones also has perspective on the Dutch persona. Europeans are different than Americans, yet among Europeans, the Dutch are regarded as very different. "He's funny," says Jones. "He's got a good sense of humor. For me, it's a typical Dutch sense of humor.
"With the national team, my roommate was [Dutch-born]
Gullit himself debuted for Haarlem as a 16-year-old in 1978, and on his 19th birthday he earned his first cap for the Netherlands in a 2-1 victory against Switzerland.
"He's going to give everybody their chance but everyone who gets their chance has to perform," says Jones. "He's trying to get to the point that when you're on the field, it doesn't matter if you're a rookie or an experienced player, you're representing the Galaxy and you go out there and play your best. It's about the team. You make switches, you try to find the right lineup, you try to find the players that connect."
"I remember the first time I came here, in the locker room we did a little game, two-touch, and he was extremely eager to win," says Gullit. "He was trying to get the ball from me. That means you have a player who is a winner. I'm not afraid to play young players. If they're good enough, the only way to get a little bit of experience is to play."
To win games consistently in MLS, Gullit needs consistent production from the holy trinity of
To inspire and prepare his players, Gullit can draw on his own playing experiences at Feyenoord, where his career converged with that of Cruyff. The master was long past his best, but to a dynamic young player blossoming into a star, the instincts, thought and anticipation broadened Gullit's view far beyond what could be accomplished solely by sweat and grit. When Gullit went to Feyenoord in '82 at the age of 20, Cruyff was 34.
"Still he had his vision, he had the tactical awareness, and he didn't need to run so much because he knows what to do," remembers Gullit. "He can put you in places to make it all easier for you, like Beckenbauer."
Gullit's personal life hasn't been tranquil. Cruyff's niece,
Galaxy owner AEG has shelled out hundreds of millions, potentially, on Beckham. In making Gullit by far the richest coach in MLS history, has it gambled wisely or recklessly?
Spencer votes thumbs-up. This from a man who scored 13 goals, his career high, with Gullit as a Chelsea teammate, yet left early in the following season when Gullit the player-manager benched him.
"It's a massive learning curve," says Spencer of the unique structure of MLS, "but he's a very intelligent man on and off the field and I don't think it will be too long before he gets the right pieces in all the right places."