Former Holland and AC Milan star who enjoyed great success with both club and country believes the international game is the priority

Evening Standard

Tangerine dream: Ruud Gullit raises the European Championship trophy for Holland in 1988. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

Do not tell Ruud Gullit that winning the Champions League matters more than glory with the national team.

Two years ago, just days before his Inter Milan side were crowned kings of Europe, Jose Mourinho claimed that the Champions League was bigger than the World Cup.

And when Chelsea, one of Mourinho’s former sides, finally succeeded in their pursuit of the continent’s top club prize in Munich last month, midfielder John Obi Mikel said: “This is the best night of our lives.”

But Gullit, a former Chelsea player and manager, believes that elation can be topped — and he should know.

In three magical years he won Euro 88 with Holland — captaining the side and opening the scoring in the final — and then claimed back-to-back European Cups with AC Milan.

“I’ve had the joys of cup victory for both club and country,” he says as the continent’s finest prepare to kick off Euro 2012. “I know the difference. I’m very happy with what I achieved with Milan. It was the pinnacle of my career as a player. But to win it with your country is a bigger sensation. The whole country is upside down. It’s not only the fans of Milan. 1988 provided me with my greatest memories. Winning for your country is the best achievement ever because you live there. You will be a hero for the rest of your life.

“A lot of people say the Champions League is more important than the Euros. I do not accept that because club football has grown, national competitions don’t mean much. National competitions will always mean a lot.

“To win the Euros is more difficult than the World Cup. In a World Cup, you can always play against a weak team that still qualifies because they come from an area of the world that does not have a strong qualifying competition. In the Euros there are no weak teams.”

Which is bad news for England whose challenge has been seriously weakened by injury — on Sunday Gary Cahill became the fourth player forced to withdraw from the squad — and the suspension of Wayne Rooney for their first two games.

The fact Roy Hodgson was only appointed manager last month adds to the pessimism among English fans but Gullit offers them comfort ahead of their tournament opener against France next Monday.

“Roy Hodgson is well qualified for the job and his biggest advantage is that there are no expectations for his team. So he can have a very easy tournament, unlike the World Cup in South Africa when there were a lot of expectations.

“I have a feeling there is a good possibility for England to be the dark horse of the tournament. They need to get out of the group which will be difficult. France and then Ukraine, playing in front of their home crowd will not be easy. England will miss Rooney. He is an excellent player. But this could be the tournament for Andy Carroll to make his mark on the game.”

Group D is completed by Sweden but Gullit believes his country has the toughest draw with matches against Germany, Portugal and Denmark.

“The Germans have improved since South Africa. They lost 5-3 to Switzerland last month but that was in a friendly. In ’88 we lost to Bulgaria in a friendly and also lost the first match in the Euros against Russia but beat them in the final. This time we’ve lost to Bulgaria in a friendly so maybe that is a good sign for us.”

Many have criticised the pragmatic approach of Holland coach Bert van Marwijk which they do not see as being in the traditions of Dutch football. In the wake of their 1-0 extra-time defeat to Spain in the 2010 World Cup Final, Dutch great Johan Cruyff accused them of playing “anti-football” and choosing an “ugly path”.

However, Gullit insists: “We should have won that match — we didn’t take our chances. But Holland qualified again easily for the Euros and I believe they can take revenge for that loss.

“In the past, the team did not always gel together because in Holland we are very outspoken. We think, if there is a problem, we need to take the bull by the horns instead of waiting and thinking about it. That can be very confrontational for certain people but that’s the way we are. This team have a lot of talent and greater depth than we had in 1988. There are more people with exceptional gifts than in our days: Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Kevin Strootman have done well. Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie will again be crucial.”

Gullit believes Spain are the favourites but has concerns over Fernando Torres. The striker who scored the goal that made Spain European champions four years ago has struggled for much of his time at Chelsea.

“Fernando Torres is an enigma,” says Gullit, who will be commentating on the Euros for Al Jazeera. “I do not know what is wrong with him. I don’t know if it is a mental thing but, whatever it is, I hope he gets out of it very quickly. I feel for him because I want him to play well.”

When he was appointed Newcastle manager in 1998 Gullit talked about bringing ‘sexy football’ to St James’ Park. Unfortunately, he believes the action in Poland and Ukraine may not get the pulses racing.

“I am afraid we will not see attacking football,” he says. “We may see a lot of defensive football. The simple reason is there are a lot of teams who rely on one or two big players who have already have had a huge season with a lot of physical stress. Then to play in a tournament after that is difficult. Samir Nasri should be influential in the France team. But can he do it after a very hard season with Manchester City?”

An early exit for Hodgson’s side is sure to yet again raise questions about the development of young talent in this country.

English players don’t tend to look as comfortable on the ball as their continental counterparts but Gullit believes that could change in the long term thanks to an overhaul of youth football, which was approved by the Football Association last week.

Under the initiative, youngsters will play in smaller-sided games, with smaller pitches and goals, and there will be more emphasis on learning skills rather than winning.

Gullit, speaking at the launch of a social network site for athletes, says: “The system in England makes it difficult to produce skilful players because everything always goes through school football and the school only wants you to win. It’s all about the pride of the school. Therefore they will always put people in there who are strong, who can tackle, but not the smaller, skilful players. It’s not about development. It’s all about winning and, if you only do that, then you cannot develop players, especially not when they’re young.

“In Holland we produced skilful players because we play five against five with the youngsters on a small pitch as long as we can. My kid who is 11 does that all the time. England are now planning to do that but it will take time.”

Time is something that has not been afforded to Chelsea managers during the Roman Abramovich-era. The billionaire has got through eight bosses in nine years with the last of those, Roberto di Matteo, finally bringing the European Cup to Stamford Bridge.

The interim manager has yet to be rewarded with the job full-time but Gullit says: “I would give the job to Roberto but he is not likely to get it. I still think that Chelsea wanted Jose Mourinho back. But would you go to a club that’s just won the Champions League? No, because the expectations would be so high.”

The Euros v Champions League

European Championships

First held: 1960 as the European Nations Cup

Number of teams to win title: nine

Prize money: £18.8million

Worldwide TV audience for 2008 final: 287 million

Average attendance for the 2008 tournament: 36,803

Average goals per game for the 2008 tournament: 2.48

Champions League

First held: 1956 as the European Cup

Number of teams to win title: 22

Prize money: £19.1m

Worldwide TV audience for 2012 final: 300 million

Average attendance for 2011/12 tournament: 42,553

Average goals per game 2011/12: 2.76

Ruud Gullit is one of the co-founders of Cloozup, a digital media solution which will allow sports stars to integrate their Twitter and Facebook (and other social media) output and take the place of their existing personal websites


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