Next up in our Terrifying Trios series is the formidable trio of Marco Van Basten, Ruud Gullit, and Frank Rijkaard.
Unlike previous entries in the series, only two of these three players were attack-minded – Frank Rijkaard was a centre back and later a holding midfielder.
Van Basten, Gullit, and Rijkaard terrorised European football at club level with AC Milan for five seasons, and at international level with Holland.
Holland won the European Championships and the Rossoneri managed back-to-back Champions League titles and Scuddettos with this Dutch trio playing a starring role.
In 1988, all three made the Ballon D’Or top three.
Marco Van Basten
“There will never be a player like Van Basten again” — Ruud van Nistelrooy
Marco Van Basten is perhaps best known to younger generations for his sublime volley in the Euro ‘88 final against the Soviet Union – a strike which is regarded by many as the greatest goal of all time.
Born in Utrecht in 1964, the Dutch striker signed for Dutch giants Ajax in 1981.
He scored a staggering 118 goals in 112 matches over four seasons from 1983–84 to 1986–87, and won the European Golden Boot for his prolific scoring in the 1985-86 season.
In total, Van Basten managed 152 goals in just 172 games with the club.
Six seasons at Ajax yielded two Eredivisie titles, a KNVB Cup, and a UEFA Cup Winners Cup.
To use an old cliché, he was a scorer of great goals as well as a great goal scorer, and he was renowned for acrobatic finishes and stunning strikes throughout his career.
“He was elegance personified,” Marcel Desailly said of the clinical forward. “He could score in millions of different ways and always with an unbelievable touch of class.”
Van Basten was the first of the attacking trio mentioned above to sign for AC Milan.
He joined the Rossoneri in 1987. Milan ended their eight year wait for a Serie A title in Van Basten’s debut season, but he made just 11 appearances after suffering a recurring ankle injury.
In his second season, however, he was joined by Gullit and Rijkaard, and scored 19 goals in Serie A as Milan finished third and won the Supercoppa Italiana.
His performances saw him win the first of his three Ballon D’Or’s in 1998, a year in which he was the top scorer in the European Cup, which Milan won.
Van Basten scored twice in the 4–0 victory against Steaua București in the European Cup final, with Gullit also netting a brace on the night.
Milan retained the European Cup in the 1989-90 season, beating Benfica 1-0 in the final, with Van Basten setting up Rijkaard for the winner.
Van Basten scored 19 goals again that season, the most in Italy’s top flight, and won his second consecutive Ballon D’Or.
Fabio Capello replaced Arrigo Sacchi for the 1991-92 season, and Milan went 58 games unbeaten under the Italian manager, winning the domestic double. Van Basten scored 25 league goals (29 in total), and won his third Ballon D’Or as a result in 1992. He also won the UEFA Best Player of the Year three times (1989, 199o,1992).
Milan repeated their domestic double the following season, and lost the European Cup final. Van Basten’s season was ravaged by injury, but the 6″3 Dutchman still managed 13 goals in just 15 games.
He returned for the European Cup final against Marseille – his last match for the club – but couldn’t prevent the Rossoneri from being defeated 1-0.
At international level, Van Basten scored 28 goals in 54 caps for Holland.
At Euro ’88, he scored five goals, including a famous hat-trick against England. He also scored in the semi-final victory over West Germany, and produced that stunning volley in the 2-0 victory over the Soviet Union in the final, with Gullit scoring the other goal.
Van Basten was the player of the tournament as well as the top scorer, and he was named in the 1992 European Championship Team of the Tournament for his performances as Holland lost out to Denmark on penalties in the semi-final.
After two years sidelined with injury, Van Basten announced his decision to retire from football in 1995.
Regarded by many as the perfect striker, Van Basten’s record and legacy speaks for itself.
“Ruud Gullit is a great player by any standards” – George Best
Ruud Gullit was born in Amsterdam in 1962, and started his career in Holland with HFC Haarlem and Feeyenord.
Gullit played with Johan Cruyff at Feeyenord, and the attacking midfielder bagged 31 goals in 85 league games with the club.
He was named as Dutch Footballer of the Year in 1984 as Feeyenord won the double in the 1983-84 season.
Gullit moved to PSV in ’85, where he scored 46 goals in 68 league appearances, won back-to-back titles, and collected another as Dutch Footballer of the Year in 1986.
In 1987, AC Milan forked out a world record 18 million guilders. Gullit was deployed on the right of the front three, and picked up a league title and the Ballon D’Or in his first year in Italy.
Gullit was lauded for his strength, skill and versatility, and he scored twice in the European Cup final victory over Steaua București,
Gullit won three league titles, two European Cups, two domestic cups and a Super Cup during his stint at Milan. He scored 56 goals in 171 appearances for the Rossoneri, and was regarded as one of the best players in the world in the late ’80’s.
“Ruud Gullit is a great player by any standards,” George Best claimed.
“He has all the skills. He’s not afraid to do things with the ball. And he looks as if he’s enjoying every second of it. By my reckoning that’s what makes him an even better player than Maradona.”
He left Milan for Sampdoria in 1993, before moving to Chelsea on a free transfer two years later, where he later became manager.
Gullit also excelled at international level, and like Van Basten, was twice named in the European Championships team of the tournament. He scored 17 goals in 66 appearances for Holland, including a goal in the Euro ’88 final.
As captain, the powerful yet elegant attacker became the first Dutchman to lift an international trophy.
However, his international career ended in controversy, with Gullit storming out of the Holland training camp ahead of the 1994 World Cup as his long-standing dispute with manager Dick Advocaat reached its climax.
Both Gullit and Van Basten both moved into management after retiring, to mixed success.
“Dunga, Desailly, Keane and Vieira all performed that role brilliantly, but Frank is the best holding player ever” – Ronald Koeman
Like Gullit, Frank Rijkaard was also born in Amsterdam in 1962.
The two forged a steadfast friendship as boys, when thoughts of lifting the European Cup or winning the European Championships were nothing more than romantic boyhood dreams.
Originally a centre half, Rijkaard joined Ajax as a youth, and made his debut in the 1980-81 season for the Dutch giants. He scored four goals in 23 games in his debut season, and was praised for his technical ability and positioning.
The 1981-82 season yielded an Eredivisie title, which Rijkaard and Ajax successfully defended the following season. During his seven and a half seasons at Ajax, Rijkaard won three Dutch titles, three Dutch cups, and a Cup Winners Cup.
He also won the Dutch Golden Shoe twice.
After a falling out with coach Johan Cruyff, Rijkaard moved to Zaragoza for a season before arriving to join his Dutch teammates Van Basten and Gullit at the San Siro.
He had played at centre back and right midfield during his time at Ajax, but had been moved into the base of the midfield in his final season.
Arrigo Sacchi played Rijkaard as his holding midfielder, in what proved to be a stroke of genius. Rijkaard dominated midfield battles with his strength, athleticism, and technical ability, freeing his more attack-minded teammates to flourish.
He arrived at Milan ahead of the 1988/89 season as a 26 year old entering his prime, and it was in Italy that Rijkaard fulfilled his potential as a world class defensive midfielder.
He played 201 matches in his five seasons at the San Siro, scoring 26 goals, and forming a deadly Dutch trio with Van Basten and Gullit.
He won back-to-back European Cups with Milan, scoring the winner in the 1990 final against Benfica. His five years at Milan also yielded two league titles, two Super Cups, two Intercontinental Cups, and saw him finish in the top three of the Ballon D’Or competition twice.
He also scooped the Serie A Player of the Year and Best Foreign Player in 1992.
He won 73 international caps for Holland, scoring 10 goals in the process.
Like the other two members of the terrifying trio, he was included in the Euro ’88 team of the tournament after Holland’s historic win. In the tournament, he formed a formidable defensive partnership with Ronald Koeman at the heart of the Dutch defence.
He returned to Ajax in 1993 under manager Louis van Gaal, and won a further two titles with the Dutch club in his second spell at the club. In his final Ajax game, he scored the winner in a 1-0 Champions League final victory over AC Milan.
He became the first ever player to win titles in undefeated teams twice – first with Milan, then with Ajax.
Like Van Basten and Gullit, Rijkaard turned to management after hanging up his boots.
His foray into management was largely successful, and he won both La Liga and the Championship League while at the helm at Barcelona.
Van Basten, Gullit and Rijkaard were very different players, but they aligned to create history at club and international level for AC Milan and Holland respectively.