Ruud Gullit might have buckled under the weight of expectation at the 1988 UEFA European Championship, unable to maintain the form that had seen him crowned the best player in the world. Yet with the support of coach Rinus Michels, strike partner Marco van Basten and Whitney Houston he rose to the challenge.
The final in Munich was 32 minutes old when Erwin Koeman lobbed a half-cleared corner back into the box. Van Basten met the ball at full stretch, craning his neck to head it across goal, and as a wall of white Soviet Union shirts attempted to scramble back a flash of orange appeared. It was the moment Gullit had been waiting for: he jumped, wrapped those famous long braids around the ball and propelled it with some force beyond Rinat Dasaev. The Netherlands' finest hour had begun.
By the time the clock finished ticking, Van Basten had added THAT volley – his "goal in a million" – and Hans van Breukelen had saved an Ihor Belanov penalty to clinch a 2-0 win. As Gullit led his side up to collect the trophy, time stopped. "It's like you are in a film, you feel detached," he said. "You know you have the trophy, you go crazy. It's like you're standing on your own. You look at it and all of a sudden – 'is this really happening?' There is a lot I don't remember."
The subsequent partying may explain the amnesia – an outpouring of overwhelming joy and relief. How different the mood had been a fortnight earlier, when a 1-0 group stage defeat by the USSR left the Oranje with it all to do. "The funny thing was, in '88 the best game we played was the first one against the Soviet Union and we lost, hit on the counter," said Gullit, now 49. "It was difficult, because we felt we were the better side but had nothing to show for it. From then on we had to win.
"There was so much pressure on me because I had had such a good season; everybody expected me to do the same – but I was tired, I couldn't do it," he admitted. Fatigue was certainly not a problem for club-mate Van Basten, restricted by an ankle injury to 11 appearances as AC Milan won the Scudetto. "Luckily for me Marco was in good shape, so fresh," said Gullit. "All I did was give him the ball as quickly as possible. Against England I gave him two balls and he scored with each."
Van Basten completed his hat-trick against the English 15 minutes from time, sealing a 3-1 victory and fully vindicating coach Michels' decision to draft him into the starting XI. The Netherlands were up and running, even if they so very nearly stumbled fatally next time out against the Republic of Ireland when only a win would do. Relieved to see Paul McGrath's header come back off the upright, they struck a freakish 82nd-minute winner when Wim Kieft got his head to Ronald Koeman's mishit volley. "We were lucky," said Gullit.
With West Germany waiting in the last four the Netherlands perhaps deserved their stroke of good fortune. The Oranje had not beaten their great rivals in 32 years, most famously coming second best in the 1974 FIFA World Cup final, also on German soil. Lothar Matthäus and Ronald Koeman traded second-half penalties before Van Basten applied the coup de grace two minutes from the end, latching onto Jan Wouters' through ball and sliding to hook it low into the far corner.
"To win against Germany in Germany was an unbelievable achievement, we felt we were invincible," said Gullit. "After we saw all the images on the news from Holland it was a strange feeling. We didn't fully appreciate it at that time, though. Then, after a couple of days, all of a sudden you realise what you have done."
That Hamburg success was so special a poetry book marking the day was written, but at the time Gullit was eager to enjoy the occasion in more energetic fashion. "I organised a party at a discotheque for all the players, players' wives, journalists, fans, anyone. And the day before the final we went to a Whitney Houston concert – can you imagine?
So on the day of the final we said, 'Look, we had a party, we had Whitney Houston; now we are here we can have this trophy!'"
There were few problems with tiredness by this point. "By the final I felt my form was coming back. I had slept so much, had a lot of massages. Rinus Michels knew that too, so before the final he said, 'You can take the free-kicks now you feel good again.' That helped, and when I scored – not long after having a good free-kick saved by Dasaev – it was a huge relief. [The USSR] were in good shape too so it was a tough game. But then we scored through Van Basten –
if he hit it a million times, he would never ever score that goal again."
It was apt that Van Basten should have the last word, yet it was also fitting that captain Gullit should direct them up the Olympiastadion steps to collect the Netherlands' first major title – even if he does not recall it. "I do remember going back to Holland, though," he said. "We got on the plane and the captain had a nice idea to fly around over Eindhoven. Then we waved with the plane to everybody, like this [stretches arms out and dips one then the next]. I said, 'Just put us down, safe and sound, and then we can celebrate!'"
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