Fixing an appointment with Ruud Gullit to talk about the World Cup is not easy. Three times we made plans to get together during his week coaching the Rest of the World team for ITV's Soccer Aid project, but on each occasion he had to cry off, the third time because he and his team had, at improbably short notice, been invited to 10 Downing Street.
Now, a cynic would resent losing his interview because the Prime Minister, clocking the appeal of Soccer Aid, wanted to get in on the act. A more generous soul would deem it an honour to be stood up in favour of the PM, who quite properly wanted to show the nation's appreciation of a fine charitable endeavour. Either way, the interview was canned, but on Wednesday an opportunity suddenly arose to talk to Gullit on the telephone at his home in Amsterdam. I thanked him for finding some time in his busy schedule.
"Yes, I am trying to pack all my things. I am soon going to Düsseldorf," he said, in a distracted, busy sort of way.
I asked whether he was optimistic about his country's chances. "Yes I am," he said. "But in this World Cup anyone can lose to anyone. For that reason it is hard to choose a favourite. People say Brazil are the favourites because of their individual quality, but I'm not so sure. Even the small teams are difficult to beat, countries like the Ivory Coast, and Japan has a very good squad. They might surprise people. So lots of teams can win it, and Holland are one of them, for sure. They have a nice passing game, and they haven't yet used all their options, tactically."
Meaning what? "Meaning that in a 1-0 down situation, when they have to get the ball into the box early, they haven't tried it yet. England have already used that option, with Crouch, and everyone has seen that. We can do the same thing with Jan Vennegoor [of Hesselink], who plays for PSV Eindhoven. But we still haven't used him like that."
As for the more familiar names in the Dutch team - Ruud van Nistelrooy, Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie, Edwin van der Sar - everyone is fully aware of their capabilities. Add to them the likes of Mark van Bommel, Rafael van der Vaart, Phillip Cocu and Dirk Kuyt, and suddenly the future looks orange.
"I don't know," Gullit said. "I think further ahead the future looks very good for Dutch football. Our Under-21s won the European title just a week ago, our Under-17s reached the last four, our Under-19s were beaten only by penalties. Football here is making huge progress.
And the first team? "We have no real star, which is sometimes a strength, sometimes a weakness. We have good teamwork, but always when you play against a team that is as well prepared tactically as you are, then you need individual skills. We have those skills up front, for sure, but to get the ball there you need skills in midfield and even at the back. We don't really have that but, you never know. During the tournament someone can stand up and say, 'Hey, I'm here'."
Masterminding the Dutch campaign, which begins against Serbia & Montenegro in Leipzig on Sunday afternoon, is Gullit's old team-mate both for the Netherlands and Milan, Marco van Basten. Of that wonderful Dutch triumvirate in the Milan team that won the European Cup in 1989 and 1990, there was a time when it seemed as if only Gullit was destined to be a successful manager. Now he is the only one who is not. Van Basten, who was filling his time playing golf in the South of France when Gullit became player-manager at Chelsea a decade ago, is at the helm of the national team.
And Frank Rijkaard has probably only just got his suit back from the dry-cleaner's following the champagne-spraying after the Champions' League victory with Barcelona.
But Gullit - who famously lost his job at Chelsea after reportedly demanding £2m a year "netto", and just as famously resigned as Newcastle manager because he could not come to terms with the influence and popularity of Alan Shearer - pronounces himself more than content with his job as a commentator and analyst for the television company Talpa. "I am happy with everything I achieved in my football career," he said. I don't think I could have done any more."
To the obvious question - might he one day consider another job in the Premiership? - he offers a cheerful "You never know". In the mean time, Talpa is owned by the Dutch billionaire John de Mol, one of the world's 500 richest men, and not a bad patron even for a chap as independently wealthy as Gullit is.
Talpa has the broadcasting rights to almost all football shown on Dutch television, he told me proudly. But at the World Cup he will be wearing ITV colours, and indeed will be one of the few pundits on either ITV or the BBC on whom we can rely for a wholly dispassionate pronouncement on England's performances.
"I don't think the English fans are getting overexcited about England's chances," he said. "If it was my team, I would be very enthusiastic too.
"They have some great players and are a real candidate for the title. But over here we are just as excited about the Dutch team, especially seeing the easy way we qualified. Marco has done really, really well. He qualified without any problems, unlike his predecessor Louis van Gaal. And he has created a good team spirit. I see him often and I know him well. I know his philosophy. It's all about team spirit. In the past there has been trouble in the Dutch camp for various reasons. He's got rid of all that."
In truth, part of the trouble in the Dutch camp in the past concerned Gullit himself, who in the United States in 1994 walked out of the World Cup training regime following disagreements, both personal and professional, with the then coach Dick Advocaat. This did not greatly endear him to the Dutch public, who in any case had always felt more warmly disposed towards Van Basten and Rijkaard, than to the boy from the working-class Amsterdam suburb of Jordaan, whose mother was a cleaner at the Rijksmuseum.
In recent years, however, Gullit, now 43, has been clutched a little more enthusiastically to the collective bosom, and has even hosted a chat show on Dutch TV, with guests from the very top rank of international superstardom: Nelson Mandela, for example, and Victoria Beckham. Moreover, he has married into near-aristocracy; his wife Estelle, mother of two of his children, is the niece of the great Johan Cruyff, with whom Gullit played, for Feyenoord, at the beginning of his career and end of Cruyff's.
Little can he have foreseen, as an 11-year-old sitting in front of the television in 1974, that he would one day play with, let alone become related through marriage to, the man who provided him with what is still his all-time favourite World Cup memory. "Cruyff's goal against Brazil in 1974," he said, "seemed to me like football at its very, very best." Did he go out in the street afterwards and pretend to be the goalscorer? "No, no. How could I? I didn't look like him."
Well, I never looked much like Jairzinho either, but it didn't stop me pretending to be him on the local recreation ground in the summer of 1970.
Still, it was the great Gullit, not the great Cruyff, who gave the Dutch their sweetest moment in international football, captaining the team to victory in the 1988 European Championship. And during that tournament, his mentor, and significantly Van Basten's mentor, was one of the world's best coaches, Rinus Michels, who knew just how to get the most out of a squad corralled together.
"On the night before the final, he let us go to a Whitney Houston concert. He understood how uncomfortable it can get, even in a very nice hotel, when the players are all living together and training all the time. It is very important that you have things other than football to look forward to, to talk about. I think [Van Basten] understands that too."
That Düsseldorf flight was nearing, and it was time to ask Gullit, one of the greatest forwards to have played in the World Cup, what composite forward line he might choose from all the teams involved? "Ooojgh," he said, in the guttural Dutch manner. "Ooojjjgh. That is a very hard question. You can think about this player or that player, but so many things can change. You get injuries, loss of form. But how about Ronaldinho, [Andrei] Shevchenko, and [Wayne] Rooney? And if Rooney is not quite fit, [Lionel] Messi. There are so many to get excited about."
Finally, if he were in Sepp Blatter's elegant shoes, is there one thing he would try to change about the World Cup? "Yes, I would try to get more tickets to the punters, and have less corporate hospitality. But can you do that these days? I don't know. These people pay so much money, everything is sold out, and then as soon as the tournament starts, tickets are available at double the price. It means that some people get tickets with no intention to go to the game. They just want to make a profit." A long sigh. "I find that very hard to swallow."Reuse content