Look no further than next Saturday's FA Cup final between Middlesbrough and Chelsea, in which the most famous domestic fixture on the planet will be a babel of voices from Brazil, Romania, Norway, Slovakia, France, Denmark and Italy.
But footballers are not just lured by the unprecedented wads of money that our clubs are forklifting into their arms (pounds 30,000 a week for the best). They like to know that they'll be in safe hands when they get here, taking orders from a coach who understands their style. Thus it is that Middlesbrough's foreigners were drawn to the magnetic name of Bryan Robson, a repository of Anglo-Saxon grit who captained England in the 1980s. Chelsea's imports, however, were attracted by another import. Ruud Gullit will today become the first foreign manager, the first black manager, the first manager with dreadlocks and his own eponymous fashion range, to lead an English club side out on to the pitch at Wembley stadium in an FA Cup final.
In just two seasons Ruud Gullit has become a vital symbol for English football. More than any other world-class player from abroad, the English see him as a validation of its footballing culture: he did it all, won everything, beat all-comers - including, as the captain of a brilliant Dutch side, the England team led by Robson in the 1988 European Championships. Then in 1995, he came here. Not only that - he stayed.
PERHAPS it wasn't a hard decision to take. At the end of eight seasons in Italy the multiple choice on offer was France/Japan/Turkey/Chelsea. That no one else was interested tells you more about his medical history than any falling away of esteem. The knees were in a shocking state - the Italian press routinely referred to them as made of glass - and that astonishing zing of pace, surprising in such a big man, was on the wane.
Then he was mended by keyhole surgery, signed for Chelsea as a player, and was wonderful. So wonderful that Gullit made his new colleagues look like incompetent schoolboys who couldn't read the daring geometry of his passes, or the precise timing of his runs. He didn't mind at first, because he knew they needed educating, so he spent all of last season encouraging, exemplifying the Euro-virtues that are alien to the lung-busting, kick- and-run method of the English game. Only in the New Year of 1996, halfway through his first campaign, did he begin to berate his colleagues for their failings.
By the end of the season Glenn Hoddle, who had brought Gullit to Chelsea, left to coach England, and the club made the imaginative appointment. There were millions to spend, and Gullit went ahead and spent them: in came continental talent eager to play for the master and, while they were at it, sample the finer points of London life.
Gullit's elevation changed his relationship with his team-mates. Talking last Friday at the Chelsea training ground near Heathrow, he said he had found this "very difficult. But it was a thing I had to do". He was always the most voluble of shop stewards. The Netherlands is a densely gifted footballing nation where players feel compelled to speak their minds, and Gullit plagued a succession of Dutch managers, incurring the wrath of his countrymen when he petulantly refused to play in the 1994 World Cup finals.
When the shop steward in the Chelsea dressing room became the chief executive, he had managerial authority over men who used to be friends and golfing partners. Naturally there were tensions. Three perfectly useful players left mid-season, unable to break into the team, one of them spitting over his shoulder that you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone with a good word for the new Messiah.
Things reached a climax last month when Gullit was involved in a skirmish with his first star signing, the legendary Italian goalscorer, Gianluca Vialli, from Milan. Like some less feted colleagues, Vialli has found it hard to get a game this season. He may be earning a packet, and enjoying the capital, but can't handle the humiliation of sitting on the bench.
"From the moment that people doesn't want to stay here," says Gullit in his fractured English, "then they are also not good for the group. If they are moaning all the time, it's not good, then it's better for them to go. I was also stubborn." Then he performs one of the intellectual turns on a sixpence that make him as hard to pin down off the pitch as on it: "I like stubborn players," he says. "At least they have an opinion. If they are right or wrong, this doesn't matter for me. At least they have some balls."
Gullit has always needed that particular part of his anatomy. He grew up in Amersterdam. His mother, who was white, was a cleaner at the Rijksmuseum. His Surinamese father was black, a teacher and an amateur footballer. Though he has visited Surinam only twice, and has twice married white women, he has always seen himself as a representative of his father's race. He even played bass (badly, by his own admission) in a black reggae band, which had a hit in the Netherlands. The football writer Simon Kuper describes Gullit as "the suavest Rastafarian in the business"; Paul Gascoigne, on the other hand, calls Gullit a "long-haired Yeti". When he came on at half time in his international debut, most of the press confused him with the black player - and childhood friend, Frank Rijkaard - he had replaced. First impressions were memorable: Gary Lineker, who scored plenty of goals for England, recalls watching the young Gullit in Barcelona. "He was sublime, knocking 50-yard balls all over the pitch, and he got a standing ovation from 120,000 in the Camp Nou. It was an amazing reception."
Inevitably, Italy pounced. Milan paid PSV Eindhoven pounds 5.7m for him in 1987, a huge sum then. It was a gamble only in so far as black players in Serie A, the Italian league, were scarce, and Italy's racist hooligans were just as awful as England's. But Gullit's odd combination of maturity and boyishness broke down barriers in a fiercely regionalist footballing culture. If he didn't make many converts, he at least managed to get a hearing for the profoundly anti-Italian philosophy that football is, after all, only a pastime.
With his help Milan conquered the continent, and bought more foreigners than the regulations allowed them to field. Gullit, succumbing to injury, lost out, moved to Sampdoria, enjoying such a renaissance that Milan bought him back. It went sour. He returned to Sampdoria. The knees failed, and Chelsea came in for him.
London appeared a perfect antidote to the hothouse atmosphere of Italian football: "To play with black people again in my team, and also to know that blacks in England are the same as they are in Surinam or Holland made me feel at home," he said. Gullit enjoyed the freedom to walk unhindered down the streets of Knightsbridge, where he settled. He liked the fact that the English papers, in an uncharacteristic act of self-censorship, backed off from the maelstrom of his private life. BBC Sport adopted him as a pundit despite the fact that his English comes out as a stilted translation from Italian. "Also what is important..." has become his inadvertent catchphrase. He is even allowed to wear a top from his own fashion line on air, indiscreetly monogrammed with the legend RUUD. "I'm very happy," he says. "Also proud that English people gave me really a feeling of being at home. That makes life and work also easy."
THIS season, though, the tabloids have been circling, filing stories of how Gullit had not seen his two children for 10 months, of how he is consulting a sex counsellor, of how the signing of Vialli was a disastrous tactical blunder. They have picked over his two terminated marriages, pried on his relationship with his much younger girlfriend, the niece of the great Dutch maestro Johann Cruyff. To his immense credit, the broad shoulders show no signs of slumping. "I don't give a shit what they say about me," he says. "I'll live with that. I don't sleep worse, or whatever. It's part of my life. I accept it. It's part of being a celebrity."
His steely indifference to these and other brickbats has an interesting inspiration. His admiration for Nelson Mandela is well known: in 1987 he dedicated his European Player of the Year award to the world's most famous convict. After his release Mandela was on a television show in the Netherlands, and Gullit had 45 minutes with him alone in his dressing room. "This man gave me a real impression," he says. "It was a great moment for me. I was very proud to meet this man and just understand that I was 28 years old at that time and all of my age he was in prison. Amazing, you can't imagine it. Every time that I spoke with him, he took his time and then slowly talked with me, choosing his words carefully every time." And thrillingly for Gullit, but a fair indication of his own celebrity, the most famous man in the world "knew very well who I was: he heard of me when he was in prison".
What much of the global audience for this year's Cup final will not know is that he has now retreated to the bench. There are those back in the Netherlands who find it baffling that Gullit is prepared to accept a position of authority. He has always given the impression of lacking either the patience or the passion. Most of the foreigners playing next Saturday will utter the conventional piety that from boyhood they always watched our Cup final on television. Not Gullit, who as a child didn't even support a Dutch club. "Oh yeah," he says, "I see some Cup finals. I don't remember who was playing." He won't forget this year's final.
Tony Banks on Chelsea: SportReuse content