Ruud Gullit interview: Former Chelsea & LA Galaxy manager talks Santiago Giménez, MLS and Messi
The 1987 Ballon d’Or winner spoke to AS, opening up on his time in MLS, as well as analysing Messi’s impact on football in the US.
A smiley Ruud Gullit welcomes me and we get straight to it after a brief chat about the winter weather front making its way across Europe. It’s cold in Amsterdam too, where Gullit is sitting, but that doesn’t stop the 1987 Ballon d’Or winner from getting into the thick of the Dutch title race right away.
The chat opens with Ruud’s Feyenoord, a team he does not hide his feelings for, and their star striker, Santiago Giménez, who Gullit says had “a fantastic year last year” as his side won the Eredivisie.
“He was a player even the Mexicans didn’t know about”, says Gullit, “it went really well for Feyenoord: they found a rough diamond and then he was selected for the Mexican national team. We did really, really well.”
‘Fantastic’ Giménez ‘a gem’ for Feyenoord
Feyenoord are proud to have found “the gem” of Giménez, who Gullit gushes over, calling “a fantastic striker” who has reached the top. Despite the success of the forward, Feyenoord find themselves 10 points behind league leaders PSV Eindhoven: “winning a title is one [thing], but to win it again is the most difficult part: I think they are in this race”, says Gullit, remaining positive until the mathematics says otherwise.
“The good thing about Feyenoord is that [despite the fact that] they are 10 points behind, it doesn’t look like a team that is 10 points behind. Feyenoord play with the same energy and power that they did before but now the opposition have sussed them out a little bit, they have a feeling of what [Feyenoord] try to do.”
‘Nobody has patience’ in the Premier League
We move on from Feyenoord to the Premier League, and chat about a crazy season so far that has seen Arsenal take the lead as Manchester City continue to stumble. Ruud, despite the wobble, thinks “they’re still there” in the race for the top, despite being aware that “there is criticism about them”.
“There’s no patience in the Premier League”, he adds with a knowing look, having been both a player and manager in England’s top division, “nobody has patience. There is a lot going on in the Premier League because the level is so high and it’s so difficult to remain at the top.”
Chelsea, a former team of Gullit’s, are also struggling despite spending big in the transfer windows under new owner Todd Boehly. “Chelsea just bought a lot of players that haven’t gelled together yet”, he explains, “that is the most difficult part. It’s difficult to buy all these players instantly and to do something”.
“There are six teams that all want to win”, he goes on, “they all have a budget and money to spend. Chelsea should always go for the title but there’s only one [who can win].”
‘It’s easy to win it’s but to remain at the top is tough’
One player who left Chelsea in the summer to try his luck somewhere else was Christian Pulisic, who, in the opposite way to Ruud throughout his illustrious career which saw him win 3 Serie A titles and 2 European Cups with the Rossoneri, moved to Italy after the Premier League.
“The Premier League is a high-tempo competition”, Ruud says when asked to dissect the differences in styles between the two competitions, “the build-up for a lot of Italian teams is a little bit slower, it’s more tactical, more on technique and things like that. It’s hard, plus the Italian defenders are not easy to beat.”
“The style of play suits [Pulisic] better… Maybe he has found a way to play his game”, he suggests before admitting that “maybe he is enjoying it at the moment”. The American, Ruud addresses, has scored 5 goals in 12 games but “has come into a team that is also struggling, like we are said, it’s easy to win it’s but to remain at the top is tough and that is the same thing with Milan - it’s hard.”
“Now you see all of a sudden Juventus are coming back. Last year, Napoli were fantastic, now all of a sudden, they are struggling as well. It’s difficult for a lot of teams: everybody’s investing in football and they want instant success.”
‘In LA you feel like you are at the end of the world’
The theme of the US goes on, with Gullit opening up on his time as manager of the LA Galaxy, saying he “found it difficult, very difficult” and that it was “not the best of times”.
“In LA you feel like you are at the end of the world. Football-wise, in the newspapers there is not much. It’s almost like you are in a different world. Everybody in LA is more into television and film than sports”.
The world of MLS has grown since Gullit’s stint in 2007, but back then, the Euro 1988 winner says he found “getting new players the most difficult part” of life as a stateside manager.
“I found that very, very hard because you could only trade with other teams”, he continued, “but you have players who are not good enough. How can you trade these? How can you get better players? And you have to stay within that budget. I found that very, very difficult”.
Gullit ‘played on a baseball pitch’ during US stint
Despite the difficulty, Gullit “cherishes” his time in the USA, and recognises that “the Americans wanted to improve a lot, that they were trying to invest in football”.
While mulling over the difficulties, the cold, northern European air must have run into the Amsterdam room as Ruud jumps in to exclaim that “the only thing that is bad is travelling and the heat… The heat, oh my God!”
The main footballing difficulty were the playing surfaces, “I played a lot during those days on plastic pitches” he admits, “and even on a baseball pitch! But things have changed a lot. Now it’s improved a lot.”
‘Messi is interesting... but Americans themselves need heroes’
Sticking with MLS, the conversation turns to Inter Miami’s Lionel Messi, the new star of the competition and arguably the country. For Gullit, however, as great as Messi is, he sees another type of footballer being the one to get people involved ahead of the Copa América 2024 and the World Cup 2026, both to be played on home soil.
“For me, the thing is that [the US] needs local heroes”, Ruud said when asked for his analysis of Lionel Messi’s impact on the growth of soccer, “that’s the point, you know, and Pulisic is the last one, it’s [not constant]. They need local heroes in order to make their own game better. Messi is interesting because it’s Messi. And especially because of the Spanish enclave there. The most important thing for them is their hero.”
“The Americans themselves, [however], they need heroes as well”, he passionately continued, “they need a certain calibre of player who has done really well in Europe. That’s what they need”.
Gullit admits that big-money foreign stars are indeed useful for the growth of the game, saying “that is something that they did first with Beckham, that they did really well to grow the popularity of the game in America”, but he adds that “they did it with Beckham and now they’re doing it with Messi, but in the end, you need a local hero in order for the American kids to say ‘hey, I have a chance’.”
Interview conducted with Gambling Zone.