It is not often you can exit a conversation with an AC Milan supporter without there being some sort of reference to the trio known as ‘The Three Dutchmen’. During the tail end of the 1980’s and early 1990’s, the orange invasion set up camp in Milan and would come to change the history of Italian football.
Roughly 25 years ago, Serie A went through what many considered to be the golden age of Italian football when there existed a gluttony of attacking talent. In 1991-92 the race for Capocannoniere featured the likes of Marco van Basten, Roberto Baggio, Gabriel Batistuta, Ruben Sosa, Gianfranco Zola and Giuseppe Signori.
Van Basten, or San Marco as he is sometimes known by, was one-third of the Dutch trinity that would also come to feature Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard.
Following a troublesome few years for those in red and black, Arrigo Sacchi was installed as coach and began to make drastic changes to the set-up of one of Italy’s finest clubs.
Van Basten was everything one could ask for in a striker. He brought height, speed and more importantly, one of the most lethal finishes calcio had ever witnessed. His skill set came as no surprise to those back in the Netherlands, however, as a few school friends had labelled him as the next Johan Cruyff.
After a successful six-year stint with Ajax that saw him secure three Eredivisie championships and four scoring titles, van Basten made the switch to Italy in 1987.
Alongside Marco, was the flowing dreadlocks of Gullit. Ruud may well have been on the same flight as his compatriot, as the two both signed on the dotted line at the same time, prepping Milan for an exciting 1987-88 season.
With Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Costacurta securing the defensive line, the Dutchmen in question were entrusted with the attacking duties and played a valuable part in the Rossoneri’s first Scudetto since 1979. With just two losses in the 30-game campaign, Milan pipped Napoli to top spot by just three points.
After just one game, whispers began of a development of something special, a changing of the guard and Milan’s new attacking identity. An away trip to Pisa was the first appearance of both van Basten and Gullit, stamping their orange mark on proceedings as they both found the back of the net to earn a 3-1 victory.
Despite a loss to Fiorentina the following week and a later defeat to Roma, the Diavolo went 19 games unbeaten. With three games left to play, Milan defeated Napoli, all but securing the Italian championship. Considering the Partenopei were the league’s holders, the home support were stunned into silence as van Basten applied the finishing touch and winning goal in the 3-2 victory. As the official UEFA website states, “1 May is the day Sacchi’s Milan was born.”
With a Ballon d’Or in the hands of Ruud and now heading in Marco’s direction, there still seemed to be something missing.
Even though he left Ajax at the same time van Basten travelled to Italy, Rijkaard didn’t unite with the Flying Dutchmen straight away. After a spat with coach Cruyff, the centre-back ended up at Sporting club de Portugal, but had joined too late in order to be eligible to play and ended up on-loan at Real Zaragoza.
The short stint in Spain and very short spell in Portugal soon came to an abrupt end, leaving the door open in 1988 to complete a transfer to Milan, and completed a trio that would eventually rock Serie A.
Rijkaard was guided by Sacchi to alter his current role as a defender and moved up the field to play as a defensive midfielder. The move paid off as in turn, Frank would become one of the greatest to have ever played the position.
It was a magic show when the trio were wearing the red and black of Milan simultaneously and in 1988 the three were named finalists for the Ballon d’Or, with van Basten eventually taking the honours that year as well as the next.
Milan’s spine was now complete and it carried a distinct Dutch influence which flowed through the team’s veins. Serie A titles were won in 1992 and 1993, though van Basten was forced to watch from the sidelines for parts of the season due to a reoccurring and eventually career-ending set of injuries.
The trio also played pivotal roles in the Rossoneri’s two European Cup championships, prior to its rebranding to the Champions League in 1992.
One of the their famous moments arose in the 1990 final against Benfica, when Rijkaard, now known as The Hurricane, made a brilliant darting run forward by latching onto van Basten’s flick before turning in the game’s only goal.
The fun came to an unfortunate end in 1993, when van Basten was forced into early retirement. Gullit’s strained relationship with the club saw him jump ship to Sampdoria, whilst Rijkaard headed back home to Ajax.
The three Dutchmen were truly a force of nature, the likes of which Milan, and Serie A for that matter, have failed to replicate since.