The Holy Trinity of Holland

The 1980s era in soccer history would welcome the dawn of a new Oranje spearheaded by the deadly combination of Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit, and Marco van Basten.

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The Netherlands has always had a reputation for producing top talents across the soccer world at both club and country levels. Ajax, a professional club playing in the Eredivisie, the topmost Dutch league, is widely considered to be one of the best academies for developing youth players. Famous for cultivating legends such as Johan Cruyff during the 1960s and recent gems like Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt, the Dutch made European football dependent on their talent. After an era of Italian dominance with the ultra-defensive-minded Catenaccio system, the Dutch flair visible in Cruyff’s generation had seemingly vanished, and a new trio would be necessary to rekindle Holland’s spark.

The year was 1986, and it had been nearly a decade since Italian club AC Milan won a noteworthy trophy. Italian politician Silvio Berlusconi bought the club in February of that year, and he was handed with a tall task. The new president took the first step by bringing in Coach Arrigo Sacchi in 1987, and with the defense already excelling thanks to stalwarts Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini, the administration looked to invest in the forward line. The club signed two Dutchmen—Marco van Basten from Ajax and Ruud Gullit from PSV. Basten and Gullit had an immediate impact, as Milan won its first league title in almost a decade. Then, in the summer of 1988, the club bolstered the midfield by bringing in a third talented Dutchman: Frank Rijkaard. With two solid center-backs in Baresi and Maldini and great squad depth on the bench, the full potential of the Dutch trio would become evident. With the deep-lying midfielder Rijkaard supplying the creative-minded playmaker Gullit, goalscoring opportunities were endless for prolific Basten up front. The trio was even nicknamed “Tre Tulipani” by Milan supporters, meaning the three tulips. For the next few years, the Tre Tulipani would revolutionize the Rossoneri of old and help the Italian giants grow into a superpower, winning three consecutive league titles from 1991 to 1994 and securing two European Cups in the 1988-1989 and 1989-1990 seasons.

While Rijkaard, Gullit, and van Basten were making a name for themselves in Italy, the three were also close teammates and friends on Netherlands’ national team. They were able to combine beautifully on the field thanks to their common understanding and complementary playing styles. The rest of the Dutch side included superstars like center-back Ronald Koeman and right-winger Gerald Vanenburg. This squad was able to support the Tre Tulipani from behind, while the brilliantly creative and deadly duo of Gullit and van Basten ripped open the opponent’s defense.

The Netherlands arrived in West Germany for the 1988 Euros with this same squad and were looking for their first major international trophy. The Dutch defeated England in the group stages and knocked out long-time rivals West Germany in a close 2-1 win. In the finals, Holland were set to face the formidable Soviet Union. The match was settled 2-0, with Dutch captain Gullit scoring the first and tournament top scorer van Basten firing in an absolute beauty from a seemingly impossible angle towards the end of the match, sealing it for the Netherlands. This was the only major trophy that the Dutch had ever won on the international stage. The Tre Tulipani was able to achieve what even Cruyff and his iconic Dutch side couldn’t almost 30 years ago. 

The future for both AC Milan and the Netherlands national team was looking bright with the rise of these three brilliant superstars. However, by 1993, the trio went their separate ways. Following controversies with the club administration and a breakdown in communications with Gullit’s party, the Dutch playmaker moved on to Sampdoria, then Chelsea in 1995 before retiring in 1998. On the other hand, Rijkaard returned to Amsterdam to play for his boyhood club, Ajax, and would later take on coaching roles at FC Barcelona and Galatasaray after retiring. Van Basten faced a series of persistent injuries, which forced him to a tragic decision—as the marksman announced his retirement in 1995 when he was still at the peak of his abilities. Milan’s successes dipped following the departure of these icons, while the prospect of celebrating titles became scarce for Holland fans everywhere.

Nevertheless, when the Dutch axis played together, trophies were bound to follow. Amassing three league titles, three domestic Super Cups, two Champions League titles, two European Super Cups, and two Club World Cups, the trio from Netherlands established their place in soccer history. While the Tre Tulipani may not have remained together for as long as many had dreamt, the three Dutchmen revitalized both their club and country.