Battle of the holy trinities: Gullit, Van Basten & Rijkaard vs Messi, Xavi & Iniesta

One of the greatest trios in football history has led Barcelona to great heights in recent years, but they were preceded by a similarly devastating triumvirate
By Kris Voakes

The history of football has featured a litany of great double acts, but in the late 1980s and early 1990s AC Milan went one better. With the Dutch trio of Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten, the Rossoneri had a combination which also played their part in the Netherlands’ 1988 European Championship victory in West Germany and would go on to inspire the Italian club to a run of success the likes of which they’d never known.

Wind forward 25 years and Barcelona have a modern version of the so-called ‘Dutch Trinity’. Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi have been the brains, the creativity and the genius behind the Blaugrana’s recent period of success which has helped to cast them into the forefront of many minds when the greatest teams of all time are being discussed.

The Spanish giants first showed signs of this current period of dominance under Rijkaard in 2004-05. With Ronaldinho leading the way, the Catalans won La Liga with something to spare, and would repeat the trick 12 months later while also clinching the club’s second ever European title. Yet while the Brazilian was winning all the personal accolades, a new triumvirate was gradually coming together to carry the club into the new decade at the very top of the game.

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Xavi was already well settled in the Barca team having debuted in 1998, while Andres Iniesta was first given a run in the starting XI for a significant period at the beginning of 2004-05, a year into Rijkaard’s term in office. Messi’s gradual arrival onto the world stage was inevitable, but few could have envisaged quite the effect it would have on Barcelona over the next decade.

The same can be said of the Dutch Trinity. Having bought the club in February 1986, Silvio Berlusconi was looking for a way to make Milan a megaclub with his millions. Having brought in Ruud Gullit from PSV and Marco van Basten from Ajax in 1987, he was immediately rewarded with a first Scudetto in nine years. The addition 12 months later of Rijkaard was to send the Rossoneri into the stratosphere.

Rijkaard would become regarded as one of the world’s greatest defensive midfielders, Van Basten continued to develop his reputation as the globe’s most clinical marksman against the most unforgiving of defences, while Gullit was seen as one of the greatest No. 10s in a nation full of them. Most importantly, when the Dutch axis played together, trophies followed.

MILAN 1987-93


Milan added three further league titles to the 1988 success, those coming in consecutive campaigns between 1991 and 1994 with a 58-match unbeaten run thrown in at one stage. Four Supercoppe Italiane, three Uefa Super Cups and two Intercontinental Cups also followed, but it was in the European Cup that they made their longest-lasting impression.

The 1989 final pitted Milan, who had destroyed Real Madrid in the semi-final thanks to goals from all three Dutch stars, up against Steaua Bucharest in Barcelona’s Camp Nou. The result was one of the most one-sided finals in living memory, as the Rossoneri tore the Romanian champions apart. Gullit and Van Basten scored two goals each as the Italian side wrapped up a 4-0 win in the early moments of the second half.

One year on, the Rossoneri returned to the final in Vienna to face Benfica. Having seen his compatriots lead Milan to victory 12 months earlier, Rijkaard this time clinched the title with the only goal of the game midway through the second half. Not only had the trio changed the club’s fortunes, they had now scored the vital goals in continental triumphs too, further emphasising their impact on the sport.

Too little footage remains to support the fact that these were the most talented, most in-tune players in the game, revelling in an atmosphere which could easily have been made just for them. Individually, they were among the world’s best. Together they were virtually unstoppable.

Gullit | Succeeded as No.10 in a league boasting the greatest playmakers in the world

In 1993 Gullit signed for Sampdoria and Rijkaard returned to Ajax, while Van Basten had already played the last game of his career due to a persistent ankle injury, but they had well and truly left their legacy. The following May, Milan thrashed the Dream Team of Barcelona 4-0 in the Champions League final, and while none of the Dutchmen took part, it was the platform they had set which had allowed the club to build into such a position of strength.

Champions League victories in 2006, 2009 and 2011 have seen this Barcelona overtake that Dream Team in many people’s estimations, with Xavi, Iniesta and Messi drawing comparisons to the Dutch Trinity thanks to the way they have similarly formed the heart of such a successful outfit.

Many of the statistics resemble those of Milan back in the day. Four league titles in five seasons, two Copas del Rey, four Supecopas de Espana and two Club World Cups have been added to continental success. And all have been achieved with those three megastars at the heart of it.

Where Rijkaard set the base with intelligence both with and without the ball in front of one of the great defensive lines, so Xavi leads the metronomic attack from deep, losing possession once every blue moon. Gullit was the creator and link man supreme in behind the strikers; Iniesta providing the modern equivalent with his magnificent movement between and beyond the lines of defence. And Van Basten’s status as ace marksman, netting spectacular and mechanical goals in equal measure, is matched by Messi’s fantastic feet and genial movement in the final third.

Those of us who experienced the magnificence of the Dutch Trinity were extremely fortunate, to the point where it was almost impossible to believe they would be matched. Yet the modern day version is alive and well. The second coming of the most holy of trinities continues to thrill in Catalunya.

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