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Home|Football News|Managers|Frank Rijkaard

Frank Rijkaard - Barcelona

The Purist

Juan LaPorta.

As another Primera Liga season unfolds, football’s prophets of doom could make a pretty sound case for a game unravelling bang on schedule... from the very top down.

Silverware-hoggers supreme Real Madrid lurch from one daily crisis to another as if on a mission to prove just how emphatically the “game” and the “people” have been banished from the people’s game.

The spectacle left behind is one of elegantly-attired looters free to toast the triumph of cash and politics over sport as the rest of us cheerfully sustain the platform that puts their inflated egos on show.

A reportedly bickering squad topped up not by managerial choice but, invariably, at boardroom level, is abandoned three Liga games in by that most disposable of modern figures, the coach.

Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football - Buy this book from Amazon.

Brilliant Orange:
The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football

Jose Camacho - himself a former Bernabeu playing hero, who also walked as coach after just three weeks in 1996 – felt the need to resign overwhelm any inclination to play by the 21st century rulebook, and the newshounds' ever-swelling appetite for blood was once more rewarded with a scalp to relish.

Don’t expect too much attention to be paid in the Republic of Catalunya to the apparent crumbling of their rival's empire, however... for, just in case you hadn’t noticed, Barca are back.

Barcelona's Frank Rijkaard was short odds for the scrapheap himself at the same point last season, only for the former Sparta Rotterdam and Netherlands coach to soak up the pressure and fight back, offering us a blend of humour and authority, as well as precious hope for the future of big-time football, in the process.

Amid bitter talk of globetrotting galacticos and “mediaticamente”, Camacho appears to have been seen off for daring to pick a player his bosses had somehow at least seen fit to employ, if not to label “undroppable”, as seems to be the case with a chosen few.

Barca: The People's Passion.

Barca: The People's Passion

Not that the player/director/agent axis is restricted to Spain, of course, what with the Luigi del Negri and Rudi Voller episodes at Porto and Roma – fellow Champions League competitors equally unable to conduct their affairs as their formidable traditions might suggest they would.

Much the same as Camacho, in September 2004 Voller found he didn't particularly need the grief, and, back in 2000 you’d have justifiably speculated that Rijkaard felt the same, as home advantage was squandered by the joint Euro hosts to ensure their elimination at the semi-final stage, again. How much pride came into his having left both Sparta (following relegation) and Dutch national posts is... possibly what The Purist should have asked him!

In 16 of the last 17 years the Nou Camp has started the campaign with Dutch personnel in some capacity or other, but Rijkaard, who won 73 caps for the Netherlands, never himself pulled on a Barcelona shirt. He followed Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff and Louis van Gaal as managers from the Netherlands, while a grand total of 16 Dutch players has graced that period, one of whom, Ronald Koeman, looked a far likelier candidate to succeed Raddi Antic and inherit a UEFA Cup-qualified side back in the summer of 2003.

Time Out Barcelona.

Time Out Barcelona

His own recruiting strategy – influenced to who knows how great or less an extent from upstairs (Ronaldinho, remember, was a done deal) – has been, perhaps, as intriguing a part as any of his reign: He currently lacks a player in his own likeness and his experimentation with formations at first infuriated but now delights a revitalised army of socios, the evocative name given to the members of FC Barcelona.

Despite interminable speculation, he did not sign Ballack, Edu nor van Nistelrooy, and he has retained goalkeeper Victor Valdes, Xavi the midfielder, Ronaldinho and the talismanic club captain Carlos Puyol, surprising many by letting Argentina's Saviola go to Monaco on a season's loan.

Seventy-five million euros were invested pre-season on seven internationals: Deco, Ludovic Giuly, Henrik Larsson – at the age of 33 – Edmilson, Juliano Belleti, Silvinho and Samuel Eto'o, for €20m+, and and he has now lost Edmilson as well as Gabri and Thiago Motta to long-term injuries that may yet see La Liga's transfer window relaxed so that further cover can be sought.

It is his zen-like attitude, his relaxed work ethic, as much as anything, that has gained the respect of peers such as Mircea Lucescu of Shakhtar Donetsk – “He has moulded all those individuals into a team.” Sir Alex Ferguson boldly included Rijkaard the player in his fantasy World XI, compiled, incidentally, from every player he has seen since World War II!

Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football.

Morbo The Story of Spanish Football

Ferguson had a glib remark for the Dutch connection at Barca – “They do seem to have a penchant for the Dutch at that club!” – while Rijkaard would have you believe his nationality is a coincidence... after all, every Dutch player bar Gio van Bronkhorst was transferlisted in May, and each has duly departed. Nonetheless, a comment on Edgar Davids, who spent half of 2003-04 on loan to Barcelona, reveals more than Rijkaard ususally prefers to and could as easily be applied to himself: “You don't have to look at his nationality – only evaluate if it's important for the team.”

When The Purist informed Rijkaard of Ferguson's admiration he said: “I’m living in the here and now, but it’s certainly an honour to hear that of Alex Ferguson, he is one of those people who has achieved so much in football that he has the highest respect.”

If there is a discernible style to this man, it is certainly one less aloof than that of his oldest friend in football, Ruud Gullit. Of the lack of a player in his own likeness – a possession specialist in front of the defence – Rijkaard has been self-deprecating enough to describe the role as akin to that of a dog before now. Here he was more forthcoming: “You need these players, these players are very important for a team; they keep possession of the ball, they win a lot of duels and the players with individual qualities can play better because of this type of player. But I don’t like to compare players with myself.”

Sitting pretty in both Champions League and La Liga table, Rijkaard told The Purist about one of those “players with individual qualities”: “I believe that this year Ronaldinho will be more important for us than the last. The way he plays is for the crowd. He has moments where he is nothing short of sensational. He tries things no one expects and so the crowd love him. He is the reason why people come to places like this, to see something special.

“But he is more than that, he has a great game, a great talent but also a great spirit and sense of team. It starts in the dressing room and carries onto the field, he is special.”

If we're looking for signature Rijkaard decisions, letting the players celebrate Ronaldinho's birthday until dawn could well have backfired, only for the team spirit at the back end of 2003-04 to have vindicated what may have been dismissed as a lack of discipline in other coaches.

Similarly, when Ronaldinho missed a penalty against Celtic, he wasn't relieved of the duty. Eto'o took one in the next Liga match, only for Ronaldinho to take and score the next penalty awarded to Barca in the Champions League. Rijkaard said after the Mallorca game: “For the penalty there were three or four players who can take them and they decide on the pitch. I was not surprised Ronaldinho left it to Eto'o.” The Purist was evidently not in the presence of a control freak!

Although Rijkaard has yet to intervene at the Nou Camp the way he did in changing the Netherlands kit – black instead of white shorts, to bring back memories of the feared Dutch side of the Seventies – you get the idea he would not be afraid to, and that he has the kind of mutual respect with his president, Joan Laporta, that has long since deserted the corridors of Madrid.

On the subject of Laporta's declared target of a return to the nostalgic concept of a Catalan select side, Rijkaard reverts to pragmatic mode and says it can't happen overnight. Watching your back, as Gullit has famously failed to do time after time, is something Rijkaard has learnt despite never having hung around anywhere long enough to get the sack... and his knowing delivery of platitudes only registers as conspiratorial in person, not when strictly speaking for the record.

The identity of some future Carles Rexach or Remon presently awaiting a Rijkaard slip may not be clear, but ask yourself whether the powers that be at Real would ever utter the following: “We prefer to have 20 in the squad than 15 with five or six reserves. We could take on any signing, but it’s another thing whether the coaching staff would consider it correct.” That was Laporta's caveat in confirming the rude financial health of a club left horribly in debt after Van Gaal's acrimonious departure.

Now that Frank Rijkaard has ridden out the storm, playing critics such as Rustu Recber and Ricardo Quaresma... Frank De Boer even, only look childish where once they sought to jump on the bandwagon that so often crushes a coach when he has hardly had the chance to begin.

Are Spain's footballistas really witnessing the beginning of the end, then? Hey, not from where Victor Valdes is standing, they're not.

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