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