DELVING INTO THE treasure troves of Dutch football’s history is an often emotive and enriching experience. Juxtaposed to the relative mediocrity of the present, the Netherlands’ footballing past showcases a talent pool that ought to be impossible for such a small nation.
From the foreign forefathers of Jack Reynolds and Vic Buckingham came the drive and imagination of homegrown genius; Johan Cruyff’s mind-altering legacy, the dreamy perfection of Louis van Gaal’s mid-1990s Ajax, and the making of modern day Barcelona and Pep Guardiola. In a unique set of circumstances, Frank Rijkaard has it all running through his veins.
It is, therefore, regrettable in the least that Rijkaard, still just 54, quietly yet definitely confirmed his own coaching retirement recently. Yes, he’s said so before, but there was something telling and final in his admissions. “Then you get back to the cliché ‘never say never’, but no, I will not return as a trainer.,” he told Helden (Heroes), a Dutch documentary filmmaking group.
“I did it from 1998 until four years ago, and if I’m honest with myself, I do not really see myself as an authentic trainer. So I’ve done something for about 16 years which is not directly a match for me. But I did it with made heart and soul, I worked hard, was always willing to see games and make video analysis,” he continued.
In Brilliant Orange, David Winner’s peerless chronicle of Dutch football, ‘neurotic genius’ is a wonderfully apt descriptor. Dancing between otherworldly talent and a penchant for self-destruction, Dutch football carries the frustrating capacity to not quite fulfil potential. From the romantic hues of the national teams who lit up the 1974 and 1978 World Cups, to 1988’s European Championship winners, dizzying brilliance and choked desolation have danced all too closely, and all too frequently.
From an early relegation with Sparta Rotterdam to rebuilding Barcelona’s footballing chapel, Rijkaard’s coaching career has teetered upon a perfect definition of neurotic genius. Dazzling heights, bewildering lows, and inexplicable nothingness between. Last employed as manager of the Saudi Arabia national team, Rijkaard was dismissed in January 2013. The post remains his most recent employment.
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Coupled with a natural, effortless ability, and having been tutored by the likes of Johan Cruyff, Rinus Michels, Arrigo Sacchi, Fabio Capello and Louis van Gaal, it is perhaps little surprise that Rijkaard was the complete footballer. He excelled in any position and ended his playing days lavishly decorated for his accomplishments, longevity, versatility and that highly lauded Dutch gene of football intelligence.
A native Amsterdammer, Rijkaard was handed his Ajax debut aged just 17. Yet his early days at the club were far from smooth. Confidence shattered by Aad de Mos, Rijkaard was initially a victim to the Dutch version of ‘you don’t win anything with kids’ quip. Across the subsequent eight trophy-laden seasons at Ajax, initially under Leo Beenhakker and later Johan Cruyff, Rijkaard excelled in central defence and central midfield, and more than proved de Mos wrong. The dynamics of his relationship with Cruyff, however, would prove the catalyst for his departure.
With Cruyff in the midst of one of his first clashes with the Ajax board, Rijkaard became something of a kingpin. By then a cultural leader, both for Cruyff’s footballing vision and the team’s dynamics, Rijkaard at 24 was being asked to assume the responsibility of a seasoned veteran. Thrown into the firing line in debates over salary, transfers and insurance, Rijkaard’s relationship with Cruyff, and subsequently Cruyff’s relationship with Ajax, imploded.
Eventually, via Sporting CP where he failed to be registered in time, Rijkaard spent the majority of the 1987-88 season with Real Zaragoza, but a move to AC Milan just 12 months later would define Rijkaard the player.
If Cruyff’s teaching and life in the Eredivisie lacked the rigours of tactical discipline, Arrigo Sacchi more than plugged the gaps. Sacchi combined Rijkaard’s expertise in defence and midfield, and coached arguably the world’s best holding midfielder to two European Cups, two Serie A titles and two Supercoppa Italiana titles in five seasons.
If that wasn’t enough, Rijkaard returned to Ajax to lend his experience and expertise to Louis van Gaal’s young squad and added another European Cup in 1995. Alongside Danny Blind, Rijkaard assumed leadership roles and on-field coaching responsibility with a natural grace and purpose. Upon hanging up his boots, a coaching career appeared a natural progression.
Following an apprenticeship assisting Guus Hiddink, Rijkaard became the Netherlands’ head coach months shy of his 37th birthday in 1998. Critics of his inexperience were slowly silenced as the Netherlands progressed to the European Championship semi-finals in 2000.
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After delighting crowds with fluid and attacking football, the Dutch were beaten on penalties by Italy. Rijkaard resigned immediately after the semi-final defeat. Despite initial promise and style in abundance, his first foray into club management would also tease and please before ultimately ending in disappointment.
On the back of a year-long sabbatical, Rijkaard was appointed manager of the Netherlands’ oldest professional club, Sparta Rotterdam, for the 2001-02 season. Initially the down to earth nature of a modest club suited Rijkaard, but doubts soon arose. Not for the first time, questions regarding Rijkaard’s relaxed and placid approach gained frequency. To a backdrop of tightening financial constraints and a cacophony of commentary, Sparta were relegated for the first time in their history. Despite offering to take a 50 percent pay-cut to stay, Rijkaard departed soon after.
The Dutchman spent the next months diligently working on a book about how to run a football club. Though despite months of extensive research, it was never written. By July 2003, he had made a most dramatic return to football management.
Joan Laporta, Barcelona’s newly elected president approached Rijkaard following a significant and heartfelt recommendation by Cruyff. Laporta, throughout an ambitious and controversial election campaign, had cleverly sought the advice of one of Barcelona’s favourite sons. In turn, Cruyff pointed to one of his own. Still, his appointment represented a huge gamble. Barcelona at the time were floating; devoid of the identity and success which have since become cornerstones.
By December 2003, the identity of Laporta’s Barcelona and Rijkaard the coach were at a crossroads. The club occupied 12th place in La Liga, facets of home support were demanding Rijkaard’s resignation, and drastic measures were required. In proving there was more than an aggressive and proactive streak to Rijkaard the coach, he turned the Catalan press against his own players. Having fully explained his actions to the players in the days prior, the perfect siege mentality was created.
Barcelona made up 18 points on Real Madrid in the season’s second half, and despite finishing as runners-up, momentum and a shift in mentality would prove decisive in the long term. The proverbial summer of rebuilding heralded signings such as Deco, Samuel Eto’o, Rafael Márquez and Ludovic Giuly, and the likes of Victor Valdés and Andrés Iniesta were promoted from the youth team. Rijkaard’s first season also saw the first team debut of one Lionel Messi.
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A rejuvenated Barcelona claimed successive La Liga titles in 2005 and 2006, and a Champions League in 2006. Rijkaard found his perfect balance as a coach, and his influence ran deep through the club and its fabled academy. The Dutchman – effervescent, cool and charming – was tastefully complimented by the more brazen presence of Henk ten Cate and then Johan Neeskens as his assistants.
Rijkaard’s Barcelona were dazzling and truly groundbreaking in the modern era. Quickly renowned for their hedonistic attacking football, both Messi and Ronaldinho appeared to operate in free roles, epitomising Rijkaard’s team. However, deploying two stars in roles of such freedom requires sacrifice and tight tactical discipline, and that can be exhausting.
Allowing Messi and Ronaldinho the roles they rejoiced in, Barcelona’s other eight outfield players needed legs and awareness beyond the norm. Ultimately the dizzying heights couldn’t be sustained, and Rijkaard’s genius at Barcelona slipped into the neurotic category. Despite the free-flowing football, two trophyless seasons effectively ended in May 2008 in the form of a crushing 4-1 defeat to Real Madrid.
Come the season’s end, Rijkaard departed on good terms. Laporta, though critical of Rijkaard for “losing the dressing room”, recognised the Dutchman’s contributions and hailed him a hero. On his watch, Barcelona had rediscovered an identity, unearthed some of the best footballers a generation would see, and laid the foundations of Total Football’s most modern incarnation. Laporta’s appointment of Pep Guardiola ensured philosophical continuity.
Rijkaard isn’t alone in requiring some downtime and solitude after coaching at the Camp Nou. His successor, Pep Guardiola followed suit. A full 12 months came between Rijkaard leaving Barcelona and taking the reigns at Galatasaray in 2009. Nearly another 12 months bridged the gap between his sacking at Galatasaray and appointment in Saudi Arabia.
Vocations and adventures filed under ‘over too soon’ are all too familiar in the inescapable world of Dutch football. From the mildly explainable premature fading of Royston Drenthe to the unfathomable flittering away of Rafael van der Vaart, the Dutch can have a tendency to dazzle and vanish.
Glittering playing career, early promise as a coach, and an only slightly mysterious disappearance – with those trademarks, Rijkaard joins a merry band of Dutchman – Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf and Patrick Kluivert – who all currently enjoy the relative obscurity of various technical roles, punditry or absolute retirement.
In return, Rijkaard, more than most, gave us absolute genius. Neurotic and otherwise.
By Glenn Billingham @glennbills