Frank Rijkaard: Chain-smoking hero puts the fire back into Barça - for real

A laid-back Dutchman is bearing the burden of wild expectation. Ronald Atkin in Barcelona meets the man who is the talk of all Catalonia
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The Independent Online

The inner sanctum that is the manager's office lies a few yards from the tape-marked tour route trodden daily by thousands, pilgrims and the merely curious, who help keep the coffers brimming at Barcelona's magnificent Nou Camp stadium. If such proximity to the punters is a surprise, so is the first glimpse of Frank Rijkaard, the handsome, amiable 42-year-old Dutchman who has taken the club into a clear lead at the head of the Spanish League for the first time in three years. He has a cigarette on the go and there are two packs of them, both opened, on an otherwise uncluttered desk in a simply furnished room.

The inner sanctum that is the manager's office lies a few yards from the tape-marked tour route trodden daily by thousands, pilgrims and the merely curious, who help keep the coffers brimming at Barcelona's magnificent Nou Camp stadium. If such proximity to the punters is a surprise, so is the first glimpse of Frank Rijkaard, the handsome, amiable 42-year-old Dutchman who has taken the club into a clear lead at the head of the Spanish League for the first time in three years. He has a cigarette on the go and there are two packs of them, both opened, on an otherwise uncluttered desk in a simply furnished room.

Since Rijkaard has just completed the daily ritual of a session with the ravenous local media in an interview room roughly the dimensions of a West End theatre, a relaxing ciggie seems unremarkable. But when Frank rapidly lights up another the thought occurs that nerves may need sedating, and whether that dreaded word "pressure" is bringing its wrecking weight to bear.

Worry not. Rijkaard, at ease in a mauve T-shirt, has caught the admiration of players, press, fans and his employers, both in last season's thin times and this year's successful ones, for an unselfish, laid-back outlook in which, unlike some of his high-profile contemporaries, the recurring theme is that the team, not him, are the stars. Pressure is neither a word nor a condition he acknowledges. Responsibility, yes. It is a wise attitude at this club, who carry the hopes, dreams, fantasies and outrageous expectations of all Catalonia.

The only previous experience of management for Rijkaard, following a glittering, trophy-filled playing career with Ajax and Milan, was in charge of the Dutch national team. "The national team means you have the nation behind it," he said. "But here at Barcelona you also represent Catalonia, so it is more or less the same thing, the same responsibility.

"Every manager feels a responsibility to his board of directors and the public and the players. The Catalonia aspect is something extra, something you learn by living here and getting to know the people. It is something deep down inside and is important for them. That's something extra, but I don't consider it pressure."

Rijkaard insists he did not feel pressured when, six months after taking the job in June 2003, Barcelona crowned a miserable sequence by losing at home to hated rivals Real Madrid for the first time in 20 years and sank to ninth in the table. The howls could be heard clear across Catalonia. The front page of one of the city's sports dailies carried Rijkaard's picture with a massive arrow pointed at him and a one-word headline "Guilty!"

Another popular media accusation was that the new manager was overcautious, a coward even, because he opted to pack his midfield against Real in the wake of a 5-1 thrashing by Malaga. One TV commen-tator predicted: "It is true that the coward who hides lives to fight another battle, but Rijkaard will take years to rid himself of the stigma." The so-called coward was clear of stigma in five months, ending the season with the best record for a Barcelona manager in five years, the team in La Liga's second place, and - this is the crucial statistic - in front of Real Madrid. This season's start is the best for seven years. Clearly, the "coward" is on a roll.

Rijkaard manages a smile, and another pull on the cigarette, at the memory of those dark December days. "Yeah, you feel bad at times like that," he acknowledged. "But I didn't feel bad so much for myself as for the board of directors, the public, the players. I saw a lot of problems within the players. It's hard to see people suffer, but I always had the intention of helping them, trying to find what was the reason for it all." Suddenly animated, he said: "It comes from here," with a sharp rap on his desk. "Or from down there," (another rap, this time on the floor), "and how can we try to change it? What do you do? Play the tough guy, be really hard, or give them a helping hand? In the end, you need to help the players gain esteem."

The helping hand, which also offered a season's-end farewell shake to a large number of his squad, including, interestingly, the four Dutchmen Patrick Kluivert, Marc Overmars, Philippe Cocu and Michael Reiziger, elevated Rijkaard effortlessly from zero to hero, a reversal of a football manager's usual fortunes.

Hero status has been attained because the fans are talking again about winning trophies, something Barcelona have not been renowned for of late. So does this laid-back fellow have goals? "All the big clubs set their goals. We have to do that because it is necessary to explain to the fans. But this does not mean I am thinking only of the final results. The work you are doing every day with the team is often more important.

"If the work is good, if the team reacts well, if we have this energy in the dressing room and we can speak of companions who are willing to help each other, do something for each other, that's a very important step. And if you have quality as well, there is a good chance of having a successful season. Everybody is always asking about goals, so I have to respond. But every day's work is what counts more."

Team spirit, in the opinion of Ronaldinho, the superstar among Barça's stars, is what has done the trick. "The quality and intelligence of the players, as well as humility towards everyone and respect for what [Rijkaard] tells us, is what has made the difference," said the Brazilian. "As well as a very good mental attitude."

One of the key personnel in the elevating of the spirit of togetherness has been Henrik Larsson, the Swede who arrived from Celtic in the summer along with the other big signings. Rijkaard refuses to comment on which of his newcomers has been the best buy ("If I give a judgement about who is the most successful I could cause tensions," was his diplomatic explanation), but this was his summing-up of what Larsson's presence has meant, apart from the goals he keeps on knocking in: "He is intelligent and professional, an example to others.

"It is important that there is an example in the dressing room for the others, because there are so many young boys. You can see that Larsson is concentrated, always trying to push up his level, always trying to become better. You need a strong, experienced personality in any group, and Larsson is ours."

That strength will be essential as Barcelona embark on a testing run of 11 games in 40 days, starting with a visit to his old club Milan in the Champions' League on Wednesday, with a squad stricken byinjuries. Gabri, Motta and Edmilson are all sidelined for six months with knee injuries, Sylvinho will be missing for an estimated further three weeks, also with a knee problem, Ludovic Giuly has a muscle strain, and Samuel Eto'o has bemused even Rijkaard with a bizarre illness-accident episode. Having come down with a bout of gastro-enteritis, the Cameroon striker was packed off for recuperation to his former home in Majorca, where he promptly crashed his car, emerging unscathed. The first his manager knew about this was when he read it in the papers.

Rijkaard, who works in tandem with the president, Joan Laporta, and technical director, Tkixi Beguiristain, on the recruit-ment of players, is resisting media clamour for new signings to resolve the injury crisis, with Arsenal's Brazilian midfielder Edu leading the newspapers' wish-list.

"Barcelona are heading in the right direction because of the work of last season and the purchase of some players who were really needed," Rijkaard stressed. "In an injury situation like this, the club always pay attention to the market, but I don't believe in buying for the sake of buying. If you need such-and-such a player right away, OK, but he has to fit into the philo-sophy, the way we are playing, the mentality, the experience, things like that. Then we will think about it and maybe do something about it, but I don't believe in saying, 'OK, get another one'. No."

Understandably, Rijkaard is content with his role right now and says he never thinks about the possibility of a move to manage in the English Premiership, or anywhere else. "You see a lot of managers who are working and yet are already talking about other countries and other teams. But that's not for me. The work here and the responsibility are hard enough. My happiness is also enough. Barcelona is too important for me right now, so I exclude all thoughts like that."

He does not, of course, exclude thoughts of winning something. Despite a philosophy explained as "taking every day as it comes, because that way you don't get into trouble with yourself," Rijkaard conceded he would be "delighted for everybody at the club if we achieve something great". If that something happened to be victory in the Champions' League, he would become the first to win that competition as both player and manager. Which would certainly be the time for Frank Rijkaard to reach for a celebratory cigarette.

Biography

Franklin Edmundo Rijkaard

Born: 30 September 1962 in Amsterdam.

As a player: Clubs - Ajax (Holland) 1980-1987, 1993-1995. Real Zaragoza (Spain) 1988. Milan (Italy) 1988-1993. International - Holland 73 caps, 10 goals.

Honours: Dutch Championship (1980, 1982, 1983, 1985). European Cup-Winners' Cup (1987, Ajax). Two Italian Serie A titles (1989, 1990). European Cup (1989, 1990, 1995). European Super Cup, (1989, 1990, 1995). Continental Cup, (1989, 1990, 1995). European Championship (1988).

As a manager: Holland 1997-98 (assistant), Oct 1998-June 2000 (Holland reached semi-finals of Euro 2000). Clubs - Sparta Rotterdam 2001-2002, Barcelona July 2003-present.

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