Football: Frank feels an orange glow

Tim Collings hears Rijkaard is counting on a reunited Holland

THE WILD thatch of corkscrew curls has gone. He is heavier, too, with a clean-cropped head, and wears a suit easily, like a polished and urbane salesman.

Yes, Frank Rijkaard has changed a bit since those glorious days of the late 1980s when, playing alongside Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten, he swaggered around the continent with Milan. But the Amsterdam-born graduate of Ajax, whose dynamic defending and all-round strength and ability were the rock on which Rinus Michels built his 1988 European Championship-winning team, remains as resolute in his ambitions as ever. And when Holland's coach says he believes his millennium generation of players, including Arsenal's gifted striker Dennis Bergkamp, can emulate the standards of the Clockwork Orange of the past, he deserves to be heard.

"I know that for us to win the tournament next summer will be difficult, very difficult," he said, "because we are at home and the expectations are high. But I am sure I have the players, the team spirit and the right attitude and, when we start playing in competitive games, we will be ready. As ready as anyone."

At last Sunday's draw for the Euro 2000 finals Holland were thrown into a Group D of mouth-watering quality and variety. The Dutch, remember, failed to reach last year's World Cup final and a date with France in Paris only because they were beaten by Brazil on penalties in Marseilles. On 21 June at the Amsterdam Arena they will discover what they missed when they play the World Cup holders in the closing fixture of the section.

If this meeting of recognised titans is not enough, the same group includes the Czech Republic - the form team in qualifying, with 10 straight victories along the way - and Denmark. All four nations are former winners of the trophy, and all are potential champions. Indeed, between them, they have collected the Henri Delaunay Trophy at the conclusion of four of the last six series (Germany having won the other two).

Rijkaard respects the strength of the challenge ahead, but shows no fear despite a record that shows his team winning only once in 12 outings since he took command in succession to Guus Hiddink in July last year.

"France have a team I like," he confessed. "They have players who are physically very strong, and they have proved already they have the right kind of team spirit. They combine all the things you want - physical strength, technical skill and a good team spirit.

"The Czechs? Well, on paper, they have a very strong side. Just look at the results. We know they are skilful. We have played them recently in a friendly, too, so we know what to expect. But we are not worried.

"Denmark are more difficult to assess. They beat Italy in Naples and that proves they can rise to a very high level and be very dangerous. They have their own way of playing and it is nice to watch - and nice to play against. But, to be honest, I prefer to talk about my own team."

But Rijkaard is making no promises, other than to confirm that Bergkamp, however extravagant his ability, will be no more than a cog in his machine.

"I know we have had a lot of draws, but I am not disappointed. They have been against wonderful opponents, and a row of friendlies is not an easy task. I am confident in the boys. We have unity in the group, with respect for each other. The old problems have been solved, not by me, but by Guus Hiddink before France. Now, next summer, it is another time, another place, from the past.

"It is a unique situation for us to be at home. But it is a good thing. I know Bergkamp is a wonderful player. I hope he will be outstanding for us. But this job is like driving a car, isn't it; not just coaching one man or several. You have to control the engine, that is the most important thing, but you also have to make sure all the other parts are working well too. It is the same for every team. I am looking for teamwork and everyone will have to play their parts."

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