Rijkaard aims to bow out on a high note

Football: David Winner profiles the Dutch midfielder who is retiring from the game at the pinnacle of his career
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Amid the pomp of the European Cup Final in Vienna tonight, all eyes will be on Frank Rijkaard. As he prepares to play for Ajax, his first and last club, against Milan, where he spent his best years, the Dutch midfielder stands at the summit of his profession.

Rijkaard, a fit 32, remains one of the most effective players in Europe. He once provided much of the power and imagination that made Milan the best team in the world. Over the last two seasons, his experience and leadership have made the new young Ajax almost unbeatable.

From next week, however, the great man will be selling knickers. He is tired of the pressures of football and plans to devote his energies to his fashion company in Amsterdam, which makes denim underwear of his own design for men and women. The garments themselves interest him much less than the chance to do something utterly unconnected with football.

As he contemplates changing his life from top to bottom, plenty of people have been trying to persuade him otherwise. Thousands of fans from all over the Netherlands wrote to support a radio show's campaign urging him to play on.

Johan Cruyff, the coach of Barcelona, said: "I understand very well why he stops. Being under such pressure for so many years, after a certain point you have enough of it. The same happened to me. But I also can see that he may regret it. I think Frank can go on for another year."

But Rijkaard's thoughts have already turned to life after football. "You know what I will miss the most?" he said recently in a typically enigmatic comment. "My shoes. Not the football itself, the feeling around it. I walk into the dressing-room, look down at my legs and see how they turn into my feet. I see my feet and my shoes. Shoes with studs. That's what I'm going to miss."

Arnold Muhren, Rijkaard's former Ajax and Netherlands room-mate, says: "I know Frank very well, and when he says something he means it. He's seen it all and won everything. Playing in Italy took it out of him. What he wants now is rest. It's a pity, because he is one of the most complete players. He has everything. He can score goals, defend, tackle. He has charisma and holds a team together. He is like Bryan Robson, but bigger and stronger. Physically he could play for another three years, but mentally he can't."

Rijkaard has a reputation for modesty, sensitivity and thoughtfulness, but he is also a winner. As the influential Dutch television journalist, Frits Barend, puts it: "He looks at you with his lovely eyes, but he will break you if he has to."

Franklin Edmundo Rijkaard was born in Amsterdam in 1962, the son of a Surinamese footballer and a Dutch mother. He grew up in a working-class district of the city near his friend Ruud Gullit, made his name in youth football, and joined Ajax when he was 16, making his debut a year later in 1980.

He flourished alongside talents like Marco van Basten and Ronald Koeman until, in 1987, he suddenly walked out on Ajax after a personality clash with Cruyff, then the coach. The dispute has never been fully explained , but Rijkaard seems to have taken exception to Cruyff's method of criticising the best players.

Rijkaard spent a season in limbo (signed by Sporting Lisbon, but playing for Real Zaragoza on loan) but, after helping the Netherlands win the European Championship in 1988, he joined Gullit and Van Basten at Milan.

His five years at the San Siro were the stuff of legend: he won two European Cups (scoring the winning goal against Benfica in the 1990 Final in Vienna), two Italian titles and two World Club Championships as the Dutch trio transformed Italian football and made Milan the team of the decade. Rijkaard was the quiet one of the three, but the Milan coach, Fabio Capello, once said he was his team's most important player.

The San Siro also witnessed the worst moment of his career. During the Netherlands' dismal 1990 World Cup, he was sent off for spitting at Germany's Rudi Voller. Rijkaard regretted his actions, but said: "It was a straight answer to a provocation. I hate players who fall down when nothing happens to them in order to get the defender a card."

In 1993, Rijkaard left Milan and Louis van Gaal, the Ajax coach, persuaded him to return to Amsterdam. From the start, Rijkaard went out of his way to disavow his superstar status and blend in with the rest of the team. When he met Clarence Seedorf, who, as a boy, had sent him fan mail, it was Rijkaard who said how much he had heard about the youngster's talent and how pleased he was they would be working together.

Last week, Van Gaal said he will miss Rijkaard as a player, and even more as a personality in the dressing-room. "He is one of those players who can show me the way and criticise in a positive way," he said. "He is a great personality and a guide for the players and for myself."

Rijkaard insisted: "I was very lucky because I came to a very good team and a very good coach who co-ordinated it all." But Barend sees his contribution as historic: "In the 1970s, Cruyff made people believe the Netherlands could be a top football nation. Rijkaard, in his quiet way, has done the same with Ajax. He made the players feel they can reach the top."