Frank Rijkaard – “the ice cream up here in Lake Como is really good”

There is an argument (probably put forward by me at various times) that Ruud Krol was the greatest Dutch defender of all time, but when I take my rose-tinted glasses off I think we can safely say that the crown must surely rest on the head of Frank Rijkaard. Not only was he Oranje’s greatest defender, he also rather good in midfield.

As ever with our heroes, Frank got his first team chance at a young age, 17, scoring a goal in a 4-2 win over Go Ahead. After seven successful seasons, Frank had a major disagreement with the then coach Johan Cruyff (regular readers, are you spotting a pattern?) and was on his way, surprisingly, to Spanish side Real Zaragoza. After only one season in La Liga, Frank’s next destination was where he was to make a huge mark in club football, joining Arrigo Sacchi’s Milanese revolution alongside Dutch compatriots Marco Van Basten and Ruud Gullit. The Holy Trinity are rightly revered by soccer historians for livening up the ever-dull Calcio, but when you add the Italians available to coach Sacchi (who spurned the negative, catenaccio based bore-fests of most Italian sides of the era) such as Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, “Billy” Costacurta, Carlo Ancellotti and Roberto Donadoni, this really had the potential to be one of the greatest club sides of all time, which proved to be the case.

Two European cup wins (including scoring the winner in 1990 against Benfica in the 69th minute) are indicative of his successful spell with the Rossoneri, but it wasn’t only at club level that this was proving a productive period for the Amsterdam-born star. 1988 brought the Dutch their only tournament victory to date, but sadly one of his more memorable reasons for international notoriety was to occur two years later at the truly awful Italia ’90 world cup tournament.

The Dutch and Germans have never needed much of an excuse for a barney with each other, and their clash that year was seen by the Germans (who went on to defeat Argentina in a bad-tempered match during which a game of football attempted to break during a war) as a chance to gain revenge for their defeat at Euro 88, taking particular exception to Ronald Koeman making as if to wipe his bottom on a swapped German shirt.

After picking up a yellow card (with the realisation that this would keep him out of the next game, should Holland progress) for a reckless challenge on Rudi Voller, Rijkaard then aimed a massive gobful of phlegm at the unfortunate German’s head. Another bad-tempered tangle between the pair occurred shortly after, with Frank aiming another volley at Voller’s head. At the time, there were dark rumblings of a racial aspect to the unfortunate incident (which led to both protagonists being sent off, rather harshly in the case of Voller) but matters seem to have been peacefully resolved some time later when both warring parties appeared together in a TV commercial, with their fees going to charity.

Three years later, Frank returned to Ajax, under Coach Louis van Gaal, resulting in league titles (unbeaten in 94-95) and ultimately the last (for now?) champions league win for the Amsterdammers.

Surprisingly, his first foray into management/coaching was with the Dutch national team, with a brief to lead them to European championship glory in the 2000 tournament, which they co-hosted with neighbours Belgium. (Co-incidentally, I was on holiday in Bruges later that year where a lovely Belgian barman in “De Pub” told me that he had never met an Englishman who would take a step backwards and there were a lot of dickheads in the Belgian police, following well-publicised rioting and fights involving the English in the town – hey man, I’m a writer, not a fighter…) This was to end if the cruellest way possible, a semi-final defeat to Italy prompting Rijkaard’s resignation and one of the saddest and moving sights I have ever seen in almost fifty years of watching football. Alone, high in the stands after the game, long after everyone had departed, Rijkaard burst into spontaneous tears, clearly devastated that he could not deliver the ultimate prize for his country. Hard luck Frank – good try.

After a spell at club level in Holland with Sparta (relegated for the first time ever!), Barcelona was a surprise destination. But I will stand by the assertion that what he achieved there paved the way for the massive success created by Pep Guardiola and to a lesser extent, Luis Enrique. Bringing in stars of the calibre of Mexican captain Rafa Marquez, Brazillian Ronaldinho and sort-of Brazillian/Portuguese Deco, the template was refined that was to produce trophy after trophy during the next ten years, the most memorable (for Frank) being the Champions League final victory over Arsenal in 2006, giving him the honour of becoming only the fifth person to win this trophy as both player and manager (Johan did it as well). Further positions as coach came in Turkey with Galatasaray and also with those lovable scamps of Saudi Arabia, but at present Frank appears to have little interest in any further roles.

Always an individual who appeared to find the game easy, perhaps a clue to his relaxed demeanour can be found in something former team mate Van Basten once said about him (referred to in the title of this piece) – “there are some empty spaces up there – his memory is not his strongest point”. Even one of his (three) wives once said that if you asked him something really important, he would gaze into the middle distance and remark “you know what, the ice cream up here in Lake Como is really good….”

And that’s why we love him.