Keir Radnedge talks to Barcelona’s coach about life in one of European football’s most demanding jobs.
World Soccer: You have an image abroad of being a man for only the big jobs – from Holland to Barcelona. Is that fair?
Frank Rijkaard: No, I don’t think so. First I was assistant to Guus Hiddink at the 1998 World Cup and then I was coach at Sparta [Rotterdam], which is not even one of the big clubs in Holland. In image terms I suppose those were not such high-profile jobs. But, to me, every job is a big job, it doesn’t matter what level. You are always dealing with different players with different personalities, and the job demands as much involvement whether it’s Sparta, Barcelona or a national team.
Did you find a big difference between being a national coach and a club coach?
The difference is that, as a national coach, you see your players only once a month in the middle of a season. But at a big tournament like a European Championship or World Cup you’re all working together every day so it’s just like a club. Of course, when you’re playing in the qualifiers it’s different. The first day you can’t do too much so it’s only light training, the second day you play the game and then the third day the players all fly off back to their clubs. That can be frustrating. But you know how it will be when you take the job. You’ve been there as a player so it shouldn’t be a surprise. I’ve heard it said that if you lose you carry the weight of defeat for a month until the next game but, similarly, if you win you have that to carry you through.
As a club coach, do you find the demands on your players of international friendlies a nuisance?
What angers me most are not the matches themselves. There’s no real difference between a friendly match and training, and players will always prefer to play. I did. But at Barcelona we have a lot of South Americans and when there’s an international week they go to Hong Kong, Brazil or somewhere else in South America. They don’t get back until Thursday evening and they’re tired because of the time difference and we have only one training session on Friday – when everyone is still tired – before a big game on Saturday.
Obviously, the more players you have from another continent the more damage it can do. We have tried to learn from last season when almost every week after an international we lost our next match. The only way to cope is by persuading your players to make even greater sacrifices on the pitch. In an international week we have 10 or 11 players away with their countries. The next weekend we probably play a club who have been without only two or three players. It doesn’t affect them the same way.
So why sign so many South Americans?
Let me explain the process. If I think the team need something extra I discuss it with Txiki Beguiristain, our technical director, and with vice-president Sandro Rosell and president Joan Laporta. Then they go to find the players who fulfil those criteria. Where they come from is immaterial. The priority is having the right players for the needs of the team. Anyway, when I came here we already had Ronaldinho, Rafael Marquez and Javier Saviola then. I didn’t have any choice over the majority of Latin Americans who were here.
Yet Barcelona have just signed an Argentinian striker, Maxi Lopez, from River Plate…
Yes, but though he has played for Argentina at every level he is not playing for the senior national team right now. After Henrik Larsson was injured I knew we needed an extra striker because we have so many games. So the club started looking. Time was ticking away during the transfer window and we knew Maxi Lopez fulfilled the criteria and was available.
Was it different in your day as a player at Milan in the late 1980s?
Yes, for one thing foreigner restrictions meant clubs did not have anything like as many players going off with their countries. Also, in my case, Milan to Holland was only a two-hour flight. The problem now is the long-haul flights across big time zones.
How do you cope with having a squad of superstar egos?
Every player is different but whether someone is a ‘star’ or not is something the public creates, not the player. I can guarantee that every team is the same at whatever level: there are one or two players who are leaders and others who follow; one or two players who talk more than the others. I can guarantee you that wherever our players have come from they would look around the dressing-room and know that whatever success they achieved personally was dependent on the other guys.
Football is a team game. Of course, sometimes a training exercise suits some players more than others and then you have to consider individuals. But this is one reason why I don’t like a big squad. If I had 30 players then, inevitably, I would be sending eight or nine to watch from the stands every week. As it is I have 19 plus a few from the youth team so everyone feels a part of what we are doing – especially since we had four bad injuries early in the season. I like players who are versatile and can play in two or three positions. Then they know that, if they are out of the team, they have a better chance of getting back in. My aim is always to create a team spirit so every player feels he is contributing to our success. Then everyone’s happy.
But isn’t it difficult to bring in someone like Henrik Larsson, who was the top player in Scotland and tell him his role is to come into a game and change things?
Yes, it takes a special sort of player and personality to manage that and he struggled at first to adjust. The irony is that, had he not been injured, he would probably have found himself playing more games than even he expected.
Presumably, listening to your philosophy, you are not in favour of individual awards – like Andrii Shevchenko being voted European Footballer of the Year?
No, I’m not. For example, Shevchenko is a great striker. You can see that from his record. But football is a team game, so how can you compare the value of a Shevchenko with a defender whose work is not so obvious but is equally important? I’m against these sort of awards. If we must have them then we should have comparative awards – for goalkeepers, defenders, midfielders and strikers in their own right.
*This is an excerpt from an interview with Frank Rijkaard. The full interview appeared in the March 2005 issue of World Soccer. To subscribe to the magazine, click here