Saturday, May 24, 2008

we'll always have Paris

Frank Rijkaard was the perfect manager for FC Barcelona. Joan Laporta said so. Johan Cruyff said so. His players thought so, all the way to the bitter end.

"Frank speaks so quietly you have to strain to hear him," says Ronaldinho, "and when you do, you realise he's always right."

It's not easy to manage Barca. The presidents are all inevitably egomaniacs, the shadow of former greats hang over every single decision one might make, the players are brilliant but often troubled.

Then there are the demands of the greater environment. Barca is a neurotic institution. We are proud of our history, but also keenly aware that it places demands on our behaviour, not only in the context of the club as an institution, but also from what Johan Cruyff calls the 'entorno' surrounding the club. The public will not accept anything less.

Witness the way Louis van Gaal was all but chased out of town - twice - not all that long ago, even though under him Barca won 2 league titles, a Copa del Rey, had some brilliant European nights, came close to a Champions League final, and some of our most successful canteranos got their start in the first team under his guidance.

But van Gaal was too abrasive; he flooded the team with Dutch players, not all of whom were successful; the football was sometimes brilliant but increasingly frustrating. van Gaal didn't like the press and never bothered to hide it. The press hated him in return.

Frank Rijkaard's last post-match press conference ended with a standing ovation from the journalists present.

It's not easy to manage Barca. Rijkaard did a sublime job at times, and made some dubious decisions when his limitations were exposed. But no one can fault the spirit in which he went about it. He has been honourable, gracious, cool under pressure, a friend to the players, even when they let him down, loyal to the board, even when they don't deserve his protection, and always blaming himself first even when it's not his fault.

At first, everyone doubted him - the inexperienced third choice (Hiddink and Ronald fricking Koeman were the first two). Then, as the team continued to crash, they slated him. He packed the midfield against Real, and they called him a coward.

Then the club finally bought him the holding midfielder he'd asked for, and the team clicked.

A lesser manager, a lesser person would not have gotten through those disastrous four months intact. The pressure was immense, all the more so given the downward spiral of the team and the club in the previous four seasons.

But Rijkaard faced the hostility, the doubts and the instability with astonishing serenity, and good grace, always ready to step up and take responsibility for any problems in order to shield his players and the board.

The second half of that season was brilliant. Yet at the end Rijkaard decided on a vigorous clean-out of some of the most influential figures in the dressing room. The club bought in a raft of ambitious players who were hungry for success.

They combined with the left-over stalwarts as well as young players from the youth system to form an excellent team, who played some of the best football in Europe for two seasons, won back to back league titles and the Champions League. Through all this success Rijkaard preferred to remain out of the limelight, always gracious and understated in victory. He never got carried away when things were good, and he always gave all the credit to his players.

Because this is Barca, even those two glorious seasons included bad patches. Even then, not winning twice in a row led to cries of 'crisis'. In those times Rijkaard always sought to shield his players from criticism. While far too many coaches these days rush to blame anything and everything else - opponents, referees, club officials, the weather, the alignment of the stars - for any problems, he has always faced bad results with a measure of objectivity. The media were constantly ravenous. He simply refused to respond to the barbs and sniping.

Rijkaard had his limitations, and they became painfully obvious as the last two seasons worn on. He was tactically quite inflexible, and his mature approach to his players unfortunately resulted in those who did not deserve to be treated like adults abusing their privileges.

In the beginning, though, that particular weakness was a strength. Barcelona players often say that Rijkaard understands them. That he always knows what to say, and that he's a friend to them. He took on all the pressure and allowed them room to express themselves. The younger players were nurtured and given time to grow.

These past five years, Rijkaard has faced the glory and the pain with the same unwavering composure, and can leave with his head held high. In his own words:

"For me, I don't see the need to defend myself, I'm just doing the things I do and I'm very conscious of the fact that I'm giving everything I've got."

"Good or bad. Take it or leave it."

Damn right. Thank you, Frankie.


Greg G said...

Hey, Linda! Thought you'd disappeared, then saw this post from you. Only a little late on a reply, but I have to agree with you. Rijkaard was a good coach if a little too idealistic--though he did get us the Champions League Title, didn't he. And, without hesitation, Frank is a good man.

Linda said...

Hi! No, I'm still around, still following Barca obsessively, just a little too exhausted to write about it all.

Frank had his flaws, but I can't fault the way he approached the job. And plus, we will always have Paris. :)