Tuesday night at the Camp Nou. FC Barcelona have just beaten Celtic and 75,000 fans donning Barca colours erupt with ecstasy. And why shouldn’t they? After all, the premier institution of Barcelona, the symbol and representation of all that is Catalan (and more importantly all that is anti-Madrid) is now in the last 8 of the UEFA Champions League.
Yet there was one man who seemed distant from the celebrations. The customary smile, a clench of the fists, a few seconds of applause, the hurried handshakes and then the swiftly and quietly given post-match press conference and that was all. End of game, end of story. His controlled self-expression doesn’t imply that he doesn’t care – in fact, he cares deeply and perhaps more than anyone else – but it is simply that he remains outwardly passive.
It is Frank Rijkaard’s nature not to demonstrate any sign of excitement either in times of merriment or in periods of doldrums. Yet no one can deny that the 45 year old Dutchman with the quiet demeanor of a priest about to say his Sunday prayers has been at the very heart of the rehabilitation that Barca have undergone since 2003. It has been Rijkaard who has breathed in a new life into the sapless Barcelona life-tree that was once even threatening to die.
When Frank Rijkaard was appointed the coach of Barcelona in 2003, a number of doubts cropped up. The former AC Milan and Netherlands defender didn’t possess much of a club football management pedigree at the time, had been in charge of the first team of any club just once and that too in 2001-2002 at Sparta Rotterdam who got relegated from the Dutch Eridivisie under Rijkaard. And he was ushered into the hotseat at the Barcelona cathedral only after new President Joan Laporta failed to convince Guus Hiddink and Ronald Koeman to hold reigns over what was then a sensationally collapsing football institution.
And boy, hasn’t Rijkaard controlled Barcelona’s reigns since then! However, he did take his time and in his first few games he did manage to fuel the doubts and apprehensions of the Barca faithful. Yet bit by bit, card by card, piece by piece, Frank Rijkaard pulled the jigsaw pieces into their right places and by the end of the 2003-2004 season he had steered Barcelona from an impossible relegation position to second in the league with 9 successive wins built around his compatriot Edgar Davids at the heart of midfield. That after getting dumped 3-0 by Real Madrid in December 2003 and after eventually overtaking them in the last phase of the title chase.
For the next two seasons, Barcelona were the best team anywhere in Europe, even better than the slick and silky 49-game-unbeaten Arsenal side. Not only did Barca win two successive La Liga titles in 2004-2005 and 2005-2006 but they did so in ever so convincing and peremptory a fashion. For 2003-2004 Rijkaard already had Ronaldinho, who like the coach himself was drafted into the Barcelona unit only as a second choice after the David Beckham show-pony rallied to the Bernabeu, and for next season he signed the likes of Deco, Samuel Eto’o, Edmilson and Rafael Marquez, all of whom would prove to be priceless in Barca’s revival of the good, old days of the 1990s.
While in the Premiership a certain Roman Abramovich-inspired and Jose Mourinho-managed Chelsea were winning by playing only half-decent football, in the north east of Spain Barca were winning by entertaining even the opponents. There in Catalonia they prefer losing by playing attractive football to winning ugly and Rijkaard was actually making his team win by playing very, very, very relishing football.
Barcelona scored 73 goals in 2004-2005 and finished 4 points ahead of second placed Real Madrid and in the next season the Blaugranes hit the back of the net 80 times and had a massive 12 point gap between them and Real Madrid in second. In 2006, Barcelona clinched the Champions League too for only the second time in their entire history and were clearly the best and most attractive side in the competition. Ronaldinho was the best player in the world, Eto’o was the best striker and Lionel Messi was the best teenager. It seemed that the good times would never ever end.
Only that they did, just as all good times do. Last season Barcelona failed to win any major trophy and didn’t even reach the last 8 of the Champions League and this season they have continued on a not so very convincing note. And just as in victory the coach was being hailed as the architect, in defeat too Frank Rijkaard was labeled as the weak link in the Barcelona downslide. His passiveness and calmness under intense pressure that were once the subject of massive admiration soon transmuted as the real reason behind the persistent dressing room bust-ups.
When in February last year in a La Liga match against Racing Santander Rijkaard called for Eto’o to make his appearance as a substitute, the Cameroonian international striker didn’t oblige. He simply did the warm-up and then returned to the dug-out rendering Rijkaard to fumble, “He did not want to come on, I don’t know why” which invited this retort from Eto’o: “Telling a news conference I didn’t want to play is the behavior of a bad person.” Ronaldinho decided to side with his coach and said something similar about Eto’o’s actions that day and a fracture between them was conceived which still simmers just beneath the surface even though the duo embraced each other in front of cameras immediate to the spit-spat in a perfectly synchronized Truman Burbank Show.
Rijkaard was passive in his response at the time and this was then observed as a weakness. After all, when Sir Alex Ferguson gets furious he throws boots (read the David Beckham incident) and when Fabio Capello gets frustrated he kicks out players from the club altogether (read Ronaldo’s sale to AC Milan in January 2007). The likes of Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o had transcended from being world class footballers to world renowned celebrities and superstars in their tenure at Camp Nou and Rijkaard, it appeared, was failing to control his players.
But somehow this notion doesn’t hold water (Rijkaard has already dropped Ronaldinho even though he tolerated the Brazilian ace’s frequent absence from the training sessions last season) and neither does the media-ridden blasting of the current Barcelona team as a bunch of Real Madrid-esque galacticos heading just where the Madrid circus headed: straight into the bin. True, Ronaldinho, Eto’o, Deco, Messi are now global icons and the signing of Thierry Henry for £16.1 million from Arsenal last summer was a touch of glamour not necessary but it is naÃ¯ve to compare Barca’s current plight, if we may be pardoned to call it so, to that of the Real Madrid giants.
After all, Ronnie, Messi, Eto’o et al all developed into superstars and sort of galacticos at Barcelona and are not a bunch of gems lavishly imported from some foreign shore. It is here that most people tend to misread the situation and jump into the galacticos-blasting bandwagon. What happened at Real Madrid was that the culprit Florentino Perez threw the jigsaw pieces at his coaches and asked them to solve the puzzle not realizing that the pieces wouldn’t ever fit. At Barca this is not the case at all.
But Rijkaard does have his flaws and those are mostly in his tactics, or the lack of them. He was using a 4-3-2-1 formation earlier in his tenure at the club and now is pretty much obstinate on the 4-3-3 system. The system is so rigid that players do not tend to play cohesively when their formation has to be altered during matches and although the formation does allow more freedom for his attack-minded players to weave their creativity, it doesn’t quite compensate for the more than occasional gap in the midfield which their opponents can exploit on the counter-attack. Moreover, the players do not appear to be physically as strong as they should be. Barca, or rather Rijkaard, lacks a Plan B and the man who could have provided with alternatives, Henk ten Cate, is now at Chelsea.
At the moment, the Catalans are in a healthy position in terms of winning trophies. They are 5 points behind league leaders Real Madrid in La Liga, just one match away from a Copa Del Rey final appearance and are in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. So there is a distinct possibility, if not a probability, that they could win all the three competitions and there is also a distinct possibility, if not a probability, that they could fail to win any of the three competitions. At any rate, Rijkaard would be held responsible by the media foxes and that wouldn’t be fair to the man who shaped the resurgence of FC Barcelona.
Frank Rijkaard should stay at Barcelona beyond the summer. Yes, quite a few changes need to be wrung at Camp Nou but those changes shouldn’t come anywhere near the 50-mile radius of the managerial office. But the harsh, naked truth is that should Barca once again end up barren-handed this season, the manager will be chucked out.