It's been nearly a year since Frank Rijkaard departed the limelight and the Dutch legend has had ample time since to reflect on his tenure in charge of Barcelona. Although he refuses to dwell on the events that surrounded his final days with the Catalan giants, he remains a man with an opinion on a great many issues affecting the world of football.
As he relaxes in a restaurant at Wits University in Johannesburg ahead of his exclusive interview with FIFA.com, Rijkaard responds to waves from admirers with a relaxed grin and a nod. Mention Barcelona to the Dutchman, and his face immediately lights up. However, he proved just as ready to share his views on South Africa, the forthcoming FIFA Confederations Cup and FIFA World Cup™, and his own future.
FIFA.com: Is this your first time in South Africa and what are your impressions?
Frank Rijkaard: No, I have been in South Africa twice before. Actually, I came here with Barcelona when we played one of the local teams, (Mamelodi) Sundowns. I was so impressed with the atmosphere at the stadiums. Although we were not here for a long time, we enjoyed our stay. Some of the squad got to meet Nelson Mandela and that was great. But what I have noticed about South Africans is that they are generally very friendly people, you see a lot of smiling faces on the streets and that is good. Unfortunately for me, I haven't had time to explore the country. Most of the time, it's between being on the field and then driving to the hotel. That is sad, because I have had heard a lot of positive things about some great places in this country.
In June, South Africa will host the FIFA Confederations Cup. Who is your pick to win the tournament?
(pauses) That's a tough one. I can think of Brazil, they are a great team and have some good players. They are always hungry to win because they have demanding fans who always follow them all over the world and they want to see them winning. That makes them dangerous and they cannot be written off. But then again, you have Spain, they have been looking good lately, they are the team on-form. You also have a team like Egypt, who are not predictable. I don't know much about South Africa, but I believe that any country that plays a big tournament at home has a point to prove. The South African team might surprise people and they can't be underestimated.
How do you think African countries will fare in 2010 FIFA World Cup?
Africa has produced some good players. The teams from Africa have matured: you have Côte d'Ivoire who are a good team. Cameroon are good to watch, so are Nigeria. Then Egypt are African champions, so anything is possible. I won't really rule out any of the sides.
Do you ever consider becoming a national team coach again?
(laughs) I was once in charge of the Dutch team - and then I was introduced to club football! At the moment, no, I think I enjoy coaching at club level. But in football you never say never, you never close the door.
Barcelona are in the final of the UEFA Champions League. How do you fancy their chances against Manchester United in Rome?
This final is extraordinary, it features two of the world's best teams. It's going to be a very interesting game to watch. You have some of the world's best players playing against each other. Manchester United have been looking good lately. They have Cristiano Ronaldo, a good quality player who is able to win games for them. But there is Barcelona, they play beautiful football. They are good and are attack-minded. I think it's going to be about goals, and more goals. However, if Barcelona defend well, I think they can beat United. If they can keep their shape and not make mistakes, then I can't see how they can lose it. But this is football, you never know.
People are raving about Lionel Messi. Just how good is he?
He is an exceptional kid. I saw him a few years ago and I was amazed with what he could do with the ball. The way he handles and controls the ball is outstanding and very few people can do that. Messi is still very young and that is good news, because that means he can only get better as a footballer. Football should make people happy and that is what Messi does: he makes people happy, he makes people enjoy the game. I like him a lot.
It was during your early years at Barcelona that Ronaldinho flourished. Do you think he can return to his best?
Ronaldinho is another special player, probably amongst the most talented players I have worked with. At Barcelona, he was outstanding. His dazzling skills and his movement on and off the ball was remarkable. I hear some people say he will never be able to rediscover that form, but I don't think that's correct. He needs to refocus on his game, he needs to get his mind on his game and then I have no doubt that he can be at his best again. Like Messi, he brings so much happiness to football.
Can you single out the best player you have ever worked with?
That's a hard one, I have been fortunate because I have worked with some of the most remarkably talented individuals in the world. At Barcelona, I was exposed to talent. You had Ronaldinho, who was a marvel to watch. Deco is skilful and talented. Then there are players like Xavi, a good and hardworking man who gave his all. Iniesta is another. Then the name of Messi will come up in that list. I think it's unfair for me to single out one individual; there are other players I haven't mentioned, players I respect.
You had a great career both as a player and a manager. Who had the biggest influence in your football career?
There are lot of people, but maybe I can mention someone like Johan Cruyff. I remember watching him as a kid when he was playing for Ajax, I admired him a lot. Then he came in to coach me at Ajax, that was a great moment for me and I learned so much under him. He had so much knowledge and respect for the game.
There has been a lot of speculations about your future. Have you made up your mind about your next move?
My future? Well, there will always be speculation. The newspapers will always make their predictions. But as for me, I can't say exactly where I will end up. I can't talk about that now, maybe in the next few weeks. I don't want to fuel the speculation. I respect all the coaches in the game, I can't say I want to go to that particular club, because at the moment that particular club might have a manager and I have respect for fellow coaches. But if someone comes up with an offer, then we can talk. I still want to coach, but at the right time. I still want to coach at club level, but if something else comes, then we will deal with it.