When legendary Dutch midfielder Frank Rijkaard left the pitch after the Netherlands’ 2-1 defeat of Saudi Arabia at the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™, little could he have imagined that 17 years later he would be head coach of the Gulf nation. But after a long and distinguished playing career, followed by coaching stints with the Netherlands, Sparta Rotterdam, Barcelona and Galatasaray, the 49-year-old has made his way to west Asia to take on the task of shepherding the Saudi side to Brazil 2014.
It would appear he has his work cut out for him. Halfway through the third round of Asian Zone qualifying his team is yet to record a victory, following draws against Group D rivals Oman and Thailand and a home defeat against Australia. And the four-time FIFA World Cup finalists have little margin for error as they trail section leaders Australia by seven points, and second-placed Thailand by two, with just three group matches remaining.
Speaking to FIFA.com, the iconic Dutchman discussed his reasons for moving to Saudi Arabia, his verdict on football in the country and what needs to be done if they are to make it to Brazil 2014.
FIFA.com: It is very interesting that you chose to coach Saudi Arabia. What was it about the job that appealed to you and what’s your view on the standard of football currently being played in the country?
Frank Rijkaard: I was in negotiations with a number of teams when the Saudi Football Association made me a great offer. For me, the real goal and challenge with this side is to qualify for the World Cup in Brazil, plus the FA are keen to put in place a long-term plan to lay the foundations for the future of the game in Saudi Arabia. I’m a little more familiar with Saudi football now and I can say that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done, both on the field and in terms of the game’s administration.
The national team got off to a slow start in the third round of Asian Zone qualifying for Brazil 2014. Why was that?
A slow start is about right. Our first game was away to Oman and we got a scoreless draw, but if you bear in mind that we lost our previous two games against them, then it wasn’t a bad result. Our second match was against Australia and it became pretty obvious why they are ranked 20 in the world and we are somewhere in the nineties. They played better than us. They were simply the better side. Our domestic season had not started when we played them and the fixture came just after Ramadan, so we weren’t in the best shape.
Your job with Saudi Arabia is your first experience of football outside Europe. How do you rate the game in Asia?
Some of the Asian countries have come on a long way. The countries that are well-organised, have good infrastructures and well thought-out training programs at youth level are the ones leading the way in this part of the world.
Let’s talk about the Netherlands side you coached at UEFA EURO 2000. How were they different to the current Dutch team?
That’s about 12 years ago, to start with, which means new players and a different style of play. Most of the guys who played in EURO 2000 are retired now. We came within touching distance of the final but we couldn’t get over the line. The current side, on the other hand, have a real chance of winning a major competition if they can keep putting on the sort of performances they showed at the last World Cup.
Did the Netherlands’ performance at South Africa 2010 surprise you?
On the contrary, it wasn’t the least bit surprising. The Netherlands can beat any side in the world on their day. The main reason for their success is the sheer talent of the new generation of players, their great team spirit, and the desire to go down in the annals of Dutch football by winning a major trophy.
Did you watch the FIFA World Cup in South Africa? Given that you played in two editions of the competition yourself, how did you rate it?
I was there on the terraces in South Africa! When I was lucky enough to get tickets to a Netherlands game I would watch it as a fan, but if I couldn’t I would just reminisce about my days as a player. I ended up watching a lot of games and enjoying the amazing quality on display.
You were part of the Netherlands side that won EURO 1988. Do you think the current team can repeat the feat at next year’s tournament?
To be honest, yes. It’s easier to say than do, of course, but I think they can. Everything has to be in place for it to happen and you need a bit of luck into the bargain, but if they can preserve that great team spirit of theirs then it is definitely possible.
They have had a lot of success recently, but can the Netherlands unearth the new talents required to maintain this level of performance and quality of play?
Of course. The Netherlands is well known for producing special young players who go on to star at international level. Between them, Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff laid the foundations for the Netherlands’ infrastructure and expertise at nurturing young talent.