Despite his considerable achievements as player and coach, Frank Rijkaard is far from complacent about the challenge he faces in the Saudi Arabia hot-seat. With Barcelona's iconic cantera as his model, the Dutchman is aiming to lay the foundations of future success by focusing on the Gulf Kingdom's finest young talent.
As 2012 draws to a close, FIFA.com met with the former Netherlands and Barça boss to discuss his plans for the Saudis, his memories of Catalonia and who he thinks will win this year’s FIFA Ballon d’Or.
FIFA.com: Frank, it’s been almost a year since you took over as Saudi Arabia coach. How has it been so far?
Frank Rijkaard: It hasn’t been easy, but we knew that from the outset. I think that our last two matches have seen us break free of a vicious circle of bad results, with a late win over Congo and a great performance in holding Argentina to a draw. This means we can start looking forward.
In a previous interview with FIFA.com you said there was plan in place for the future of Saudi football, and that it was based on youth. How is it working out?
Like we wanted it to. Lots of people are putting in a lot of hard work. We’ve got Spanish coaches who are working on a daily basis and a lot of great stuff is being done with younger players, starting at around age 12. It’s all excellent, but of course one shouldn’t expect to see the benefits tomorrow. These players are only ten or 12 years old and it will be another decade before the results come through. That said, this has to be done. Look at Japan for instance. Ten years ago they started working on a similar plan and now they are enjoying success from that. Success is built on organisation, determination and experience, not to mention following the regulations, so of course it’s no easy matter.
Saudi Arabia exited in the third round of Asian Zone qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. Has the squad’s disappointment at missing out on a second successive edition of the tournament subsided at all?
To be perfectly honest, I’ve no idea. We’ve recently started placing more and more responsibility on the shoulders of younger and less experienced players, like the team that faced Australia in the last match of our qualifying campaign. We are trying to create a blend of youth and experience, as I said before, and given the recent results against Congo and Argentina (3-2 and 0-0 respectively) it looks like we can create something new here.
Let’s talk about UEFA EURO 2012. Did the Netherland’s early exit surprise you and what is your take on their lack of form?
No-one expected it before the tournament, but during the competition it became clear that all was not well with Dutch team. This is football, and if you’re not in the right place at the right time and you don’t perform well then things like this are going to happen. That’s the beauty of the game. Unfortunately it happened to the Netherlands this time, but it can happen to anyone.
You spent five years as coach of Barcelona. What are you memories of your time at the club?
Of course, five years is a long time. We went through some tough times and some excellent ones, and it’s only natural to dwell on the positives. I’m happy because I had the chance to work with a major club like Barcelona with so many star players, so I have wonderful memories of the place.
You managed to end a lengthy trophy drought at Barça, with your tenure featuring victories in the UEFA Champions League, La Liga (twice) and two Spanish Super Cups. Would you say you laid the foundations for Barcelona’s recent domination?
Definitely not. I was just passing through. I had a lot of success, of course, but whatever was achieved was due to a group effort on the part of all the players. That said, I must have had a good relationship with the players because otherwise I wouldn’t have won two league titles and the Champions League. Basically, I think it comes down to the fact that Barcelona has for many years immersed its younger players coming through the cantera in the club’s footballing philosophy, helping them create their own football culture. The coach’s role is to acclimatise to this way of playing. It was easy for me because I’m Dutch and I played at Ajax, so once I felt comfortable at the club I had a wonderful time. It’s my belief that Barcelona are successful because they have a number of youth teams alongside the first team. They are where it begins. This is what should happen in Saudi Arabia for example, in terms of creating their own style of football and philosophy. This needs to start in the youth ranks and then we might expect some success in the future. Barcelona didn’t start getting results after just one year. When I arrived there they hadn’t won anything for five years. One needs patience and self-belief.
Barcelona are famous for their eye-catching style of play. If you were coaching a side against them, what tactics would you use?
There’s no magic bullet, but you have to adapt to their style. Most of the clubs who have had success against Barcelona have relied on a highly organised and disciplined defence. Inter Milan and Chelsea have both sent Barcelona out of the Champions League and then you have Real Madrid (who won La Liga in 2011/12). You could call it the ‘Jose Mourinho recipe for success’, which he began while he was at Chelsea. If you play Barcelona that way ten times, you might beat them once, but it certainly doesn’t guarantee success.
After Barcelona you went on to coach Galatasaray in Turkey. What do think of their UEFA Champions League achievements this year?
I’m delighted for them, they’re a huge club with superb fans. When I was there things were different, unfortunately. I couldn’t really achieve anything and I wasn’t able to sign major players, even though we were in dire need of a better side. We started out well enough but fell off by the end because we did not have a strong enough squad. Now Galatasaray have an excellent and united management set-up and have been able to build a strong side, I’m happy for them. It’s really great for them.
You are one of a number of big names tasting coaching in Asia, with Marcello Lippi in China PR and Diego Maradona’s time in UAE, which ended in July 2012, two such examples. Are these personalities helping Asia close the talent gap on the rest of the world?
They are not really helping because these are such short-term projects. You have coaches from major footballing nations who come to work for a year for massive wages, and then they turn it all over to new coaches who have to start from scratch. This doesn’t help football on the continent. What’s needed is a new philosophy, working with the younger age groups to lay the foundations for producing top-quality professional players. Local coaches must receive education and training and qualified people from South America and Europe be brought in who know how to do this. Short-termism is no good: plans must be carried through to the end.
Next Monday the winner of the FIFA Ballon d’Or will be announced. Who do you think will take it?
I'm going for Lionel Messi, because I think he's the best player on the three-man final shortlist and he's performed brilliantly this year.
You have worked alongside Messi. What do you think of him as a man both on and off the pitch?
He’s an incredible person. Messi is not simply a uniquely talented footballer. He’s also strong mentally, very bright and exceptionally dedicated to his job. Personally speaking I enjoy watching him play and I’m deeply proud of him and what he has achieved. Quite simply, he’s the best.