Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink's smile is infectious. During his playing career though, the defenders he left in his wake during remarkable spells in England, Spain and Portugal did anything but grin. Hasselbaink was top scorer in the English Premier League twice, with Leeds United and Chelsea, and grabbed 24 Spanish La Liga goals in a struggling Atletico Madrid side.
His footballing story is one of perseverance and hard work. Facing rejection in his adopted homeland of the Netherlands, he secured a professional deal in Portugal and never looked back. Hasselbaink appeared at the 1998 FIFA World Cup™ and earned over 20 international caps despite his relatively late start and the stellar competition he faced up front for the national side.
The 41-year-old is now in his first managerial role at Belgium's oldest club, Royal Antwerp, having taken over during the summer. In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, the former Chelsea and Atleti forward spoke about his World Cup regrets, his managerial philosophy, the rise of Belgian football and the Netherlands' hopes of success at Brazil 2014.
FIFA.com: How are you finding life in Belgium, and in management?
Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink: I can’t complain. I have a group that I’m really happy with. We have a lot of new players and at this moment our position is OK, it’s not great but we are still a work in progress – definitely not the finished article. When you have lots of new players in your team that means you’re going to have a lot of good matches but also a few that are not so good. We are going through a tricky spell at the moment but we are working really hard to get out of it.
Antwerp have a history of links to English football through Manchester United. What’s your working relationship like, and are you in contact with David Moyes?
We are in contact with each other, not daily or weekly, but at the beginning of the season I spoke to David Moyes and Warren Joyce (United’s U-21 coach). We have Davide Petrucci (on loan) and we talk every so often about what we’re going to do in January. The work between the two clubs is still there and we are trying to make that stronger.
Your squad’s average age is fairly young (approximately 22 years old). Is that a policy of yours or does the club promote young footballers?
It was my policy. Last season didn’t go that well so I wanted to bring in younger blood and also put the club in a more secure position financially and that’s what we have done. The club looks a lot healthier than last year and it has got a lot of good young players that bring a lot of good assets to the club. The club is now in a healthier situation and we are trying to get it even healthier still. They are all my children, they are all my sons! There is a lot of talent and to be working with this group is great for me. It is very good at the moment here in Belgium.
Belgium are one of the sides seeded in the World Cup draw. Are there any sides you would like the Netherlands to avoid in the draw?
You don’t want to play Brazil because they are hosting. Argentina and Germany are always difficult. It’s a special match with Belgium, so we really don’t want to play them either. In 1998, I played Belgium and while we had the better team, Belgium still drew because we are neighbours and we always try to outdo each other. At the moment, Belgium has a better squad than us so you want to avoid them. Those four teams, if you can avoid them as long as possible then you have got a chance.
Robin van Persie has just overtaken you as the top-scoring Dutchman in the Premier League. How vital is he to the Netherlands’ hopes next summer?
It’s not bad to be overtaken by Robin van Persie, not bad at all. He is vital for Dutch football, because he is our main striker and goalscorer - somebody who brings something special. He is very important for us. However, I don't see [the Netherlands] as favourites, I don’t think that they have enough. I think if they can get to the quarter-finals they will have done well.
How do you assess your own international career? You played in a time of fierce competition with Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Kluivert, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Roy Makaay.
I was happy to have played as many matches as I did because there was a lot of talent. Sometimes you can have too much talent and then the best doesn’t come out. Sometimes it’s better to have a little less talent but a team that is very, very tight and very strong. It’s about the team.
How much did it mean to you to play at the 1998 FIFA World Cup?
That’s the best thing ever for a football player, that’s what you play for. It’s the highest level and that’s what every footballer wants to achieve. We should have won that tournament. We lost to Brazil in the semi-final on penalties but we should have won it. It is a big regret, but when you go to penalties it’s always 50-50.
At the start of your career, you left AZ in Holland, played non-league football and then came to prominence in Portugal. How did that move to Portugal come about?
An agent asked if I wanted to go on trial, I went over there and they took me. Simple as that. My time at Boavista was great as well. I still have lots of friends over there and I still go to Portugal once in a while and speak a little bit of Portuguese too.
You left Chelsea just as Jose Mourinho came in. Do you think he can guide Chelsea to the Premier League this season?
For sure, if anybody can guide Chelsea to the Premier League, it’s Jose Mourinho. The only thing is that this job is totally different to when he first came to Chelsea. He’s got lots of young players, he has to start all over again and bring in a structure. He has to integrate a lot of people, put his beliefs on to them and that will take a little bit of time before that team is a Jose Mourinho team. But I do think that they will become champions.
You had a remarkable single season with Atletico Madrid. You must be happy to see the club doing so well at the moment?
They’re magnificent. I watch them quite a lot and [Diego] Simeone is doing an unbelievable job. He’s got them playing really well, some great football but they are very much a team, working together. You can see he’s got them thinking as a team, which is very important. I like Diego Costa because he plays with a kind of anger and aggression that I really like. You can’t mess about with him. He scores goals, he’s so quick and just a nightmare for defenders.