The Black Swan, Frank Rijkaard – The Legacy of Football’s Streetfighting Ballerino

Join us as we follow the steps of Frank Rijkaard, the man whose choreography culminated into the careers of Vieira to Busquets.

Frank Rijkaard

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

These words uttered by Neil Armstrong on the 21st of July, 1969 resound as heavily in this age as they did all the way back then. When the American astronaut became the first human to step on the moon, the world knew something had changed – things would never be the same.

Eleven years later, on the 23rd of August, 1980, a young kid took his first step in a professional football game. Unlike the aforementioned event, however, when Frank Rijkaard, an 18-year-old with a head as full of hair as it was of dreams, made his first appearance in professional football, the world did not know that football was about to change. It was one step that seemed small at the time, but it became one giant leap for the game as we know it today.

The no. 4, the “Volante”. It is not the most glamorous of positions, and you can see why. The primary job of a defensive midfielder is to win the ball back, be it through hard tackling or an intelligent reading of the game. Not everyone understands this position, and hence, not everyone can excel in it. However, not only is a good defensive midfielder the one who breaks down attacks, but he is often also the one who starts off the counter. From defence to attack and calming or increasing the tempo of the game, the importance of this position cannot be emphasised enough – and for that, we have the protagonist of this article to thank.

Why Rijkaard though?

There was the Italy international Marco Tardelli who came a few years ago before the Dutchman did and was world renowned for his skill too. There was also Rainer Bonhof who although not as famous as his Italian counterpart was a great defensive midfielder during the 70’s. “The Black Marvel” Jose Leandro Andrade is another one who comes to mind, as he made his position famous in the early era of football.

Rijkaard’s X-factor that gave him the edge over his earlier compatriots was not only the intelligence he possessed (something that is unrivalled even today), but it was also the fact that he had the luck of playing under one of the most influential managers, and for one of the best teams of all time that helped shaped modern football. The story of Frank Rijkaard and AC Milan is as inseparable as the story of Johan Cruyff and Ajax – one cannot exist without the other. As such, while Tardelli in his prime became one of the best midfielders ever and Andrade made the position relevant in the early 20’s, modern football takes inspiration from the way Rijkaard used the combination of intelligence and physicality to excel in a role that has become so important since.

In a sense, Rijkaard was a shining example of everything that people had come to expect of a top-class Dutch player from that era – intelligence and technicality mixed with flair. Johan Cruyff had paved the way, and the generation that followed took the chance to shine in the light.

Perhaps it is the curse of the defensive midfield position that Rijkaard is not talked about in the same breath as the likes of Zidane and Xavi, as it is a fact that fans tend to romanticise the creator more than the destroyer – after all, there is an instant gratification in watching a threaded through ball find its target rather than be stopped in the middle by a well-positioned player.

It is astounding then, that in an age where Dutch players were mesmerising the world with their fantastic offence, Frank Rijkaard changed the way football worked from a position that was an afterthought for a long time.

First steps

Franklin Edmundo Rijkaard started his professional career in his hometown and at the club that has become famous for producing talent like no other – AFC Ajax. Much like any other talented Dutch midfielder, the youngster drew comparisons to Cruyff in his early days at the club. Although their positions were as dissimilar as possible, both players impacted football for the better even after hanging up their boots. In that sense, nobody comes closer to Cruyff than Rijkaard did.

Aged 18 at the time of his debut, the future Ajax legend went on to make 24 appearances for the club in his debut year and found the back of the net four times in an impressive first season that paved the way for him to be a regular at the club for years to come. His versatility led to Rijkaard playing several defensive and midfield positions in his first season as he gained the trust of his manager and the fans.

Although not as inept at scoring goals as most defensive midfielders, Rijkaard’s prowess came off the ball more than it did on it. Not to say that he was clumsy on the ball, but he was probably the most intelligent active footballer at the time in the way he adapted and paced his game to suit the situation required. As such, if you were to characterise Rijkaard’s beautifully complicated style in one word, it would be just that – economical.

Physicality and a strong tackling style is expected from defensive midfielders as it is a demanding position in that sense, and yet in the words of one Paolo Maldini – “If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake.” Perhaps it is this philosophy that Rijkaard lived by as a player, in the sense that you would be have to be the most talented scout ever to find a player as versatile at the back as he was at that age.

First flight

Ajax won back to back league titles in the next two seasons under Kurt Linder and Aad de Mos, but not everything was peachy. Their rise under Cruyff in the 70s placed some expectations on the club to do well in Europe; however they were expectations that the club could not quite live up to. In addition, Netherlands failed to qualify for 1982 World Cup which raised some questions over the ability of the current crop of players – most infamously, it was de Mos who threw his youngsters under the bus with this quote all the way back in 1982 after a defeat to Celtic in Europe – “You won’t win the war with boys like Rijkaard”.

This surely stuck in the spokes of Rijkaard’s inner workings. He was even offered to Gronigen, a mid-table side, but they were not interested in the 20-year-old. (Egad, Gronigen!) Rijkaard’s character was tested during this time; it is not easy at that age to face the blunt pressure that he was experiencing.

“True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.” – A Google search on the quotes about character, but of course.

Rijkaard took the insult on his prominent jawline, and his game thereafter improved leaps and bounds. While his intelligence was unquestionable and his movement on the pitch never in doubt, the physical attributes of his game still left much to be desired in his early years. De Mos’ words grated him; the youngster now focused more on his strength training. The following two seasons saw Rijkaard score the most goals he has in a single season (9) and in de Mos’ last season in charge, he featured in every single game as Ajax won the Championship and Rijkaard was voted the league’s best player that season. An insult that led to an inspiration, if you will.

Rijkaard is one among a long line of great players who had to a bit of soul searching. During his first stint at the club which lasted for seven and a half seasons, Rijkaard played a variety of positions that included a spell as a centre back for almost three years (where he gained his defensive acumen), one season as a right midfielder, and a last season where he finally shifted to the position that he would come be known for.

Conventional history and pub anecdotes have taught us how some idols are best worshipped from afar. A bust-up with Johan Cruyff, the new manager, saw Rijkaard declaring that he would never play for the former again, and he was subsequently sold to Sporting Lisbon, who loaned him to Zaragoza. Surprisingly, the Dutchman failed to cement a starting place there.

Rijkaard saw some success with the national outfit as he was an integral part of the only Netherlands team ever to have won the Euros. Alongside five of his teammates, he was selected in the overall team of the tournament. Although the Euro 1988 is most famously remembered for the exploits of Marco Van Basten who was nigh untouchable at that point of his career, the central defensive partnership that Rijkaard formed with the brilliant Ronald Koeman would be criminal to ignore in the overall result of the tournament. A jaded domestic season did not stop the former Ajax man from finding himself back in an old position and excelling in it. It was, however, after this tournament that Rijkaard moved to a place where his career, and the role that he was about to take up, would change forever.

South for the winters

Picture this – a defense that consisted of Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta, Mauro Tassotti and Paolo Maldini, combined with the addition of three talented Dutchmen in Van Basten, Gullit and Rijkaard. The AC Milan team under Arrigo Sacchi was your real-life Fantasy Football Team. While the former two Euro 88 winners were signed a season before Rijkaard, and their moves made headlines, Rijkaard’s arrival in Italy was overshadowed by Inter’s signing of the great Lothar Matthaus – not that he really cared. Not that Milan really cared either witnessing what they witnessed – a man who played like he had his shoes on wrong in Spain found his spiritual centre of the universe in Italy.

While he was developing into a great midfielder in the Eredevise, it was Sacchi who saw the importance of the then 26-year-old. Under his tutelage, Rijkaard developed into one of the classiest midfielders of all time.

“…Arrigo Sacchi transformed him into an aggressive, world-class holding midfielder who could score goals, too. Dunga, Desailly, Keane and Vieira all performed that role brilliantly, but Frank is the best holding player ever.”

— Ronald Koeman

All the traits that Rijkaard had were amplified at his time with Milan. What sunlight is to plants, Sacchi was to Rijkaard. For the better part of five seasons, he was the best at his position in the world and he understood the horizons of his role as well as Stephen Hawking understands Event Horizons. Light doesn’t escape black holes, and hopeful balls didn’t escape Rijkaard.

Science 101: In general relativity, an event horizon is a boundary in space-time beyond which events cannot affect an outside observer. In layman’s terms, it is defined as the shell of “points of no return”, i.e., the points at which the gravitational pull becomes so great as to make escape impossible, even for light. Credit: Action Images

Therein comes the brilliance of the player, as not only did he learn to pass between the lines in a way that in the modern-day Sergio Busquets tries to emulate, but his physical presence in the centre of the park went on to inspire generations of midfielders who took up the mantle after him – the most notable of them being Arsenal and France legend, the telescopic Patrick Vieira.

It is said of Rijkaard that he was a man of very few words off the pitch. Some accounts even say that he had struggles with adapting to Milan’s style and as such, he occasionally dozed off in meetings and tactical discussions. Due to cultural differences between the Dutch and the Italian game, Rijkaard was often bemused with Sacchi and the mentality of Italian football as a whole – none of this, however, stopped him from placing third in the Balon D’Or rankings for two consecutive seasons; with Van Basten and Gullit in 1988 he formed an all Milan top three in the list of the best players in the world. The following year, Baresi replaced Gullit as the feat was recreated – it would take 21 years before the Barcelona trifecta of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta repeated this accomplishment.

AC Milan’s Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten and Frank Rijkaard

It would be a struggle to think of a deep-lying midfielder making the top 3 in today’s footballing world, and it was almost as hard back then when Rijkaard did it in his very first season at Milan. Clearly, napping in some of the tactical meetings did not affect Rijkaard’s game much. His intelligence on the pitch made due.

With Rijkaard pulling the strings of his team while cutting off the strings of his opponents, like a phantom of the puppet show, Van Basten wreaking havoc up front, and the accomplished Italian defence at the back, Milan won two European Cups back to back – the last team to achieve this feat. Scoring in the final against Benfica in 1990, Rijkaard wasn’t a boy any longer.

The Rossoneri were an athletic and tactically adept team that refined the modern pressing game as we know it. Many modern day teams have taken inspiration from the way that the Milan under Sacchi used to play, and at the centre of all that was Rijkaard. Without his movement and swift passage of play that saw some dangerous counter attacks from Milan, the team would not have been the same, despite the heroics of Van Basten and company. With Rijkaard turnover of possession in the middle, his teammates already gained an advantage of half-a-stride or more, positionally. Try and imagine a modern game – the clinical, cloak and dagger, counter-attacking football that we love. Rijkaard and his un-glamourous brotherhood of defensive midfielders are to thank. In the way Total Football wouldn’t have been possible at Ajax without the timely interceptions of Neeskens and Vasovic, the Catenaccio at Milan wouldn’t have been sustained without the Dutchman.

The Neurotic Oranje

In the divine comedy that is Dutch International football, following his and national team’s 1988 success at the Euros, the next two major tournaments were embarrassing for Rijkaard personally. In a match against rivals West Germany in the 1990 World Cup, Rijkaard was sent off at San Siro – the place he was considered a hero. He spat at Rudi Voller. Twice.

Rijkaard’s final appearance for the national team came in 1994 against eventual winners Brazil in the quarter-final.

Center Stage

Sacchi departed to manage the Italian football team in 1991, and Fabio Capello took over at Milan. In his very first season in charge, the Scudetto returned to Milan as the team went unbeaten in the league to clinch their first league title in four years, and this also marked Rijkaard’s first league triumph in Italy. The three Dutchmen continued to light up Italy with their flair and finesse, and although Van Basten was still the prolific goalscoring beast that he had always been (he scored an astonishing 38 goals in his last 46 league games for Milan), Rijkaard shined bright in that memorable team and was rewarded the Serie A Player of the Year and Best Foreign Player in 1992. A player from his position winning a coveted award like that was unimaginable and was a testament to his greatness – imagine Luka Modric or Sergio Busquets winning the best Liga Player Award over Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi.

It is even more impressive because, by all accounts, Rijkaard did not care about individual accolades and rarely spoke much. The modern fan has been used to Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira fighting to the death and shouting till kingdom come. Not Rijkaard, who is remembered for not how much he shouted, but for how well he played. His passes spoke louder than his words. If he were involved in a grudge match where he and his rival came off with each other’s stud marks on their shins for autographs, Rijkaard would probably be having a drink with his opponent a few minutes later. Well, maybe, not with Rudi Voller.

Encore

Ajax called, and the prodigal son came. Louis Van Gaal lured Rijkaard back to his hometown after the 92-93 season which saw the midfielder win one more Serie A title, as at the age of 31, the Dutch international returned to his roots in what would be his final years as a player.

Rijkaard was made to partner with Danny Blind, 32, at the back. Through his earlier experience at that position and his elevated skill set thanks to his tenure at Milan, the European Cup winner fared greatly at that position and in his first season back, Ajax won the league comfortably, having conceded less and scored more than any other team in Eredivisie. At his age, where often stars start to fade into oblivion, Rijkaard was able to stand tall amidst the youth so as to almost say – “I’m not finished yet.”

The next season, Ajax did one better as they went on to win the league unbeaten – meaning that Rijkaard became the first ever player to win two different leagues unbeaten as a player. This domestic form continued in Europe as Ajax thrashed Bayern Munich in the semi-finals and in the final, Rijkaard went against his old club Milan. Patrick Kluivert scored the winner with five minutes to go as Rijkaard won his third European Cup, and at the age of 33, he felt that he had ascended and peaked – he decided there could not be a better note to go out on, and retired shortly afterwards.

Since moving to Milan and ending his career with the team he grew up loving, the seven years of Rijkaard’s career were one of the best ever for any player. Racking up individual honours from his position alongside winning a trophy every season bar one, the Dutch international hung up his boots on a high and gave everything he had to the game he loved.

Frank Rijkaard’s Legacy

With Sacchi’s team and tactics having inspired coaches to this day, every player from that team has been scrutinised. While it is impossible to replicate the genius of Van Basten or Maldini without having the natural talent that comes along once in a lifetime, Rijkaard’s movement on the pitch and his intelligent style of play is something youngsters can get behind. It does not stop there, as even his reinvention to a centre back in his twilight years and his development from a defender to one of the greatest defensive midfielders ever is the stuff of legend. After all, how many great players have tried to play in a different position in their later years and failed? Steven Gerrard could not do it, Wayne Rooney has failed miserably at a position he was asked to play in that was majorly out of his comfort zone.

Milan's Patrick Vieira takes the ball off Bordeaux's Zidane during the CL Quarter Final 1st leg.
Milan’s Patrick Vieira takes the ball off Bordeaux’s Zidane during the CL Quarter Final 1st leg.

In an age where talent comes at a hefty price and every turn and pass is scrutinised, it is more important than ever before to keep a clear head. When De Mos criticised Rijkaard all the way back in 1982, the youngster’s cool head prevailed over what could possibly have been resent and dismay (Luke Shaw and Mourinho, anyone). Not only are Rijkaard’s on-pitch performances a talking point, it is the way he thought and carried himself off it that made him the player he was, and is equally important in that regard.

A perfect mixture of the right amount of physical presence combined with the vision and technique of a maestro, Rijkaard was a genius who could have walked into any team in the world at his prime and not have looked out of place. Much like Andrea Pirlo or Xavi Hernandez, it is only the curse of his position that makes people mention the others more – after all, threading passes after breaking up an attack is not as visually appealing as a well thought out through ball to your forward for the majority. Again, not that Rijkaard would mind…a two time Dutch Footballer of the Year, a Hall of Fame place in AC Milan, a place in the FIFA 100.


 

Why write about Rijkaard? And not, say, Dunga?

While the game is beautiful due to the presence of all the Van Bastens and the Messis, it would be lost without the Rijkaards of this world.

Rudi van Dantzig of the Netherlands Ballet draws this parallel: ‘Before the sixties, people were interested in theatre and music and literature but not dance. And then all of a sudden came this intense interest in bodily virtuosity: in football and dance. The theatres were suddenly full and there was a fanatical following for dance. The young generation didn’t want a grey society any more. You could feel this explosion of being alive and kicking and moving. Of finding our feet, throwing off the old restraints.

– The Brilliant Orange, David Winner

Next time you see Busquest or Emre Can doing the pirouette on an ESPN or Sky Sports highlight reel, consider Rijkaard, with all his grace, agility, poise and power, as football’s frontier ballerino.

Taha Memon

20 year old who likes everything black and white - especially football. Liverpool fan, aspiring journalist, comic enthusiast, and a TV show buff.