Fighting Spirit – Fernando Ricksen locked in battle of a different kind
Unpredictable, erratic, crazy, brilliant, entertaining and funny, it’s very rare you could pick all of those words to describe a single person but those are only some of the adjectives you would use to profile Fernando Ricksen.
This week, the former Rangers and Zenit St Petersburg player was in Glasgow to release his autobiography in English, in which he depicts himself as both the villain and the hero in a gripping and thrilling read full of tales of sex, drugs and alcohol with a bit of football in there just for good measure.
“When we started he said ‘when we write the book, we have to go all the way’,” the book’s ghostwriter Vincent de Vries says at the UK unveiling. And they certainly did. The highs, the lows, the madness, the brilliance, that night with Katie Price, all those fights, it’s all there. Well, you would think it’s all there, but De Vries insists about 50% of what Ricksen told him in their 20 or so two hour sessions actually made it into print.
“The book is almost double the size of a normal biography because the stories and anecdotes are so special,” De Vries adds. “Normally one person doesn’t do so much in a life. So it’s about three or four different lives in one.”
He’s got that right. You only need to read a few pages before you realise how quiet a life you’ve had in comparison.
The autobiography is aptly named Fighting Spirit. The perfect title for the life story of such a man. It is something Fernando has relied upon throughout his life and career as a professional footballer. He simply embodied it. On the park and off of it.
“If they say no, I say yes. If they say it’s impossible, I make it possible,” he says, reflecting on the book and his time at Rangers, summing his character up perfectly.
The relevance of the title though has, of course, increased immensely in the last seven months with his ongoing suffering of Motor Neurone Disease after his diagnosis at the age of 37.
While he has difficulty speaking, he still looks physically fit and strong.
“At the moment I’m feeling good. I’m not getting better, but most importantly, I’m not getting worse,” he says.
Typical Fernando, he’s still not ready to let it get the best of him.
A deeply troubled and controversial figure, there were as many lows in Ricksen’s career as there were highs. It was one full of extremes, good and bad.
“‘Is it nice being Fernando Ricksen?’ That’s another thing people sometimes ask me,” he recalls in Fighting Spirit. “Depends on your perception of ‘nice’, is my standard answer. If you like an extreme life with very high highs and very low lows then yes, it was great fun to be me. But it was heavy at times, very heavy. That’s why you can only handle it if you’re blessed with the right spirit. A Fighting Spirit.”
Everybody in Scotland has at least one big memory of Fernando. For many it’s that fantastic header in the away match against Celtic, for others it’s one of the many tales of debauchery and promiscuity, while some might point to the fights with Alan Thompson. It just goes to show how erratic he was. Whatever your favourite story of him is, you’ll find it and most likely an even better one in the book.
Ricksen is synonymous with controversy, but because of that, it is often forgotten that despite his troubles, alcoholism and general craziness, the Dutchman was always a good player. One with good technical ability, pace and a fantastic shot.
As a teenager he played a crucial role in Fortuna Sittard’s title win in the second tier of Dutch football before impressing Netherlands legend Willem van Hanegem enough to earn a move to AZ and win it with them as well.
That was merely the beginning of an illustrious career in which he went on to win two SPL titles, two Scottish Cups and three Scottish League Cups with Rangers as well as a Uefa Cup, a Uefa Super Cup, a Russian League title and a Russian Super Cup during his time with Zenit St Petersburg. And throughout it all, he earned 12 caps with the Dutch national team. That’s certainly not the CV of an average player.
However, with the trophies came the alcohol problems, the violence, problems with the law, with family, more alcohol problems and drugs too.
The latter is something he found most difficult to talk about in the writing of his autobiography but did so to get it all out in the open.
“I only told Vincent about that one month before the deadline because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to put it in. Nobody in the world knew about it other than me, my lawyer and Zenit. We had everybody keep it quiet.”
He goes into great detail about the problem, revealing that it stemmed from the depression that came with being left out of the Zenit team, having been given a lot of free time and a great deal of cash, as he reveals in the book:
“In 2008 I made eight appearances, most of them as a substitute. In 2009, zero. Zilch. And I still made truckloads of money. It made me depressed. So I took the next step into hell. In order to feel better I now turned to drugs. Booze on its own didn’t do the trick anymore…
“I was swallowing pills during the season… I took a huge shot in the dark here. But I didn’t care. It was now my way of surviving. And it wasn’t just pills. Because of the shit I was in, I started shoving Charlie up my nose too. Yup, cocaine. Complimentary stuff from some Russian gangsters I’d befriended. I was going more and more off the rails.
“Suicide wasn’t an option. Are you kidding me? My life was in pieces, but thanks to the coke and the booze and the cash and the girls I still had a hell of a time. I was having heaps of fun.
“Money was also the root of my downfall. I sometimes think that if I hadn’t had all that cash, things might have been better. But who knows?”
Despite all the issues, the difficulties, the controversies and the ‘what might have been?’ aspect, he knows exactly where the blame lies, as he writes:
“I could blame a lot of people for the lows in my life… I could blame various trainers, for not letting me play. I could blame my friends, for giving me cocaine. But that wouldn’t be fair. I am the only one to blame. I messed things up so much. It was me, and only me!”
That he is so open, honest and self-critical in the book is what makes it so refreshing. Throughout it, Ricksen admits to mistakes and is completely open about his issues as he lays his life out for all to see and De Vries has done a remarkable job to allow the former defender’s personality and character shine through.
“It was his life,” De Vries says. “Some moments we were laughing, but some bits were emotional because he talks about some negative things as well. That’s nice from Fernando. Some people, when they talk about themselves in a negative way, they don’t like to talk about it, but Fernando said ‘I want to talk about everything; not only the nice things, but also the bad things’.”
Ricksen pipes in: “I tell the stories but he wrote it down. Vincent wrote it in such a way that is definitely me. I’m happy that he was the man to do it.”
Since the book’s release in Holland late last year, Fernando has finally been tied down. Gone are the days of a night with Katie Price or living with four Russian strippers – as he rightly brags about in the book – as he has tied the knot with Veronika, with whom he has a young daughter, Isabella. The untameable Ricksen has indeed been tamed.
So, does family life suit him?
“I’m just happy she wanted to marry me!” he chuckles. “I’ve never been so happy. Even with everything I have, I feel happier these days.
“We just came back from holiday in Turkey last week, we’re going away again somewhere soon, every day we go somewhere like the cinema or the zoo, I spend as much time as possible with them.”
He goes further in his book: “I have Veronika and that is enough. My womanising days are over; for that reason you won’t see me in bars or clubs. It was fun, but it’s all in the past now. Besides, gold-diggers aren’t interested in me now that I’m on normal wages!”
He has changed in a few ways since his time in Scotland and the nation’s attitude towards him has altered as well.
The tributes flow in whenever Fernando is the subject of discussion here. While he was a divisive character anywhere he went, he was never more so than when he was in Scotland. Rangers fans loved him, Celtic fans hated him, everyone else fell somewhere in the middle. However, whenever he appears on TV or his name in print, Rangers fans, Celtic fans and everyone else in the country unite in feeling sympathy towards him and wishing him the best.
He split the country in two throughout his six years here as a player, now, eight years later, he brings it together.
However, there’s a growing notion that, whenever people see him, they see an illness more than a man. It’s understandable that it’s the first thing one would think of, but a few minutes in conversation with him, you notice he’s the same dignified, bold, fun-loving, humorous person he has always been.
He doesn’t sit and feel sorry for himself or angry at the world which has bestowed this disease upon him. While his illness has affected him in many ways, he hasn’t let it dictate his life and his personality.
In everything in his life and his career, Ricksen acted on impulse. He lived in the moment. “Yes, I burned a Mount Everest of money, but at least I had a good time doing it,” he says in his book. Uncertainty didn’t seem to bother him a great deal and that attitude doesn’t seem to have changed a great deal when it comes to his illness. And perhaps it is that which has allowed him to remain so defiant and strong at this time in which the future remains a mystery.
Importantly, though, he’s still ready to fight. It’s a quality he has had throughout his entire life. He has always been ready, and sometimes too quick, to go into battle. Sometimes it served him well, other times it held him back. Perhaps though, that lifetime of fighting was just training him up for the biggest fight he’ll ever face.
When you think about Fernando and his illness, the realisation that the worst is imminent for him hits you like a tonne of bricks. It’s daunting, haunting and just extremely depressing, yet he’s the one who’s suffering. But when you see this grandiose character, the fight in his eyes, his physical and mental strength, you get tricked into thinking that as long as Fernando keeps that Fighting Spirit then maybe there’s hope. And you’ll do everything you can to convince yourself there is.
Keep fighting, Fernando. We’re all behind you.
Fighting Spirit is published in English by Arena Sport, an imprint of Birlinn Limited
On Sunday 25th May, a testimonial match will be held for Fernando at the home of the club he started and ended his career with, Fortuna Sittard. The following players will play in the match in honour of the Rangers legend: Ronald de Boer, Kevin Hofland, Mark van Bommel, Roy Makaay, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Thomas Buffel, Michael Ratzinger, Lorenzo Amoruso, Nacho Novo, Shota Arveladze, Ronald Waterreus, Oscar Moens, Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, Wilfred Bouma, Denny Landzaat and Kiki Musampa, while Willem van Hanegem will coach one of the teams.