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It was a May night in Barcelona in 1989, and Frank Rijkaard had just won his first European Cup. AC Milan had thrashed Steaua Bucharest 4-0, and afterwards Milan's owner Silvio Berlusconi entered the post-match banquet to a Milanese ovation. Berlusconi went grinning from table to table, and at each one everybody rose to shake his hand.

But as il Cavaliere strutted towards the table of his three great Dutch players, he stopped grinning. As Rijkaard recalls the scene, Marco van Basten kept eating, Ruud Gull it kept talking, and everyone remained seated. Rijkaard took pity on Berlusconi. Turning in his chair towards the president, he half-rose to shake his hand. The Berlusconi grin resumed. It is a typical Rijkaard story: a thumbnail sketch of several characters, all proud and unchanging, while in the society of egomaniacs that is professional football he is the only psychologist.

This helps to explain why Rijkaard is today Barcelona's revered manager. Barca against Chelsea in the Champions League on Wednesday features the two most compelling teams around. The Amsterdammer may not be the ideal football manager - some coaches read the game better - but he is the ideal manager of people.

When Rijkaard took over Barcelona in 2003, people were surprised. His coaching record was brief and modest: a mixed spell managing Holland and then relegation with little Sparta Rotterdam. Barca had hired him only because their Dutch guru, Johan Cruijff, had submitted a shortlist of five candidates, and of the five Rijkaard alone was available.

He didn't look a bright light. At press conferences Rijkaard exuded a soothing tedium, like a primary schoolteacher or probation officer, although he did so in wonderful Spanish, one of his several languages. Barca displayed little faith in him either: his basic salary was a knockdown €1m. Rijkaard seemed another great player who couldn't coach. When Barcelona stood 12th in the league during his first winter in charge, he looked a footnote-to-be.

Then, in 2004, Barca had their best year ever in the Spanish league. Rijkaard had put his players in the perfect state of mind. People who knew him weren't surprised. In person, Rijkaard is awesome. When he talks he touches your shoulder, clasps your hand, tells hilarious stories. Almost all his conversation is about other people. He responds to people's emotional cues, lets them display their egos as they wish. These skills are so rare in football that they baffle some players. "He's a very strange guy. It's hard to work out what he's really like," admits Clarence Seedorf, who played with Rijkaard at Ajax and under him for Holland.

Being psychologically sophisticated can be useful. I once heard Rijkaard describe a Dutch international, a difficult man, who performed like a "monster" at training se ssions at the 1998 World Cup, winning every ball, but when picked for a match seemed numb and distracted. Rijkaard grasped that the player had "negative aggression": he battled in training because he was angry at his team mates and coach, but was unprepared for matches because the opposition did not interest him. After Rijkaard had said this, another former Dutch international interjected: "But what use is a guy like that?" Rijkaard replied that any manager could work with an ideal pro, but the challenge was harnessing dysfunctional people.

If you manage Barcelona, reading characters is crucial. All your players are excellent, so the trick is make them feel right. "Being a manager is kneading people," says Rijkaard. "No person is the same, and so you can't treat each player identically." For instance, Rijkaard will never chastise Ronaldinho, his best player, in front of others. Instead he takes him aside, touches his shoulder, and talks him into something. "Frank Rijkaard understands me perfectly," says Ronaldinho.

Before buying a player, Rijkaard will watch several videotapes of him merely to gauge his character. You see it in his signings: collective thinkers all. It's been calculated that Deco, Barca's new playmaker, covers twice as many kilometres a match as do his team mates. Henrik Larsson, the Swedish legend, occupied the bench without complaints. Once players are at Barcelona, says Rijkaard, "I put almost all my energy into keeping things calm. Not among the players, but to avoid influence from outside."

He may win nothing this season: no one scores against Chelsea, Real Madrid are threatening in the league, several Barca players have incurred horrific injuries and Rijkaard the manager has never yet won a trophy. But trophies don't make the man.

* In my column a fortnight ago, I should have said that A.T. Kearney and Foreign Policy magazine named Ireland the world's most globalised country. Sorry.

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