The plight facing Fernando Ricksen has reminded us all that football is merely a game. The former Rangers and Holland star choked back tears last week as he revealed on a live Dutch news show that he has been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease (MND), a terminal illness that kills the nerve cells that send messages to the muscles so the body can move. The disease has horrific symptoms with the patient eventually being entirely paralyzed – unable to move, talk, swallow or breathe, but still able to see, hear and feel. Life expectancy is usually six months to five years and the only licensed treatment is the drug Riluzole, which can slow the progression of the disease, but only for up to six months. The news has rocked football and all those who know Fernando.
Among those shocked by the news are Ricksen’s former managers and teammates. Alex McLeish, who managed the player at Rangers and made him the club captain during the 2005 championship winning season, told how he broke down in tears after hearing about Fernando’s predicament. McLeish told the Daily Record that seeing the video of Ricksen’s interview was harrowing to watch and he could tell from it the pain that his former player is going through.
“We all like to think of ourselves as hard men in this game but that doesn’t stop your eyes welling up when you see something like this. Fernando was a big part of my career. He helped me to progress, to win trophies. He helped me learn to manage people. Fernando was probably sent to test guys like me but it was a pleasure working with him and right now it’s difficult to find the words to explain how awful this is”
Fellow Dutchman Dick Advocaat, who managed Ricksen on three separate occasions (Rangers, Zenit St Petersburg and Holland) was shocked and sadden when told. The now AZ Alkmaar coach spoke warmly about Ricksens tenacity and determination that made him such a strong figure both on and off the pitch.
“The terrible news that Fernando suffers from motor neurone disease has deeply touched me. I have always worked extremely well with Fernando. Of course the stories about his escapades are known to many but he has always been a good professional under me. I had him at both Glasgow Rangers and Zenit St Petersburg and the Dutch national team and successfully worked with him. ‘Even at AZ it has hit us hard. He was here in Alkmaar for three successful years; the club has good memories of him. On behalf of myself and AZ I want to wish Fernando and those around him much strength in the near future”
Former teammate Ally McCoist, now manager at Rangers, spoke about how Ricksen’s plight has put everything into perspective and that he and the club will do everything possible to support their former star. Ricksen was a colourful character during his time at Ibrox with his antics both on and off the field giving him a reputation as a bad boy. Despite this, he was one of the most liked players in the dressing room and when the time called for leadership, it was Ricksen who would step up and rally his teammates. McCoist and Rangers are now looking into organizing a benefit match for Ricksen, potentially against his first ever club, Fortuna Sittard.
Even Rangers arch rivals Celtic put their differences aside to support the fallen star. Neil Lennon, now Celtics manager was part of the Hoops central midfield that went toe to toe on several occasions with Ricksen whilst he was at Rangers. But after being “knocked for six” after hearing the news, Lennon spoke articulately about his memories of coming up against Ricksen:
“My memories of facing Fernando are that he was a very good athlete, technically good too and the longer he was here the better he played. At first I think he found it hard, like most people do, to adjust to the pressure cooker in Glasgow. When you’re young you think its magic and you love the limelight but after a couple of years he matured into a really good player. He was versatile, I think he played midfield for one season and he and John Hartson ended up getting jointly awarded Player of the Year. That showed the calibre of player he was.”
Support has been pouring in across social media for Ricksen since the news broke. Former players like John Hartson, Alan Stubbs, Craig Moore and Stiliyan Petrov who have had their own health battles have come out in support of Ricksen in this his hour of need. The news has also hit fans of Ricksens old clubs hard. Ahead of kick-off against Airdeironians this past weekend, Abba hit ‘Fernando’ was played in tribute to former Ibrox player with the Rangers fans then carrying out a one minute applause for the player on the second minute of the game. The significance of the second minute was in tribute to the player’s shirt number (two) that he wore with pride for six years. Ricksens first and last club Fortuna Sittard also held a similar tribute for the player this weekend.
Ricksen was due to see doctors this week to find out what his prognosis is and how long he has. The disease is a killer with four of its five strands deadly. Everyone who knows Fernando and even those who don’t will be praying that Ricksen has that fifth strand and has a chance of recovery, if not for the player alone but for his family as well. It’s at times like these that we are reminded that football is just a game and only a small part of life itself. Ricksen’s life is in the hands of his doctors now and everyone will be praying for him at this is time of need.