ZURICH/GLASGOW: It is often said that only in adversity do you discover who your true friends are.
For Fernando Ricksen, the acid test of his personal and professional alliances came in 2013, when he was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease.
While the time since has been spent coming to terms with this cruel, debilitating and terminal illness – known in some parts of the word as ALS – the 38-year-old has found friends and comrades to be in plentiful supply.
The world of football has certainly proved ready and willing to rally round the stricken former Netherlands international, and Sunday will bring another touching show of support.
This latest display of solidarity will take place at Glasgow’s Ibrox Stadium, the arena in which Ricksen enjoyed many of his career highlights during a six-year stint with Rangers.
The match will see friends and former team-mates, including Ronald de Boer, Gennaro Gattuso and Arthur Numan, form an Ibrox select against a ‘Fernando’s All-Stars XI’ featuring the likes of Teddy Sheringham and Matt Le Tissier.
It promises to be an emotionally charged occasion, both for Ricksen and the fans who cheered him during that silverware-laden spell with their beloved club. And the former full-back, who also turned out for Fortuna Sittard, AZ Alkmaar and Zenit St Petersburg during a distinguished career, has spoken of his gratitude to the Scottish giants and their supporters.
“It’s an amazing club with amazing fans,” he said during a visit to Zurich last year. “Like here at FIFA, it’s one big family. I’m honoured to have played there. It was tough at first but after a while I realised that Scottish football was my kind of football: fighting and never giving up!”
“When you go to Glasgow to play for Rangers you become part of a worldwide family: the Rangers family,” he added subsequently. “I’ll always have place in their hearts. The club, fans, colleagues and everybody who reached out with love and support has been amazing.”
That support has extended far beyond Scotland. Last May, around the time Ricksen lost the ability to speak – a power he has since fought to recover – Fortuna Sittard, his first club, staged a tribute match of their own.
Roy Makaay, Mark van Bommel, Anatoliy Tymoshchuk and Giovanni van Bronckhorst were among the star names who turned out that day, honouring a tearful player who was paraded shoulder-high at the game’s conclusion.
FIFA has also extended the hand of friendship. Joseph S. Blatter was among the first to convey his support after the initial diagnosis, telling the stricken star: “Keep fighting, Fernando.” Blatter was also on hand to welcome Ricksen to the Home of FIFA later in the year, and again when he was a guest of honour at the recent FIFA Ballon d’Or Gala – an occasion the Dutchman described as “the experience of a lifetime”.
The FIFA President is well aware of the devastating affects of MND through his friendship with the late Stefano Borgonovo. The former AC Milan and Fiorentina striker succumbed to the illness in June 2013, and his widow, Chantal – who continues to run Stefano Borgonovo Foundation – will be among the tens of thousands cheering Ricksen from the Ibrox stands on Sunday.
Blatter, meanwhile, continues to keep close tabs on Ricksen’s battle, and today sent out these fresh tweets ahead of the player’s Glasgow ‘homecoming’.
Ricksen has certainly lived up to this reputation as a battler. “To see him smile and joke the way he does is unbelievable,” said Nacho Novo, a former team-mate at Rangers. “He’s absolutely amazing. He still believes he will come out of it. He’s got a big heart.”
“I feel I’m at least doing something to try to beat this disease,” said Ricksen, referring to his ongoing treatment in Russia, which has maintained his overall physical condition and reversed the dreaded speech loss. “I will fight this. I know it will be difficult but I will battle all the way.”
In his wife, Veronica, and two-year-old daughter, Isabella, Ricksen certainly has the most powerful source of motivation. Yet he admitted, too, that it is the support he has received from across the world – and throughout the game of football – that has picked him off the ground at his lowest moments.
As he told FIFA.com: “That support gives me such motivation and energy. It makes me realise I’m not fighting alone. And it gives me the strength to keep fighting every day.”
Tickets for the Fernando Ricksen tribute match can be purchased at the Rangers ticket centre or online from the club’s official website.