In August 2021 Louis van Gaal was chosen as the new head coach of the Netherlands men’s national football team. He was seventy years old, hadn’t coached for five, his last experience at Manchester United had been stormy from start to finish and – although it was not publicly known yet – he was already being treated for severe prostate cancer. However, he left his home in the Algarve and the pension to which he had promised his wife that he would devote himself to, to return to coach Holland for the third time.
As a coach of club teams Van Gaal has won everything: seven national championships (four in the Netherlands, two in Spain and one in Germany), several national cups, a UEFA Cup, a Champions League and an Intercontinental Cup. With the Dutch national team it went very badly the first time, when they failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup, and much better in 2014, when his Netherlands were eliminated in the semifinals, on penalties, against what was already Leo Messi’s Argentina . Today Van Gaal’s Holland is back to play – this time in the quarter-finals – against Messi’s Argentina.
Almost always, when we talk about Van Gaal, we mention his being a rigid, grumpy and in some ways even dictatorial And authoritarian in the way he manages the teams, one who likes – in his words – «structure, rules and discipline». A stern and demanding manager like few others, one whose antics or abrupt and harsh answers to journalists were frequently told, especially during his last years at Manchester United, and what his players were able to do was less talked about in the field.
In recent months, and in particular in recent weeks, Van Gaal has also made himself known for something else: for having joked and even mentioned a celebration dance, but also that for having set up a team with a conservative but very effective game.
However, he remains a character who is sometimes contradictory and often difficult to define and frame: he was presented, for example, as a “septuagenarian innovator”, but also as an inflexible and dogmatic coach who nevertheless often changed modules and approaches. One of those coaches that certain players or groups can’t stand and that others, as it seems to be happening with the current Dutch national team, instead follow with respect and, sometimes, something close to devotion. Someone who retired five years ago and who now doesn’t rule out coaching other national teams again.
Born in Amsterdam in 1951, Van Gaal tried to be a footballer but without great results: despite an uncommon ability to see and understand the game, his technical qualities and athletic skills left a lot to be desired. He then became a gymnastics teacher, assistant football coach and, at the age of forty, coach of Ajax. It was there that he proposed a game with complex tactical premises, which was based on the imaginary division of the pitch into many triangles, on the importance of controlling ball possession and on a systematic offensive approach to matches.
With a promising team made up of players who were still young and footballingly immature, Van Gaal won the Champions League in 1995 and lost in the final, on penalties, against Juventus the following year. The fact that in those years was written on the door of Van Gaal’s office “quality is the exclusion of coincidence” is often cited.
From Ajax Van Gaal went on to coach Barcelona, where he won two championships, where he reached the semi-finals of the Champions League and where he had Pep Guardiola as a player and José Mourinho as an assistant, two coaches among those who would have most marked the football of this century. However, Van Gaal had problems with players, management and fans, which led him to leave the team and take charge of the Netherlands for the first time.
It went badly, he returned to Barcelona, it went badly there too and in 2005 he returned to the Netherlands to AZ in Alkmaar, with whom he won the championship in 2009, 28 years after the previous one. He then became coach of Bayern Munich, with which he already reached the Champions League final in the first year (lost against Mourinho’s Inter) and where he won both the championship and the German cup. However, he was sacked midway through the second season.
The anecdote of that period is well known, told by the attacker Luca Toni, according to which, to show his virility, Van Gaal – whose sexual references in relation to football are numerous – lowered his pants and underpants in front of the team.
Once again chosen as Holland coach, in 2014 he passed the quarter-finals with a risky choice that attracted a lot of attention: he replaced the goalkeeper just before the penalties. He was then later eliminated in the semi-finals, again on penalties (without having first replaced the goalkeeper), by Argentina.
Of the experience at Manchester United, which ended with something very close to a mutiny of its players, the Guardian wrote that Van Gaal immediately gave the feeling of being “a surly general and overtaken by events, a Napoleon mocked for his bombastic theories, his falls and his cartoonish ways”.
Apart from a few statements and anecdotes here and there, from the summer of 2016 to that of 2021 Van Gaal was mostly spoken of as a former coach, one who really seemed to have had his day in football. After Holland’s disappointing result at the 2021 European Championships, where they were eliminated by the Czech Republic in the round of 16, and after Frank de Boer’s sacking, however, Van Gaal was called back to coach Holland, and said: «If I were been instead of the Dutch federation I would have chosen without a doubt. I’m not doing it for myself, but for Dutch football.”
Since being coached by Van Gaal, in his third time, the Netherlands have yet to lose a game and have qualified in a difficult group, with Turkey and Norway. He did it starting from a defense with three central defenders instead of two central defenders and two full-backs, and from a wait-and-see football set in reaction to that of the opponents. Two elements in stark contrast to the tradition of open-minded football of the Netherlands and the first teams of Van Gaal, who has been described as “a Cruyffian hated by Cruyff“, the symbol of Dutch “total football” and creativity.
Only in April, several months after the successful qualification, during a Dutch television program, Van Gaal told of having prostate cancer. It was later known that, without the players knowing it, it had also happened that under his coat he had a catheter and a colostomy bag and that this was the reason why he had introduced himself in a wheelchair for the decisive match of the Netherlands against Norway.
In the Netherlands that led to the World Cup in Qatar Van Gaal found premises similar to those he found in the 1990s at Ajax: a very young team in which a third of the players are under 23, with some very strong, well-established players and talented – such as defender Virgil van Dijk and midfielder Frenkie de Jong – but many others not even close to that level. Statements and attitudes of Dutch footballers suggest great unity and trust in Van Gaal’s ideas and guidance.
In recent months Van Gaal has also made himself known for how and how much, unlike many other coaches, he has taken a position on the World Cup in Qatar. He said the Dutch fans who wanted to boycott them they were right to do it (adding later that he was aiming to reach the final to convince them to watch at least that one) and already in March he had defined these World Cups as “ridiculous”, adding that FIFA says “bullshit”.
Van Gaal is the oldest manager at this World Cup and one of the three oldest in the competition’s history. At the helm of one of the youngest teams in the tournament, on Friday at 8 pm he will play against Argentina, one of the teams with the highest average age, coached by 44-year-old Lionel Scaloni, the youngest coach at these World Cups.
Excluding extra time and penalties, including games in 2014 and this year, Van Gaal is unbeaten in eleven games at the World Cup. Of the team he coaches in Qatar, Van Gaal said he has more qualities than the one he lost against Argentina in 2014 and his tactical approach he said: “I thought you should always attack, but I’ve evolved and now I focus more on how to win.”
Often attacking and playing very well, the Netherlands have reached the World Cup final three times in their history – in 1947, 1978 and 2010 – but have never won them. Whatever result he gets in Qatar, Van Gaal will still be replaced by Ronald Koeman, the former Barcelona coach who already has an agreement with the Dutch federation. Of him, however, Van Gaal said he does not rule out the possibility of coaching elsewhere, including the Belgian national team, which sacked his coach after the elimination from the World Cup.