Hardly anyone at this World Cup has walked a longer path to get here than the Netherlands’ 71-year-old manager, Louis van Gaal.
Rummaging through my cellar recently, I found possibly his first interview as coach, in the Dutch magazine Voetbal International, in January 1987. Fresh from a short stint as caretaker coach of Dutch club AZ Alkmaar, he complained that people thought him “arrogant” just because “I have an opinion about everything”. But the headline was: “I think I will succeed as coach.”
He has. The former coach of Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester United is now in his third stint managing the Netherlands, while fighting aggressive prostate cancer. On Monday, his “Oranje” open their tournament against Senegal.
“We have a big chance of becoming world champions,” he unabashedly states. If so, his tactical genius will be needed to elevate his mediocre squad: Oranje’s star is arguably their coach.
Raised in Amsterdam a few hundred metres from the Ajax stadium, the teenaged Van Gaal used to cycle to the training ground on rainy 1960s’ evenings to watch Rinus Michels coach the Ajax side that became European champions three times.
Maddeningly, the youngster couldn’t get past Ajax reserves. His footballing brain was stuck in a gangling unathletic body. In one spectator’s unimprovable phrase, he ran “as if he’d swallowed an umbrella”. He spent 15 years as a playmaker for smaller clubs, while teaching gym at lower technical schools, where he learnt to explain difficult concepts simply.
The shouty, flat-faced schoolmaster made a poor first impression as coach. But as he says: “As a coach it’s about two things: leadership qualities and insight into the game. I can’t really say I don’t have those.”
He could tell players exactly which space to occupy in any situation. He could even improve them. Coaching Oranje at the World Cup 2014, short of a left-back, he taught 33-year-old outside-right Dirk Kuyt the position in a fortnight. The Netherlands finished the tournament third.
Van Gaal always seemed happiest coaching Dutchmen, whose football culture prizes complex tactics and the collectief. Abroad, his tactlessness grated. Sacked by Manchester United in 2016, he drifted out of football, before unretiring last year to lead Oranje.
Initially he kept his cancer secret. His wife says in the 2022 documentary Louis: “He had a catheter on his stomach and a bag for urine hanging on his leg. The players knew nothing.” He’d sneak out of camp for chemotherapy treatments. After breaking a hip bone, he coached a game from a wheelchair.
In the documentary he is open about his condition — there’s even a scene in which a doctor gives him the dread diagnosis — because he wants to destigmatise the disease. Cancer killed his first wife aged 39.
When Dutch midfielder Steven Berghuis heard about the illness he sent a supportive WhatsApp message. Van Gaal replied: “Thank you. I hope you’re ready to become world champion.”
He calls this World Cup “the biggest present I’ve ever had”. He approaches it unchained, absolutely himself: a man without irony whose strength is that he takes everything seriously — football, his players and himself. He talks freely, ranging from the lucky orange underpants he will wear on matchdays to the “ridiculous” choice of Qatar as host. He says supporters boycotting the tournament “are right”. The man who once asked a journalist, “Am I so clever or are you so stupid?”, now only occasionally berates questioners. He has ascended to Dutch national treasure.
He keeps developing as coach, absorbing each advance in football tactics — “a septuagenarian innovator”, the Volkskrant newspaper called him. In the 1990s he prized possession, but now Oranje will lean back on their three central defenders, then accelerate forward the instant they win the ball.
His only prime-age world-class players are centre-back Virgil van Dijk and central midfielder Frenkie de Jong. “In terms of individual quality, countries like England, Germany, France and Spain are further,” Van Gaal admits.
The Dutch have a tradition of unremarkable footballers who reach World Cup finals by making the right decisions on the field: Jan Poortvliet and Ernie Brandts in 1978; the whole back four plus keeper in 2010. But those teams had brilliant forwards to feed. The best one in today’s Oranje, Memphis Depay, misses the start of the tournament with injury. Still, the Dutch are in the lowest-rated group, with Qatar, Ecuador and Senegal. And as Van Gaal says, success at football is “the purpose for which I am on earth.”