Van Gaal: The Man and the Maniac

Diederik Perk on the lovable, hateable, recently sackable Louis van Gaal….

Dutch football know-how is at the centre of today’s best performing teams. The tiki-taka tactics Barcelona brings to the pitch have been introduced and immersed by Johan Cruyff from youngster to trainer during the 1970s and, more recently, consolidated by Louis van Gaal and Frank Rijkaard. Around the world there are Dutch coaches under exotic conditions responsible for lifting the level of success. The most eccentric one has to be Louis van Gaal himself. Love him or hate him, he will make sure you will know and hear about him, and he may just be featuring soon at a football theatre near you.

One of the reasons for that is that the man is a self-made success. After a hardly noteworthy players’ career as a defender in mediocre teams like Sparta, Royal Antwerp and Telstar Van Gaal started off on a  coaching path as an assistant at AZ Alkmaar in the late 1980s.  Shortly thereafter, Beenhakker made him his assistant at Ajax Amsterdam, and, upon his exit, Louis van Gaal became the club’s manager in 1991. Immediately securing success with the triumph in the EUFA Cup, his tenure became synonymous for Ajax’ reemergence at the top of European football. During the season ‘94-‘95 Ajax became nearly invincible, capturing the Champions League,  and the national title after an unbeaten run. Next season, Ajax would again reach the final of the Champions League, but lost the penalty shoot out to Juventus. The Intercontinental Cup was won after penalty’s that season, crowning them best team in the world. Aside of international success, during van Gaal‘s  six-year period at Ajax they collected three national league titles,  a national cup and three super cups. Most extraordinary was the average age of 23 of the team and the offensive tactics they employed.

Success has many fathers, failure has none – as the Dutch saying goes. A decline set in motion when most players were awarded the status of free agent, upon which they left to try their luck at Europe’s most prestigious clubs. After asking rhetorically whether he was so smart or everyone else so stupid, Louis the Champion left for the promised land of Barcelona. Never having been much appreciative of the press, here he found his every step scrutinized. This is less remarkable considering the fact that in his footsteps a total of eight Dutch players were brought into the team, practically reassembling his equip from the successful Ajax days. However, this turned out to have been a mixed blessing for all parties involved. Van Gaal proved unable to repeat its previous European successes at Camp Nou, and argued with the team’s top player Rivaldo. After the socios showed their rising discontent by the characteristic waving of white handkerchiefs, Van Gaal left, only to fail dramatically in a campaign to qualify for the 2002 World Cup with the Dutch national team. He revealed where his mind was at with the lines “Amigos de la prensa. Yo me voy. Felicidades.” (Friends of the press. I am leaving. Congratulations.).

Not without reason his nicknames include the Czar of Alkmaar and The Iron Tulip. That’s why the move to Bayern Munich was a risky one, a club with established traditions guarded over by its living legends. Contact with some of the stars in the team was again problematic at times, even though he tried to show himself from his human side. After reaching the final of the Champions League with Die Recordmeister and winning the DFB Pokal and the Bundesliga at once, the second season in Munich could hardly go any better. At the start of the current season all the internationals were still recovering from the World Cup and halfway it was clear that prolonging the title was out of the question. Then, in the course of one week all hope faded. Talk of prizes and prestige turned out ill-founded after loosing consecutively against Borussia Dortmund, Schalke 04 and Hannover 96 during the first week of March. Van Gaal’s position was waning and the club turned into damage control mode. The outcome is that Van Gaal’s contract will be cut short until the end of the season, with the consent of both parties.

Is it bad luck? A matter of unforeseen circumstance that makes craftsmanship deficient? In that line of reasoning is no room for sacrificing the coach. Maybe the case against Van Gaal is that he mismanaged the team selection, causing the level of quality  to fall due to transfers. The defense in particular looks shaky, and now talk is going around that Lucío, currently playing for Inter and co-responsible for Bayern’s defeat in the Champions League, is desired to return in the heart of German defense and restore stability.  Besides reluctance to spend money on new (or familiar) players, the team’s captain Mark van Bommel was allowed to leave for AC Milan. There is no denying that the experienced central midfielder often carried the team through difficult moments. Still, it is not Van Gaal by himself who handles the money and staffing of the team, so this reason should be dismissed for the most part. Would it be the temper of the man? Louis van Gaal has an erratic track record at best, in terms of clashing with his players, and, often the ones who have been successful and know how to verbalize their dissenting views.

TV pundits like to ridicule his openness and angry fits. People in the professional football circuit credit him for shaping a band of young talents into a skilled and strictly organized team. Where the man’s reputation becomes disputed is when top players enter the picture who don’t sheepishly follow his orders. In a totalitarian system there can only be one leader and room for flexibility is nonexistent. If something doesn’t bent then something will break. Bayern Munich could have foreseen such an equation to arise. Meanwhile, Van Gaal knows how success tastes, and probably hasn’t had enough of it yet. The man, who approaches team spirit by protecting his players as a maniac, would do well to come full circle and end his career in Amsterdam where he started his personal elevation. Perhaps a role outside of the limelight perfecting the clubs’ youth would make his the greatest contribution to Dutch football yet. Whether he settles for a position on the second plane is however seriously questionable. The traits that make him unbearable are what makes him successful.

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