DOHA, Qatar — The exchange between Louis van Gaal and the journalist was short, but it captured the essence of the Netherlands’ manager: confident and belligerent, but completely assured in his own ability.
Of the many slightly tense moments between the media and Van Gaal — both here at the World Cup and over the course of his 36-year career, with spells as a head coach at Ajax, Barcelona (twice), AZ Alkmaar, Bayern Munich and Manchester United — this one came after Netherlands’ 2-0 win over hosts Qatar. It was Van Gaal’s 18th match in charge and in his third spell with the national team. They’d been unbeaten in all 18. It was a dire game, but Netherlands got the win they needed to top the group.
Van Gaal, 71, said he was delighted with the win. A journalist mentioned that there was some criticism back home over the style and manner of the triumph: in short, some had found the performance boring. But to Van Gaal at this World Cup, it’s about substance over style. He wants wins and doesn’t care how they come, nor will he listen to anything contrary to his way of seeing things.
“Of course you can give your opinion,” Van Gaal said in response to the questions of style and aesthetics. “I don’t agree with you and I’m not going to expand on that because I think that you have a different perspective on football than I have. Write it down that it’s boring and that you’re going home tomorrow because you couldn’t care less.”
The journalist responded: “I’m here until the final.” Van Gaal fired back: “Excellent, I’ll see you there.”
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Van Gaal came to the World Cup with a goal to win the tournament. Some managers are apologetic in their ambition, shying away from bold predictions. Not Van Gaal. Having learned from his two previous tenures with the national team, he was going to be bullish, on the front foot, squeezing one last drop of ability and ambition out of the squad. They are hard at work preparing for a quarterfinal date with Argentina, just days after comfortably defeating a US side many thought had the youth and aggression to prevail.
Yet, for so long, it looked like Van Gaal was done with management. When the Dutch came calling for him, it had been five years between jobs. In that time he’d settled in the Algarve with his wife, Truus, and played golf virtually every day. But there was still an itch of unfinished business; the lure of having one last shot at the World Cup proved to be too tempting.
Truus didn’t want her husband to take the Netherlands job. When the vacancy came up after the Oranje’s poor Euro 2020 campaign — they won all three group games, only to lose 2-0 to the Czech Republic in the round of 16 — he’d already done more than enough for one footballing career. As a manager, he’d won trophies with Ajax, Barcelona, Manchester United, Bayern Munich and AZ, in addition to two spells in charge of Netherlands.
Then there was his health: he was receiving treatment for prostate cancer and perhaps, it was time to slow down. But that call of duty proved to be too much of a draw, and he was formally appointed as Netherlands’ national team manager in August 2021.
Days after the men’s team limped out of the delayed Euro 2020 championship, Van Gaal addressed the women’s squad, then managed by Sarina Wiegman, as they were preparing to head to the Olympics. Wiegman then called on Van Gaal for some advice.
“Just look at the [men’s] European Championship [side],” Van Gaal told them. “There you see a bunch of elite stars that can’t do it. I’ve always seen that under [coach] Sarina [Wiegman], there is a team that goes through fire. So make sure that you, as a team, go to the Olympics and go for gold.”
Van Gaal’s views on the state of the men’s team were self-evident: they had the talent, but no cohesion. They weren’t a team. Roughly a month after that speech, on Aug. 4, 2021, he was handed the challenge of solving those problems. It’s fair to say he’d been there before, too. In his previous two spells in charge of the Netherlands team, Van Gaal had endured the pain of not qualifying for the 2002 World Cup weighed up against their bronze medal in 2014.
“You feel that maybe he had an unfinished job, which he wanted to finish,” former Netherlands international Ronald de Boer told ESPN. “In a short period of time, he can bring a team together and make them believe in a cause. I think he really thinks he’s the man. And that is something I hear people call it arrogance, but it’s not, it’s just the way he is.”
Those close to him say Van Gaal saw the team in the delayed Euro 2020 competition as a group of brilliant individuals, rather than a collective unite. Forging that “band of brothers” mentality was top of his to-do list: create a group stronger than sum of their parts and they’d have a chance at success.
His first news conference on Aug. 17, 2021, was typical Van Gaal. He opened by referring to a career-long turbulent relationship with the media: “A renewed acquaintance with my friends of the media. This is something, isn’t it guys?” He spoke of the duty attached to the role — “I am not doing it for myself, I am doing it for Dutch football” — and while the players he’d already spoken to said they favoured a 4-3-3 system, Van Gaal planned to stick to his principles of a hybrid 3-5-2. There would be some adjustments, but the team would play as he wanted them to.
The first public-facing clash came over reports that defender Virgil van Dijk, his captain to be, had opposed Van Gaal’s appointment. “Me and Virgil talked about this in our first conversation,” Van Gaal said. “I asked him this. I looked him straight in the eyes, and he told me it’s not true. So that topic is over.”
Two months later, Van Gaal was criticised for appearing to be “grumpy” in news conferences. “There’s nothing I can do about that,” Van Gaal said in response. “I answer the way I am. If you ask questions of which I think ‘you can’t ask this,’ I will correct you. I did this my whole life and I won’t change.”
Van Gaal was growing increasingly frustrated at journalists revealing his starting XI some 24 hours before games, but he was slowly moulding a squad he felt was capable of winning the World Cup, accounting for even the most unlikely of misfortune. Then, on Nov. 14, 2021, he fell off his bike, injuring his hip. He was rushed to hospital and confined to a wheelchair. The fall came just two days before their key World Cup qualifying clash with Norway in Rotterdam, but Van Gaal had a solution: he organised and called the training sessions from a golf cart. He had to do the prematch news conference over Zoom, unable to fit his wheelchair through the room’s door.
With Van Gaal watching from high up in the stands sitting in his wheelchair, his Netherlands beat Norway 2-0. Job done and qualification secured; Van Gaal was heading to his second World Cup. He was tearful after the match, reflecting on how the players made him promise he’d stay in the camp despite his injuries. “Yes, I am an emotional man,” he said. “When the players and staff tell you they want you to stay…” His voice cracked and he took a moment to compose himself before the next question.
But there was his secret. Beneath all this confidence was a man battling prostate cancer.
Van Gaal had already experienced and managed the unrelenting brutality of the disease. In 1994, his first wife Fernanda died of pancreatic and liver cancer. In the wonderful documentary “Louis,” Van Gaal talks about the experience, alongside his two daughters Brenda and Renate. The pain was evident: a portrait of Fernanda sits proudly in his office.
When Van Gaal received his own diagnosis, he read up on the disease and noticed that if it was caught early, there was a 90% success rate with treatment.
Truus was terrified of losing him. He stayed resolute in public situations, but you could see hints of his struggle. Van Gaal loves golf: that much is clear from the documentary. Often when he ponders the finer, more intimate parts of life, it’s on the golf course. Perhaps the distraction allows him to free his mind a little, away from his office, where there are pads of paper with tactical formations and mementos of his career lining the walls.
In the documentary, he’s asked about how the treatment is going and responds while weighing up an iron shot on the fairway.
“The first three weeks after the radiation treatment were disastrous,” Van Gaal said. “After each radiation session, I had all the possible side effects. But they’re not just due to the radiation. You also get an injection to tone down your male hormones. It completely wipes out the libido. I also have a catheter, which doesn’t help when you want to make love. But let’s continue with golf, as it’s getting rather intimate.”
Netherlands’ national team didn’t know he was going through this until he finally revealed it in an interview on April 4, 2022. “I have a lot of discipline and willpower,” he said in that interview. “I can do the job because I like it. I like to work with this squad. This is a present for me at a late age, this is how I see it. I didn’t want to tell my players because it could have influenced their performances.”
Van Gaal kept the cancer diagnosis from his players as long as he could. Underneath his tracksuit was a catheter and colostomy bag, both temporarily secured to him due to the brutality of the radiation regimen he has to follow. When players would see him with his cheeks flushed, he told them it was a sign of him being healthy when it was really due to the burn of the cancer treatment.
This vulnerable (yet still resolute) tone was a stark change to Van Gaal’s known persona. Just a fortnight earlier, he had caused controversy by questioning FIFA’s call to give the World Cup to Qatar. “It’s ridiculous that the World Cup is being hosted in Qatar,” Van Gaal had said. “FIFA says they want to ‘develop football in Qatar.’ Well, that’s bulls—. It’s about money and commercial interests: that’s the only thing that matters for FIFA.”
He’d also dismissed the UEFA European Conference League as a “Frick and Frack” competition, but privately, he was deeply touched by the affection and concern his players showed. He received a text from winger Steven Berghuis wishing him well. Van Gaal responded: “Thank you. I just hope you are ready to become World Champion.”
“This touched me,” Berghuis said. “We believe in his words.”
The Van Gaal we’ve seen in Qatar over the past month is a slightly more measured version of the one from a couple of decades ago. Age can inevitably blunt some edges, but don’t mistake that for softness.
“Everyone looks back at life and wonders if you can do something different,” De Boer said. “People say he’s softened up, but I don’t agree. I think he knows that every generation is different, that your other expectations, other values, or whatever shift, and he’s adapting to that. So I don’t think he’s changed as a person.”
If provoked, he can be just as belligerent as ever, but this is what makes Van Gaal the ultimate Rorschach test in football: one man’s belligerence is another’s unwavering conviction in their own ability. As he famously said to one journalist back in 1996: “Am I the one who is so smart, or are you so stupid?”
Author Hugo Borst has even dedicated a book to trying to work out who Van Gaal is, called “O, Louis — In Search of Louis van Gaal.” He speaks to various figures outside of football — writers, poets, a psychiatrist and even a cleric — in an attempt to get to the heart of Van Gaal’s personality. The author himself used to have a close relationship with Van Gaal, but one day the manager accused him of passing on his mobile number to another journalist. Borst hadn’t, and so asked for an apology, even writing him a letter explaining how he felt. The apology never came.
Then there was Van Gaal’s uneasy relationship with Johan Cruyff. The two were both apprentices of the great Rinus Michels and cared deeply about Dutch football, but up until Cruyff’s death in 2016, they simply did not see eye to eye. Though they were both in the pantheon of the country’s greats, the differences in how they saw the game, the control of ego and the claustrophobia of the Dutch football space meant there was a chasm driven between them. Cruyff had a role in Van Gaal not getting the Ajax general manager role in 2011, and the two would never reconcile their differences.
Van Gaal also divided opinion among his former players. There are some who despised him. Take Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who worked with Van Gaal during his brief spell as Ajax technical director in 2004. “Van Gaal was a pompous ass,” Ibrahimovic wrote in his 2011 autobiography ‘I am Zlatan Ibrahmovic.’ “He wanted to be a dictator without a hint of gleam in his eye. As a player, he’d never stood out, but he was revered in the Netherlands because as a manager, he’d won the Champions League with Ajax and received some medal from the government.”
But for every Zlatan or Rivaldo (who also fell out with Van Gaal), there are others who swear by him. Rafael van der Vaart — who worked under him at Ajax and Netherlands — told ESPN that Van Gaal is “an amazing coach, honest and fair.”
Defender Andre Ooijer was called up by Van Gaal during his first spell in charge of Netherlands. “As a youngster you are a bit scared of him, as when you make it to the first team, it doesn’t matter if you are 17 or 37, he expects the same from you,” Ooijer, who won 55 caps, told ESPN. “I can understand for some it’s hard to work with him as he’s a straightforward guy, and there’s no-nonsense. It’s his way or the highway. He says what he thinks. But I loved working with him.”
De Boer has known Van Gaal most of his life. When Ronald and his brother Frank were breaking through at Ajax, Van Gaal — then in charge of the academy — used to drive them to training.
“I remember we were in the kids’ room at Ajax, preparing to go on the pitch and putting our football boots on,” he said. “It was typical Louis: he put his face about 10cm away from your face and asked me in his typical Louis way … ‘Are you going to be a great football player?’ And you’re too scared to say no and you’re thinking ‘Maybe, well, I’ll try to!’ But you don’t want to give the wrong answer, so I said ‘Yes, of course, coach!’ And he responded ‘Good, because I’m going to be a great football manager!’
“His self-belief was so much stronger than mine. He really believed in it and himself.”
These days, they are close friends. “He’s like my second dad,” De Boer added. “He’s a warm person, although there are a lot of people don’t see that. For example, my partner Suze, she has nothing to do with football, she doesn’t know anybody and doesn’t care about it. We’ve had Louis over for dinner a couple of times, and she absolutely loves him. They don’t talk about football easily, but she sees him as a person, a warm person, and very really interested in the other person’s life and just listens. He doesn’t talk about himself, he just listens.”
Talking to players and those around the camp in Qatar, they single out two qualities above all that Van Gaal values: loyalty and honesty. “If you say one thing and do another, he’ll see it as a betrayal,” De Boer said.
Van Gaal has stayed close to Van Dijk, crowning him as the fourth great captain he’s worked with alongside Danny Blind (Ajax), Pep Guardiola (Barcelona) and Bastian Schweinsteiger (Bayern Munich.) He frequently extols Memphis Depay’s qualities and talks about Cody Gakpo as if he’s one of his own children, but he is also unwilling to talk about players from other teams. He’ll still only go into detail on a player’s qualities if he knows them as a person.
He’s not shied away from controversial calls with his World Cup squad, either. Before the tournament, Van Gaal held a goalkeeping clinic at one of the training sessions, calling in five goalkeepers. Tim Krul, who performed heroics back in the 2014 World Cup when Van Gaal brought him on just before the penalty shootout against Costa Rica, opted against travelling to the session. Van Gaal responded by ruling Krul out of contention for the World Cup.
Then there was his choice of starting goalkeeper in Qatar. The uncapped Andries Noppert had performed well for Heerenveen this season in the Eredivisie and while there were more established options available, Van Gaal listened to Frans Hoek, his goalkeeping coach, and ended up giving Noppert the gloves for their opener against Senegal. This choice meant longtime No.1 Jasper Cillessen was omitted from the squad, and Van Gaal’s decision scrutinised. He responded to queries over the logic of picking Noppert by referring to how he handed Edwin van der Sar in his Ajax debut at age 19. For his part, Noppert has repaid Van Gaal’s faith with a string of solid performances.
“[Van Gaal] doesn’t care what other people think,” Ooijer said. “He looks at the best way to win a game, and he doesn’t care about what other people are saying or shouting. It’s his feeling and he doesn’t give a s— what other people are thinking about.”
You can see from Van Gaal’s interactions with his players that they’re fond of him. Take the prematch news conference before the US game: defender Daley Blind smiled at the Van Gaal-isms as he dispatched some questions from the media, and also enjoyed any plaudits heading his way. There was a look of admiration and reverence.
The players also took inspiration from Van Gaal’s cancer fight. “Of course it gives us more fight and motivation,” Van Dijk said. “We are all human beings and when the news came out it was a shock for us, it was tough but it was important we showed our support. He’s a very strong man and outspoken, but we wanted to be there for him. It’s never easy for him to deal with the whole situation but I think he’s dealing with it fantastically. He’s our manager, we will fight for him regardless. He’s a great human being, very direct and we will definitely go that extra yard knowing this is the last World Cup for him.”
When Van Gaal took the job, he was unapologetic about his ambition. “I have a brain,” he said. “I know that it won’t be easy to win the World Cup, but this manager often has the luck on his side. Our squad is amazing. And the quality of this squad is higher than the squad in 2014.”
At every opportunity, Van Gaal reinforced the message, rejecting suggestions he was piling too much pressure on his group. “I think you always have to identify the goal, the purpose for which you are here,” he said after their win over Qatar. “Then you can work your way towards that purpose. I never said we’re going to become world champion — I said we can become it, that we have a chance, and the players have also become convinced of that.”
In the run up to their match against the US, we asked those reporters who’d followed Van Gaal closely for decades to describe the manager in one word. Their answers were: “flamboyant,” “extrovert,” “crazy,” (with the qualification, close to genius) “authentic,” “unpredictable” and “unique.” Slightly differing opinions, but most came back to one collective view on the manager: we’ve been lucky to have him, and we’re going to miss him immensely.
So, with his time in charge of Netherlands coming towards an end, it remains to be seen what he does next. He’s kept the door open to another move — Belgium, anyone? — but those close to him expect this to be his final job. “We might see him on TV a little bit, and supporting good causes,” De Boer said. “He shares the same warm heart for the charity Muscles for Muscles [supporting children with spinal muscular atrophy]. But he has his house in Portugal with Truus and he spends time coming up and down to see his grandkids. I’m sure this was his last dance. We will never see another manager like Louis van Gaal. Never again.”