If Louis van Gaal had to choose a new national coach, he would have appointed Louis van Gaal. He’s not doing it for himself anymore, this job. It may sound melodramatic, he says, but he wants to help Dutch football. He puts his good name on the line, after a few defeats everyone can suddenly find him a bad trainer – while out polls turns out he’s popular now. But then, he says, who else should have done it?
Behind the scenes, Van Gaal has already started as national coach of the Dutch national team for a few weeks. He was asked after the failed European Championship under Frank de Boer, where the Netherlands were eliminated in the eighth final against the Czech Republic. Van Gaal has already chosen a new technical staff, with Danny Blind, Henk Fraser and Frans Hoek as assistants – confidants who dare to contradict him, that is important to him. But now, Tuesday afternoon at 3.02 pm in Zeist, he is stepping back into full light from the wings for the first time. His third term as the highest football boss in the Netherlands has started.
Also read this profile about Louis van Gal: More socially skilled, but just as straightforward
“It’s something, isn’t it, that I’m here again,” he says to the journalists, whom he addresses in genuine Van Gaals as “friends of the press”. Above the national coach hangs a large image, composed of sixteen television screens. They are photos of players, compiled into an image that must above all radiate power. Van Gaal is also on it, wearing an orange tie, looking straight up. Virgil van Dijk is depicted next to him. Surrounded by Georginio Wijnaldum, Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt, Memphis Depay and Donyell Malen.
Van Gaal has already spoken with four of them, via Zoom or Teams (“I did that with verve”), although he does not want to say exactly with whom. Even before his appointment, he wanted to know from important players whether they wanted him as a coach. They were long conversations, sometimes more than an hour. “They were more than enthusiastic. Several players have said they need clarity,” says Van Gaal. Apparently that was sometimes missing under Frank de Boer, but Van Gaal immediately makes it clear that he does not want to look back. Only looking ahead counts – “and that’s what I’m good at”.
A big gamble
A day and a half. Van Gaal repeats it over and over. That is the period he has to prepare the Dutch national team for the World Cup qualifier against Norway, on September 1. His own working method has to be partly overboard. There is no time for scouting players. Not even for a group discussion, as Van Gaal is used to. “I am a process trainer. Usually my teams don’t play great in the first three months, because the players have to get used to the Van Gaal regime. Now it has to be faster. It’s a big gamble, not des-Van Gaals actually. It won’t be easy, but I think you know that too,” he says.
Wherever Van Gaal becomes a trainer, he does everything he can to protect his team. For example, a player’s home should not be opened to outsiders. Only players and staff – “people working together towards the same goal” – are allowed in. According to Van Gaal, that is part of creating clarity for his players and creating a safe environment for them.
What applies to a player’s home, also applies to publicity danger. Van Gaal shields his players as best he can. So when a reporter asks for his opinion on working conditions in Qatar – where the 2022 World Cup is – he gets fierce. Yes, he is aware of the deceased construction workers (according to The Guardian there were already at least 6,750 deaths) and the lack of freedoms of the labor migrants. Yet he chooses the attack. In quick succession: “You have already asked this question to three national coaches.” “Do you expect me not to mind?” “You shouldn’t take advantage of footballers to take action. That leads to nothing.”
Van Gaal does have an opinion, but he doesn’t want his team to be bothered with it. “You have to take action, that’s clear,” he says. In fact, he has asked the KNVB board what they are doing about the situation in Qatar before he signed. Van Gaal understands that Gijs de Jong, who deals with international issues at the union, takes a stand against the circumstances in Qatar and is committed to improvements. That is enough for him, says Van Gaal. “I understand that we are leading the way and taking action. But to ask the players or the national coach that every time, I think that goes a long way.”
When it is presented to him that he called the Dutch national team a “glorified bunch of stars” after the European Championship, the same mechanism kicks in. Van Gaal to the reporter: „So it is in your head that I meant the Dutch national team? That’s the media these days. When I talk about the European Championship, I mean it as the European Championship. People make it in their heads that I mean the Dutch national team. I didn’t say anything about Orange.” What did he mean? That an assembled bunch of individuals cannot become champions. “I thought of France and Portugal.”
The team, Louis van Gaal says afterwards, is always more important than the individual. He thinks that his players should also radiate that. That’s why he used to get angry about a player’s sagging socks or a shirt that hangs out of his pants. Because players need to radiate unity. “It’s about the principle of ‘striving for the same thing’”, Van Gaal writes in his book Vision (2009).
He wants to see brotherhood with the Dutch national team in the near future. Players who do not put themselves first, but the team interest. “I have the impression that this generation is more professional than the other generations I have trained. At least eleven Orange players are doing activation training before a match. I never did. In my previous period only Arjen Robben did it. Now they do it on their own. I would like to join that.”
So he is back, five years after his retirement. And he didn’t even have to think about it that long. He’s looking forward to it, he says. And he has faith in his players and the coaching staff. It will not be easy for the selection. They will have to go deep. But he will do that himself. Or, as he himself put it more than ten years ago: „The players I will still get under my wing will have to go all the way every day, as I will continue to do every day. The day I can’t bear that anymore, it’s time to think about something else…”