Confident, honest, arrogant – meet the real Louis Van Gaal
Published 20/05/2014 | 02:30
Louis van Gaal could never be accused of underselling himself.
When the new Manchester United manager turned up to launch his last job at Bayern Munich, he introduced himself with the following: "I am what I am; self-confident, arrogant, dominant, honest, industrious, innovative."
Those who know him best smile at the description. When the author and one-time friend Hugo Borst, who has adored, followed, been obsessed by and fallen foul of Van Gaal over 35 years, told him he was writing a book about him entitled 'O, Louis' the subject just shrugged. "Congratulations. It will sell good. Anything with my head on it will sell good."
He is right. To Holland, Van Gaal has been endlessly fascinating, "a special, brilliant person but a walking paradox," as Borst calls him.
"You're never really comfortable with the guy. Sometimes, so social, so lovely and laughing. Then at times, a dictator, arrogant, gets so angry," he says.
"I've experienced both sides of him. There's never a dull moment with Louis van Gaal!"
Is this the perfect fit? The man who thinks he is the world's best manager and the institution which thinks it is the world's best football club.
"He will be very patient to start with but I can guarantee you, absolutely, there will be a day when he loses his temper in public and you will have top television," says Borst, with a smile. "It will be fun, a huge attraction for British TV and for United."
Van Gaal is certainly a mass of contradictions – a man who, on the one hand, claims he is so sensitive that something will move him to tears nearly every day, yet also crude enough to drop his pants in a team talk to illustrate a point.
Strutting a fine line between brilliance and barminess, it has become easy for this multi-layered personality to be lampooned almost as a cartoon figure.
When he was at Barcelona, the satirical TV portrayal was of a brick topped by a mop of hair. Yet the popular idea of him being a humourless, automaton-like general does not correspond with the picture of the romantic who unashamedly read out his own love letter to Ajax when he returned as technical director.
Yet this is largely irrelevant. The only things that truly matter about Van Gaal, say his admirers, is that he is one of football's great teachers, and that nobody is too big to learn.
"Rivaldo! Listen! Do as I tell you!" he would bark in Barcelona at the Brazilian who was then the world's best player. Rivaldo did not listen and departed, and there have been other stellar players who took umbrage at his style.
Franck Ribery reckoned he had never had less fun than when Van Gaal came to Bayern, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic, at Ajax, felt he was a dictator who did not know how to accommodate individual genius into his rigid plans.
"One day he told me I should think more about the team, while Marco Van Basten advised me to do the exact opposite. I asked him: 'Should I listen to Van Gaal or a legend?' I don't think he liked that."
Yet most who have been tutored by him applaud a marvellous clarity allied to his hard taskmastery.
"If, as a player, you don't appreciate a manager like Louis van Gaal then it is time for you to look in the mirror," suggests Raymond Verheijen, an assistant during his first spell as Dutch national manager. "If there's one person who can help you stretch your own boundaries, then it is him. What he says is so clear, they know exactly what he wants. It transmits confidence."
It is no surprise Van Gaal carries a strict, schoolmasterly air. In a previous life, while attempting to carve out a career as a semi-pro, he worked as a PE teacher, spending 11 years at the celebrated Don Bosco school in Amsterdam.
"Teaching 50 kids, many with learning disorders, was hard for him to deal with, because you have to deliver better lessons than if you are teaching average students," says Verheijen. "But he was extremely successful."
Perhaps Aloysius Paulus Maria van Gaal was born to instruct. Growing up in the middle-class Watergraafsmeer district in the shadow of Ajax's former De Meer stadium, his old friend John Haen remembers him running the epic street matches between the vast families of Van Gaal and Haen kids.
"Even then, he would make himself mostly the captain," says Haen, now historian at the RKSV De Meer club where they played together as boys. "At De Meer, he talked a lot on the field and would correct us all."
What sort of player was he? "A difficult one. With a big mouth but a little heart," laughs Haen. "He was a friendly kid but in the soccer game, he was a fanatic!"
A born organiser too. The youngest in a staunchly Catholic family of nine brothers and sisters, Van Gaal learned to take responsibility early after his football-mad father, a salesman, died when he was only 11. It was a happy childhood, he has reflected, but one dominated by discipline and order.
As a footballer, his intelligence and fine passing could never quite make up for his slowness: his only first-team appearance at Ajax came in a friendly because Johan Cruyff was injured.
Many believe his whole subsequent coaching career, from Amsterdam to Barcelona, has been about trying to eclipse Holland's greatest footballing brain and never having the flair and creative genius to quite pull it off. The pair, famously, do not get on.
At Sparta Rotterdam, Van Gaal made a name more for his eloquent, forceful leadership of the Dutch players' union than for his football. Adri van Tiggelen, the Dutch international who played alongside him, still smiles, thinking of the combustible midfield general who would take on everyone, from the owner to the manager, if he thought they were wrong.
To Sparta's tough, flamboyant Welsh coach Barry Hughes, Van Gaal could be an irritant. "Once, at half-time, Barry told the team he would make a particular substitution," remembers van Tiggelen. "But Louis just said: 'No, you should take off this other player and bring on a different player'. So Barry said: 'Okay, Louis, I've got another idea. I'm going to take you off instead!' He did, too, and Louis wasn't happy. We couldn't stop laughing, though."
Van Gaal, recalls van Tiggelen, was a whirlwind of energy, a young father of two juggling these different roles, often racing straight from work in Amsterdam to Rotterdam in his tracksuit, jumping out of the car and zooming immediately onto the training pitch. Forty years on, even with an artificial hip, he has apparently not slowed down.
Most striking was always his unshakeable focus. When he landed his second coaching chance after being sacked from his initial assistant's role at AZ Alkmaar, he sculpted young talent at Ajax into a team of extraordinary quality – one which conquered Europe with an average age of 23. More than that, he fashioned this vision of what Jorge Valdano saw as "football Utopia" while having to look after his wife of 20 years, Fernanda, who was dying of pancreatic cancer, and their two daughters, Brenda and Renate.
"It is typical of a lot of top managers that they are able to deal with the worst situations really well," says Verheijen.
"Here, Van Gaal was in the most uncomfortable situation a human being can ever have to deal with and yet still he was able to stay focused. Indirectly, I think it made his relationship with his players even stronger because they could see that, even though his life was incredibly difficult, he was still there for them."
Fernanda's death in 1994 transformed Van Gaal's outlook on life. Previously a churchgoer, he turned his back on his faith, saying he wanted nothing to do with a God who could permit such suffering. He says it remains his deepest regret that Fernanda never survived to see Ajax achieve their greatest glory.
Within six months of her death, by happy accident, he met his current wife, Truus. She was organising speakers for a World Cup event in the US and after Dick Advocaat dropped out, he advised her to contact Van Gaal.
The pair married in 2008 but she has been his rock for the last two decades, a strong character herself and one not averse to launching an impassioned defence of her oft-criticised husband. She is always furious whenever Van Gaal is characterised as a nutcase or a bully.
"Louis is actually extremely warm-hearted, but he doesn't get the idea of being nice to people he doesn't think are nice," she says. "He's also very honest and naive. Almost no one is as honest as him. It makes life difficult, but Louis has this complete belief in himself and his methods."
If you really wanted to make mischief with Van Gaal, you could suggest to him that, really, it has all been downhill for him since that first Ajax spell, that nothing he has achieved in the last decade – not the national titles with Barcelona, Bayern, nor even the remarkable achievement of breaking years of Ajax/Feyenoord/PSV domination in Holland by winning the Eredivisie with AZ Alkmaar in 2009 – has ever matched his first Ajax reign.
His boast at the Nou Camp about having achieved more in six years at Ajax than Barcelona had in a century actually only ended up shining a light on how he too was unable to deliver the Catalans a European Cup.
Those grand pronouncements have sometimes come back to feed his critics, not least his suggestion after taking over the reins of the Oranje in 2000 that he had time to win not just one, but two World Cups. In the event, he did not even qualify for one, a calamity that he considers his most wounding failure and one he is determined to rectify in Brazil before taking the reins at United.
Few in Holland fancy Van Gaal's team can win in Brazil but it says much about his standing there that they still feel the alchemy of an eccentric 62-year-old represents their best hope.
Overall, Borst was struck by the genuine good feeling towards a man many in Dutch society see as upholding virtues of honesty and industry and also a feeling of sympathy that his volcanic side often served to mask his basic decency.
"It makes me smile when I see him on TV and he is losing his temper like the old days," says Van Tiggelen. "But sometimes you look at him and think: 'Louis, don't be so crazy, be normal' You're not helping yourself. But, hey, that is Louis. There is no one like Louis. You will have a lot of fun with him in England." (© Daily Telegraph, London)