Van Gaal’s finals a touch of genius
Holland’s stars aligned at last as World Cup glory lies within reach, writes Dion Fanning
If the Dutch people were able to cope with defeat in the World Cup final four years ago, they might not have been able to come to terms with the manner of it.
In Soccer City in 2010, Holland experienced the strange sensation of losing a World Cup final and receiving no sympathy. They had, of course, lost finals before. If 1978, and especially 1974, confirmed their status as beautiful losers then 2010 was different.
History accompanies Holland but not in the way it accompanies other sides with a World Cup story. They are the only country among this year's favourites who have never won the competition and they were a side that were predicted by many to fail at the group stage. Instead the failures came elsewhere, most notably from Spain.
"We gave our philosophy of football to Spain," one Dutch journalist said last week. "In Salvador, we took it back." On the opening weekend of the World Cup, Louis van Gaal's side surprised the world and signalled the end for the world champions, dismantling them 5-1 and making the world take notice.
The old line about the US Open that "the slums of Chicago are full of first-round leaders" could apply equally at the World Cup. In their second game against Australia, Holland looked vulnerable at the back, as many had predicted, but they came from behind to win.
As Holland prepare for their last 16 game against Mexico in Fortaleza today, they do so with rising expectation. They might have begun the tournament wondering if they would get out of the group but now the Dutch are thinking beyond Mexico, beyond a quarter-final against Costa Rica or Greece and towards a semi-final against Argentina. The Dutch are not alone in swinging wildly from one mood to another but they are good at it.
Unlike 2010, this time they have a coach who not only believes in a certain way of playing but that he is an original thinker, introducing the world to his methods. "He's open to other ideas, but they must understand he won't budge," Frank de Boer once said of Louis van Gaal.
Van Gaal has opened himself to new ideas in this tournament but they have been his ideas. The expansive style of qualification has been altered, 4-3-3 has changed to 5-3-2 and it has led to some criticism that Holland are, once again, betraying their history. De Boer said he would not adopt the style of the national team for Ajax. "I want to play dominant football," he said.
Van Gaal wants domination another way this time. "I am not interested in what anybody has to say about how we play. The only thing that matters is that you score one more than the opponent. I've said that from the start of this World Cup."
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The story of Louis van Gaal's resurrection of the Dutch begins at Lansdowne Road in September 2001. "He never forgot that defeat," Mikos Gouka, a journalist with Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad, said last week. Holland were denied a place in the World Cup by Roy Keane and others on that wild day and Van Gaal always wanted to return and to lead his country to a World Cup.
He learned other lessons from that campaign. He felt he had allowed a complacent attitude to develop among the senior players and when he returned he promised that no player would be guaranteed a place. He implemented this policy with Robin van Persie.
In 2012, Van Persie was just beginning a new career at Manchester United. Netherlands had lost all three games at the European Championships and Bert van Marwijk had resigned. Van Gaal's time began with a friendly against Belgium when Van Persie was left on the bench. At a squad meeting before the game, Van Persie was the only senior player not to contribute, suggesting that he could have difficulties with his new coach. Van Gaal arranged a meeting with Van Persie. It was scheduled to last 10 minutes but it went on for two hours. Van Persie would later tell reporters that he called his wife immediately when he emerged and told her it was the best conversation he'd ever had about football. "So you are first-choice again?" she asked. "No," Van Persie replied. "Second . . . or maybe third."
In fact, Van Persie started the qualifying campaign as first-choice but, more importantly, a bond had been established between the manager and the coach which has endured throughout this tournament and will benefit Manchester United next season.
Van Persie scored in Holland's first game, a 2-0 home win against Turkey which many observers considered fortunate. Turkey had more possession, created chances before and after Van Persie's first-half goal but Luciano Narsingh guaranteed the points in injury time.
Narsingh is not part of the squad in Brazil. Van Gaal used 36 players including five different goalkeepers during the qualifiers. The Dutch also scored 34 goals, with Van Persie contributing 11 as they coasted through the group.
Van Gaal changed things and the young players he had promoted developed quickly. "The difference between the first match and the last match was amazing," Gouka says.
Holland went through the qualifiers in the familiar Dutch style, playing 4-3-3 which had become a national craving since the 2010 World Cup when Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong represented a snarling, intimidating presence.
In the summer of 2013, Van Gaal made another change. Wesley Sneijder, whose physical level he was unsure of, was replaced as captain. Van Persie took the armband and Arjen Robben was his deputy. Van Gaal was working things out, making bold decisions and his relationship with Van Persie had echoes of his time at Barcelona when he made Pep Guardiola captain, ignoring the Barcelona tradition, which Guardiola had reminded him of, that the oldest player captains the side. "No, you are the only one I can speak to on my level, you are my captain."
What has surprised some is that these players have responded. Van Gaal's doubts about Sneijder's fitness prompted him to hire a Dutch-Turkish kickboxing champion, Gokhan Saki, who flew to Turkey and worked with Sneijder after training with Galatasaray.
"Thanks to him, I got back to my optimal weight, like when I was 22," Sneijder said. "In terms of footwork and agility, I am back to my old level. It was explosive training. It has made me more explosive over the first few metres. I feel that I have benefited from it."
Van Gaal was surprised and impressed. Sneijder has taken on a hard-working role at this tournament, another player insisting that they have signed up to Van Gaal's directive that they will put the team first.
"If there is no discipline off the pitch, there is none on it," Van Gaal says, even if some in the Dutch media were surprised that the speculation about the Manchester United job continued for so long when Van Gaal had previously been tough with players like Sneijder and De Jong who were looking to move away from a club. The local media also found it frustrating when the questions were about Manchester United rather than Holland but Van Gaal has never had too much time for their concerns.
"He gets irritated very quickly, but you always have a story," Mikos Gouka says. "He never forgets. If you say something he thinks is stupid, two weeks later, he'll bring it up."
Van Gaal carries this load, the man forever burdened on his journey by people he perceives as fools. Only the presence of men like Guardiola, Mourinho or Van Persie can make his football voyage bearable.
If the 2010 final needs to be expunged then Van Gaal has his own mistakes to rectify. His time as Dutch manager at the start of the century was his first sustained encounter with failure.
His achievements with Ajax were among football's finest, winning the European Cup with a team whose average age was 23. From there he went to Camp Nou and left Barcelona in 2000, congratulating the media for their role in his departure and viewed as an impossible man because of his endless rows with Rivaldo and others.
When he took the Dutch job the first time, some wondered if his time at Barcelona had scarred him. Would he now be more humble? "I've signed a contract with the Dutch national team until 2006, so I can win the World Cup not once but twice," he said on the day of his appointment.
Instead they failed to qualify for the tournament for the first time since 1986 and Van Gaal went into the wilderness. He had a brief spell back at Barcelona but that was truly miserable. He went to Ajax as technical director but it appeared that, like Arrigo Sacchi, he might be remembered for the glories of his youth.
In 2005, he took over at AZ Alkmaar, which could be interpreted as part of the slow decline. AZ went close to a title, then went close to relegation. Van Gaal was ready to leave until the players talked him round. In 2009, they became the first club outside the Dutch 'big three' to win the league title in 28 years. Van Gaal described it as his "greatest little masterpiece". Reports noted that it was redemption after he had failed to reach the World Cup with the most talented Dutch squad of all time.
Van Gaal was back. "I am who I am; confident, arrogant, dominant, honest, hard-working and innovative," he announced when he was appointed Bayern Munich's coach, before embarking on a spectacular if unsurprising spree of disagreements. He wasn't selective. He fell out with players and he fell out with the president. Holger Badstuber was said to be close to tears after one dressing-room row. Yet Van Gaal also took Bayern to the Champions League final in his first season but when he left in 2011, again it was no surprise.
He reportedly lost €2m through investments with Bernie Madoff but his return to the Dutch national side was about a more profound type of recovery.
The World Cup draw and the injury to Kevin Strootman, who had been the key midfielder for Van Gaal, prompted him to change the approach, working on the counter-attacking style that would undo Spain.
Four years ago, some players felt aggrieved at the criticism they received after the final. They had employed a win-at-all costs approach but the Dutch people wanted something more, something beautiful. Perhaps the players' argument would have been more compelling if they had won at all costs. "This was not the way to play, they lost in an ugly way," Van Gaal commented at the time. At the European Championships, Netherlands lost, lost and lost again.
Before the Spain game Van Gaal said something different. Van Gaal defended the approach of his predecessor. "Physical resistance is part of football."
His side are now prepared to do whatever they can, sprinkled with a bit of Van Gaal's charisma and style.
During the World Cup, Holland are training at Flamengo's old ground and when a visitor arrives, the first thing he will see in the foyer is a statute of Zico. The statue captures Zico as he was, vibrant and electrifying, his arms above his head celebrating a goal.
On the other side of the ground last Thursday, Zico attended the Dutch training session. He was presented with a shirt by Van Gaal and posed for pictures with Van Persie. Zico had brought his grandchildren with him and they too got to meet the players. As he stood beside Van Persie, Zico looked small and grateful, a man of 61 who still coaches but might be as happy slipping into a comfortable retirement.
They built statues of Zico and his achievements live in vibrant memory.
Van Gaal stood beside him, a year older than Zico but strong and powerful. They could build statues and paint pictures of Van Gaal's achievements at Ajax when he shook up the world. He can't escape his past, any more than Holland can, but Louis van Gaal's sense of himself always includes an iron belief in his future.
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