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Oct 31, 2007

The life and times of Louis Van Gaal

Back in August, on one of the hottest Saturdays for nearly a year, some of the finest talent in the west of Holland presented themselves in Alkmaar. Standing on the immaculately trimmed pitch of the new sports centre at the start of the new season were the AZ youth team and their Ajax counterparts.

The real football aficionados, who had shunned one of the last opportunities to catch a tan on the nearby beach, were in good spirits, especially those who favoured AZ as the club had invested heavily to make that last step to glory. Glory came so close last season, but ultimately it eluded them in the cruellest way. Yet, this could be their year.

Before the kick-off some of the eagle-eyed punters nudged their neighbours as they recognised a couple of baseball-capped blokes leaning over the fence by one of the corner flags. Ryan Donk and his chum Haris Medunjanin had arrived early to catch the first half of the game before jumping on the team bus to travel to Arnhem where they were to play Vitesse that night.

Donk came through the youth academy at Ajax and has been a regular in the starting eleven since his arrival from RKC Waalwijk last year to replace Joris Mathijssen. In the summer he was a member of the Dutch squad which won the European Under-21 Championships. Some compare him to Frank Rijkaard.

Also in the crowd that afternoon was Louis van Gaal, the manager, who is not pleased that 'Donk is on his legs in the scorching sun just hours before a game'. The immediate punishment is a one-match suspension so Donk found himself on the sidelines that night in Arnhem.

While Ajax's new multi-million strikeforce can't find a hole in the defence of the host side Donk's replacement, Milano Koenders, made a mistake, and so the team, new arrivals in the Dutch top four, endured their first defeat.

Since that night AZ have gathered only eight points from seven league games and stumbled embarrassingly over the first hurdle in the cup at first division Cambuur Leeuwarden. Just another turning point in the indescribable career of Van Gaal.

Louis van Gaal started his coaching career as an assistant at AZ in 1987 only to be fired within a year after a player rebellion. Ajax took him on as a youth coach while he was working for his training licence and was promoted to assistant under Leo Beenhakker two years later.

In September 1991, Beenhakker skipped to Real Madrid leaving chairman Michael van Praag fuming as his coach had just signed an extension to his contract and the future of the club apparently depended on the experience of the former national manager. As most competent trainers were unavailable Van Praag put Van Gaal in charge for the time being. The rest we know.

In his first season, Van Gaal brought the UEFA Cup home and went on to add the Champions League, three Dutch titles and a World Club Cup to the trophy cabinet over the next five years with virtually no money to spend.

At his next club, Barcelona, he underestimated the need for smooth relations with the local tabloids. Speaking Spanish with the locals can be a boon, but when one gets angry as easily as Van Gaal an inability to express oneself in another language becomes a problem.

When news was slow the best way to fill the daily sports papers was to oppose the trainer at his press conference and report the inevitable rant that followed. Not understanding Spanish at the right moment might have made his life much easier, but that is not what Van Gaal is like.

Secondly, his ideas to put his tactics before players did not go down very well with the superstars at Camp Nou. Telling World Player of the Year Rivaldo to stick to his position on the left wing or make space for others instead of roaming around freely, which the Brazilian took as his privilege, may well have been integral to his tactical plan but was not the best way to survive in the Catalonian quagmire.

And replacing those superstars with a busload of former Ajax players did not endear Van Gaal very much to the Socios. When he did not win the Spanish title for the third year in a row his time was up.

In 2000 he left Spain to take on his childhood dream to coach the Dutch national team at a World Cup. To his surprise his squad took international breaks as leisure time and an opportunity to catch up with old friends instead of training seriously on patterns and playing style.

Van Gaal's grand ambitions on the training pitch flew in the face of the indifferent squad members, who wanted to qualify as effortlessly as possible. The mutual irritation resulted in the only absence of a Dutch team on an international tournament over the last twenty years.

With a speech of fourty-five minutes, live on television, Van Gaal quit the national post to return for another disastrous year at Barcelona and an ill-fated time as technical director at Ajax, where he started the press conference of his tenure with a poem, declaring his love for the club.

In his second year he wrote an ambitious masterplan which included the objective to reach the semi-finals of the Champions League once every five years. Trainer Ronald Koeman opposed that, after which Van Gaal decided his motivation differed too much from the rest of the technical staff and quit.

In 2005 he took the coaching job at AZ. His predecessor Co Adriaanse had done wonders at the club, but has been known to squeeze all the potential out of his teams like lemons and to leave before they invariably implode.

Many felt there was little progress to be made at AZ, but Van Gaal managed to bring the team to a consistently higher level. After two years at the helm he came within seconds of the Dutch title last May. But somehow this tragedy may have come around by his own making.

During the season he insisted his team could not be considered as favourites for the title as they were working for the long run. However, this had a negative effect on his players who seemingly could not believe in the championship was within their grasp even when it was staring them right in the face.

Before the new season Van Gaal told his top scorer, and Dutch international, Danny Koevermans that he would have to take a back seat this season as the new signings would prevail. Koevermans could not take the strikeforce to the next level, the Champions League, as the manager explained.

At that time AZ hoped to sign Brazilian topscorer Afonso Alves from Heerenveen, along with a couple of younger talents. Alves did not come, while the designated talents failed to make an impact.

A disgruntled Koevermans left Alkmaar for PSV, where he now plays in the Champions League. AZ are languishing in the lower regions of the league as they are having so much trouble finding the net. Talk of the top four has evaporated.

Louis van Gaal does not have to worry about his job, though. His contract expires in 2010 and he might end his career in Alkmaar. There is one exception though.

He still has his eyes firmly on the World Cup, so when one of the top nations comes for him to coach them in South Africa in 2010 AZ is obliged to let him go. Van Gaal has even named the five relevant countries: Germany, England, Spain, Argentina and Holland. Argentina is his first choice. As a columnist I can't wait to see that happen.


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