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Aug 5, 2008

Better than Michels, Van Gaal and Cruyff?

For the first time since 1952, Holland will participate in the Olympic football tournament and there is only one man to thank - coach Foppe de Haan. When he retired as club coach of Heerenveen in 2004 to enjoy life with his wife and his several grandchildren he reluctantly went into a meeting with the Dutch FA, expecting they would have nothing interesting to offer. However, when chairman Henk Kesler asked him what he thought of taking a team to the Olympics, his sportsman's heart just couldn't say no. It meant that at least the Dutch Under-21s were managed by a coach who took the job seriously.

'The youth team has underperformed for decennia, partly because most coaches were filling time until they found a new club. They never had their heart in it,' De Haan said about his recent successes. 'The FA decided that they needed someone who went for it one hundred per cent.'

De Haan never played a second of professional football himself and started as a teacher. As a part-time footballer he found pleasure in training and coaching and climbed up the ladder by doing several courses.

When he started as head coach of second division Heerenveen in 1985 he was a complete nobody in professional football. Nine games into his first season his team finally managed to secure a victory, although they were one of the favourites for promotion. With any other board the career of De Haan would have crashed after finishing 17th in his first season, but chairman Riemer van der Velde believed in the bespectacled Friesian headmaster type.

When the club was still in midtable in 1988, De Haan agreed to take a step back to manage the youth academy. He returned to coach the first team in 1992 and won promotion immediately and reach the UEFA Cup and even the Champions League before the end of the century. As the coach of the Dutch Under-21s he won both European Championships under his guidance and earned a ticket to the Olympics, as was demanded from him.

Foppe, as he is endearingly known in Holland, is not like any other trainer. I once asked him for an interview about taking training methods from other sports. It was on short notice, but his answer was typical: 'Not on Tuesday as that's when I have to work in Zeist. Wednesday is my day off, so if you don't mind coming to my house in Friesland, we could meet there.'

So there I was sitting in his spacious office with a magnificent view over the acres of Friesian greenland and moors behind his garden. Preparing for Euro 2007 on home soil nearby, De Haan had caused a stir in the national press when he took his squad to a special gymnastics hall in Heerenveen. The cameras were anxiously rolling to film Gianni Zuiverloon hanging in the rings and Ryan Babel balancing on the beam. What a way to prepare for a tournament!

'This hall has a special floor, which is quite different from a football pitch,' explained De Haan. 'You have to use other muscles on it to move and I believe that this is good for the players.'

While other coaches are ridiculed or eyed with suspicion in the mainly conservative football world when they only suggest the use of mental or athletic coaches, Funny Foppe has such a pedigree that his every word is taken as the truth.

'Although it is true the players could use more suppleness in their muscles, they'll never pick this up in one day.' he sniggered during my interview. 'I just took them because I was proud to show the newly built gymnastics hall in Heerenveen and it could use some publicity. What the media do with the story is their business.'

Still, De Haan thinks southern European players have the advantage of a more efficient muscle structure with which they use less energy. 'Our Dutch players have a typical stiff way of running, going too deep in their knees. The tumbling-floor in the hall in Heerenveen showed them there are other ways of moving. So it was not a complete publicity stunt.'

With an open mind on training methods he once visited a session of basketball coach Ton Boot to check his succesful methods out. 'Boot used to repeat a simple pass or a lay-up maybe a hundred times in a row. Especially football players don't like this monotony, but I have copied it. After a while they could do some simple moves automatically well. During games and especially in tense situations it can speed up play when you know for sure that your pass will arrive. With this in mind I also believe that it is useful to train on penalties or free-kicks.'

At Euro 2007 Foppe was desperate for a good striker. 'Klaas-Jan Huntelaar's goals had taken us to the title in 2006, but he was not available anymore. Then I remembered the tactics at team handball. There you have a guy running deep in the opponent's half. He is creating havoc around the circle. I needed someone in my team who would permanently be on the edge of off-side, making the field as long possible.

'He could be played in by a long ball, which he should chase. If he would take possession, he would have to keep it and wait for the others. Most forwards tend to go to the goal immediately which leaves the rest an enormous distance to cover. This takes so much energy. So now I only needed someone to perform this tactics.

'I found Maceo Rigters, who was having an indifferent season at NAC Breda, but suited perfectly in my plans. Meanwhile Ryan Babel moved around him to take the loose balls. It worked great.'

Sports Illustrated tips the Dutch team for bronze, behind Argentina and Brazil. They first have to escape from a very intercontinental group with Japan, the United States and Nigeria, which might be difficult enough. If Foppe brings home the gold medal, I rate him a better coach than Michels, Van Gaal and Cruyff.


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