The life and times of Leo Beenhakker
At a press conference in Stuttgart, where Feyenoord had just crushed VfB with a convincing 3-1 win in the first round of the 1998 UEFA Cup, a local reporter asked coach Leo Beenhakker what he thought of the sorry state of German football. "Haben sie eine Stunde Zeit?" (Do you have an hour to spare) was Don Leo's triumphant answer. Hilarious. A fortnight later Stuttgart left De Kuip with a 3-0 win and a ticket to the second round. Their coach Winnie Schafer only needed to repeat the quote a couple of times to his squad. To be fair, at the end of the season Beenhakker proceeded to bring Feyenoord their only title in the last 18 years.
Beenhakker was never a professional player, but became the youngest coach (26) in the Netherlands when he started at second division club Veendam in 1968. His first job in the Eredivisie at Go Ahead Eagles was cut short when he was dismissed after eight months. Four years later, while working as a youth trainer at Ajax, he was suddenly propelled to take charge of the first team when coach Cor Brom had to leave in August 1979.
A year later, Beenhakker was called to the boardroom by chairman Ton Harmsen a year later with Ajax in mid-table position. "Leo, we have contracted Wim Jansen, back from the States. And for technical advice, you can call on Johan Cruyff."
The advice came sooner than Beenhakker expected. In the next home game, FC Twente surprised Ajax by taking a 3-1 lead. With half an hour remaining and the visitors still a goal up, Cruyff came walking through the tunnel with his hands in his pockets. A startled Beenhakker later said he should have kicked Cruyff in the backside and sent him back to where he came from. But there was hardly time for the coach to react as his new advisor immediately started directing. Wildly gesticulating, he put several players in different positions and Ajax won 5-3. Four months later. Beenhakker decided to quit.
After three seasons at Real Zaragoza, Beenhakker returned to unfancied Volendam to sensationally lead them up to third place in the table within four months. Suddenly, Leo was the cream of the crop and he led a coaches' revolt to replace national team boss Kees Rijvers with Rinus Michels for the 1986 World Cup qualifying campaign, as mentioned in my piece on June 1. When Michels was hospitalised with heart problems, Beenhakker was on hand to take the Dutch team part-time and reach a World Cup play-off.
Meanwhile, at Volendam the team tail-spinned from top to bottom and were relegated, with Leo leaving the club to take the Dutch team to Mexico for the World Cup. That also failed horribly but the Dutch FA still offered him a new contract, though Beenhakker chose to take the reins at Real Madrid, who were desperate to win the European Cup again.
In his three years in the Bernabeu, Beenhakker's team - including Hugo Sanchez, Emilio Butragueno, Michel, Gordillo and Sanchis, dominated the Primera Division, while he was the only coach to lead Real into a European Champions Cup semi-final between their finals of 1981 and 1998. Three of them, in fact, though the final dramatically eluded him on each occasion. The 1987-88 season was especially galling. Drawn against Maradona's FC Napoli and both 1987 finalists FC Porto and Bayern Munich, Real may have had the strongest opposition ever in the run-in to a semi-final. Next were PSV, who seemed laughable opponents in comparison. However, Real could get beyond two draws and Guus Hiddink's team went on to win the cup.
The next year, Don Leo seemed on his way to the promised land after a 2-0 home win over AC Milan in the semis, but a Van Basten-Gullit-induced tornado led to a historic 5-0 defeat in the San Siro. Within a week, Don Leo signed for Ajax ("It feels like coming home', he said, although he was born in Rotterdam) and they won their first title in five years in 1990.
At that time, his friend Rinus Michels was, as a Dutch FA board member, responsible for finding a new Netherlands coach to replace Thijs Libregts, fired only a month before the World Cup 1990. The players themselves voted for Johan Cruyff, a decision that was immediately leaked to the press, but Michels went for second-choice Don Leo, backed by a few Ajax players. Why Michels took that decision, we will never know as he took the secret into his grave. Perhaps it was a question of pride.
Arguably, Netherlands had the best players at the tournament, but the team disintegrated quickly from the moment they met. Beenhakker was caught in the middle of all kinds of conflicting players, staff and media, and he was the coach no one really wanted. His charm worked against him as the squad needed someone who could bang some heads together. Legendary is the press conference in which Don Leo came out with a Chinatown-esque plastered nose. Netherlands left Italia '90 out of the back door, covered in shame. Afterwards, Beenhakker draped himself in self-comiseration, claiming that that "less than 10 % of what happened came out".
He returned to Ajax, but was lured back to Madrid the next season for an ill-fated second spell at the Bernabeu. It was the start of an epic football journey with jobs all over the world from Central America to Saudi Arabia and Turkey. In between, he took Feyenoord to their last title in 1998, before again moving to Ajax as a technical director where, to his credit, he was one of the few who had faith in Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Later he stunned the football world by taking Trinidad & Tobago to the World Cup in 2006, but he failed to do so with Poland, who he coached in conjunction with a position as advisor at Feyenoord.
Disgruntled Polish FA chairman Grzegorz Lato took the opportunity to fire him as soon as was viable, which happened to come after a crushing 3-0 defeat against Slovenia. Lato, unable to wait, told the press first and Beenhakker was embarrassingly infomed by a TV reporter during his live post-game analysis of the game on the pitch.
Back at Feyenoord as technical director, Beenhakker excelled as the vexed, troubled football legend, who had seen it all. He started by telling the fans he would bring them back to the Coolsingel (a famous street in Rotterdam) to celebrate a title, despite knowing that the club was spiralling towards an almost inevitable breakdown.
Due to financial restrictions by the Dutch FA, Feyenoord hardly spent any money and when Beenhakker did choose to invest the last millions left in the war-chest, it was on Sekou Cisse of Roda JC - a misfiring, oft- injured forward. Of his loanees and free transfers, none have made the line-up on a permanent basis. Few were surprised when news that his expiring contract would not extended emerged, but Don Leo made such a song-and-dance about the way he was informed, that the board has no option than to kick him out immediately, with the decision revealed on Monday.
Leo Beenhakker has found himself a sort of niche position. He has no network of former team-mates to rely on, but in the meantime is also not restricted by that fact. Like a cuckoo he jumps from nest to nest, mostly leaving in acrimonious style, before sweet-talking himself into other jobs and charming his way into returning to old positions.
Beenhakker enjoys a good relationship with the press as he always gives them the idea that he has let them into a secret. Expect him to find a new job soon enough, though - knowing him - he may have one already.