DOHA, Qatar (AP) — This year’s World Cup it was not part of Louis van Gaal’s plan. In fact, it was a big inconvenience.
He was retired when the Dutch soccer federation asked him last year to coach the national team for the third time. He was days away from turning 70. And he was also being treated for aggressive prostate cancer.
He still took the job.
“Because simply no one else was available at the time,” Van Gaal said.
Thus began the final task of one of football’s most successful managers, a man who has taken charge and won trophies with Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester United and who has now extended his managerial career over 30 years responding to his country’s call for the World Cup in Qatar.
Van Gaal may have initially stepped up more out of a sense of duty than a burning personal ambition to get back in the game. There is still one more chance to win the grand prix for the Netherlands, who have lost three World Cup finals and lost in the semi-finals in 2014 in a penalty shootout when Van Gaal last coached.
The current team beat Senegal 2-0 in its World Cup debut on Monday, giving Van Gaal a 38th victory as a Dutch manager, a national record and another indicator of his pedigree.
Could that milestone be the start of a World Cup fairy tale for the man they call the Iron Tulip?
Perhaps, but if it’s going to be a glorious final chapter for coach Van Gaal, who has said he will definitely retire after this World Cup, it won’t be a fairy tale. Rather it will be a reward for a lot of hard work if Van Gaal’s reputation as one of the strictest disciplinarians and most intense men in the game still holds up, even after a five-year retirement and a health problem as serious as cancer.
Van Gaal smiled slightly as his reputation rose again at this World Cup. It was suggested to him that he had been “angry” for a whole spell as Barcelona manager early in his career, for example. Surely it was time to soften up a bit.
“I never changed. I never changed as a person,” Van Gaal said. “Maybe I have gained some experience. He came to the conclusion that some things could be done differently. But at the end of the day I have never changed over the course of my career.”
And he doesn’t expect to do it now, even if he is 71 and the oldest coach at this World Cup. His recent fierce criticism of giving the World Cup to Qatar is proof of this.
His current players have no problem with that character, which captain Virgil van Dijk referred to as “direct” although Van Gaal sometimes gets angry and is almost always stern.
“He’s a great human being,” Van Dijk said.
Forward Vincent Janssen added: “He always knows how to motivate us.”
Van Gaal’s dedication to this World Cup campaign has been clear.
He gave up his retirement, no doubt spent in part at his holiday home in the Algarve region of Portugal, to mentor a new generation of Dutch players when it wasn’t something he had really set his sights on. He trained for a time from a wheelchair last year after falling off his bike in training camp and breaking a hip bone. He wouldn’t take any time off.
And then there is cancer.
Although he was first diagnosed in 2020, Van Gaal did not tell his players immediately when he was appointed manager in August 2021, thinking the details of his illness and the grueling treatment he was receiving while coaching them would be distracting. He put the team first.
He finally announced that he had cancer, and hopefully he was on his way to beating it, earlier this year.
“When the news came out, it was a shock for us,” Van Dijk said. “It was tough… but we wanted to be there for him. And we will definitely go further knowing also that this is the last World Cup for him.”
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