“It’s ridiculous that the World Cup is there. Fifa says they want to develop football there. That’s bullshit. It’s about money, about commercial interests.”
A quick Qatar 2022 World Cup quiz. Who said this? Was it: (a) the perennially concerned Gareth Southgate; (b) the perennially concerned head of any European Football Association actually going to this World Cup; or (c) the oldest manager at Qatar 2022, who really shouldn’t be doing this at all, who seems a little more gaunt and luminous as he approaches his own professional endgame, that famous head ever more sheer and flat, like an escarpment of the Dutch North Sea coastline.
It is hard to think of a more poignant football-based story at this jet-lagged Narnia-trip of a winter World Cup than the presence of Louis van Gaal. Van Gaal had been out of football for five years when he agreed to replace Frank de Boer in August last year. Qatar will be the final act of a 50-year football career. There are two obvious reasons why this already feels like a gripping piece of theatre. In its simplest form this is a function of Van Gaal’s state of ill health, the unbroken will and the basic physical courage that drives a 71-year-old with aggressive prostate cancer to come out of retirement and manage an international football team.
In many ways Van Gaal’s steadfastness has underplayed the gravity of his condition. Even as the Netherlands were jockeyed over the line to qualification, the players were unaware that beneath the tracksuit hanging loosely from Van Gaal’s shoulders he was wearing a catheter or spending the night after a game in hospital medicated against the pain.
That period was captured brilliantly by the new Dutch-language documentary Louis, in which the cameras follow the Iron Tulip as he playfully scolds his squad, or winces in agony at every bump in the road on the drive home, or watches the decisive defeat of Norway from his wheelchair, the legacy of a cycling accident suffered – seriously, Louis – while trying to keep up with his players (Van Gaal has a yen for this kind of thing: as AZ Alkmaar coach he broke a leg trying to do the pole vault at a teaching convention, then, naturally, blamed inadequate footwear and amateurish landing conditions). But it’s not just that. As ever with Van Gaal it all comes back to football, or at least to the primacy, the basic scale and heft of his place within football.
There are already many competing versions of the Van Gaal legacy. Van Gaal is a genius. Van Gaal may have once been a genius. Van Gaal certainly talks and walks and acts like a genius. Hmm. Is Van Gaal actually a genius at all?
It helps to divide that 36-year coaching career into three periods. The first was the initial gallop, the part where his version of highly technical systems-football – the pitch divided into interlocking triangles, possession divided into six stages from pre-possession to post-possession – swept all before it. Aided, and this really does help, by a bloom of unusually high-end young talent.
Ajax won the Champions League in 1995 on a tiny budget with an average age of 23. That era, with Van Gaal as the slightly wild-looking man of tactical destiny, will remain untouched, a wonder of the sporting age.
Over the next two decades Louis 2.0 was something more distracted. The 2009 league title with AZ was a wonderful thing. Either side Van Gaal managed to fall out with pretty much everyone at Bayern Munich and Barcelona, with the notable exception of the young players who would go on to become defining iterations at both clubs. By the time he turned up at Manchester United there was a sense of some cranky and outmoded general, striding the halls in his Napoleonic hat, reflexively mocked for his highfalutin ideas, his cartoonish mannerisms, his failings.
And now we have this, late Louis, ailing but unchanged, and with a chance to add a final note of warmth. There has been an undeniable uplift in his year and a half with the national team. Under Van Gaal the Netherlands have played 15, won 11, drawn four and scored 41 goals. This is not a great squad but there is a sense of something coherent here, of Van Gaal’s persuasive didactics applied to a group of malleable young players. This team beat Belgium in September by sitting deep, giving up the ball and scoring from a set piece. Three days earlier they beat Poland by dominating possession and giving Cody Gakpo the time to show how dazzlingly good he can be.
In Qatar Frenkie de Jong’s return to fitness as the pivot and distributor valve will be key, a player Van Gaal loves, and also loves to chide and provoke. The 3-5-2 shape is more flexible than England’s version. The defenders are individually good. The Netherlands are favourites to emerge from Group A and from there into a possible meeting with England, a team the Dutch have beaten in their past two knockout games.
But it’s not just that either. Van Gaal – so stubborn, so certain, so Jesuit in his convictions – also seems to embody something refreshingly astringent. At a time of endless spin, of exhausting moral relativism, of defeat to the machine, here comes football’s unembarrassable grandad, tongue still scalpel-sharp, gaze still unblinking, and unwilling to dance for the cameras.
In March this year Hassan al-Thawadi, secretary general of the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, was quick to dismiss Van Gaal’s comments about this World Cup as “ridiculous”, albeit without explaining why or how, or indeed seeming to notice Van Gaal was criticising Fifa rather than Qatar per se. And there is certainly enough here to add a note of intrigue and press conference jeopardy to the Group A fixture between Netherlands and Qatar in Al Khor on 29 November.
Mainly though, those remarks – off the cuff in response to a question – are still the most strikingly unequivocal statement offered by anyone actually taking part in the show. Van Gaal will speak his mind in Qatar, hostage to his own Total Man principle, which demands a level of humility and devotion to the collective, and above all adherence to the ideas and opinions of Louis van Gaal.
And while Van Gaal may have been stuck in a tactical time and place for the past 20 years, he does undeniably have a talent for being right. There is a kind of game you can play with greats of football Van Gaal has either given a leg-up or a break or a decisive tweak, often against their will; a list that includes Dennis Bergkamp, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Xavi, Frank de Boer, Ronald de Boer, Andrés Iniesta, Jari Litmanen, Marc Overmars, Patrick Kluivert, Carles Puyol, David Alaba, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, Thomas Müller and the 17-year-old Marcus Rashford.
Managers influenced by Van Gaal? How about Pep Guardiola, José Mourinho and Jürgen Klopp. Even a list of Van Gaal’s enemies is A-list gold, from Johan Cruyff, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Rivaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, right down to Ed Woodward and now, it would seem, the secretary general of the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy.
The final journey through Qatar may be brief. But there is something agreeable about the prospect of this gaunt, upright figure striding the corridors, fuelled by an unflinching belief in his own basic righteousness – but also by things like team-play and intellectual rigour, not to mention a willingness to call bullshit on pretty much everything in his eyeline. It feels, at the very least, like a fittingly bold and adversarial farewell.
• This article was amended on 17 November 2022. Louis van Gaal has aggressive prostate cancer, not colon cancer as an earlier version said.