Louis van Gaal, the veteran coach of the Netherlands, has long been regarded as one of soccer’s most fearsome straight shooters: unapologetically blunt, consistently withering, wholly self-possessed. Van Gaal does not suffer fools, and when van Gaal looks around, he believes he sees quite a lot of them.
It was somewhat disconcerting then, a couple of weeks ago, to hear him use a news conference to discuss — at reasonable length — the genetic benefits of his mother’s “cherry-red cheeks,” which she retained, apparently, well into her old age. (The context of this is not, even weeks later, entirely clear.)
Still, perhaps the 71-year-old van Gaal was just in an unusually good mood, feeling a little playful in the early days of the World Cup. He has, after all, made it clear that he is in Qatar for the eminently serious business of trying to become a world champion; there is, he has said repeatedly, very little point to entering competitions if you are not going to try to win them. For van Gaal, this is business, not pleasure.
And yet, on Thursday afternoon, there he was again, sitting on a raised dais next to one of his players — Memphis Depay, transformed into his manager’s foil — cracking jokes, offering asides, apparently having the time of his life. There was a gag about how good he looks for his age (this has been a leitmotif); one about his old sparring partner, Dick Advocaat, still working despite being “even older than me”; and one bit that ended with him offering to kiss Depay “on the mouth.” Van Gaal, hard as it is to believe, is having fun.
That is not to say he has lost any of the old fire, of course. He has been locked in a cold war with some sections of the Dutch news media for some time. On Thursday, he met their inquiries with an icy glare and an acerbic put-down that, generally, tended toward an instruction to ask better questions. When he wanted to be, though, he was wry, and teasing, and just a little silly.
The trite explanation for this, of course, would be that van Gaal has obtained a new perspective on life over the past couple of years. He was found to have prostate cancer in December 2020, and after he came out of retirement to lead the Dutch national team — something he did only “for the country,” as he put it — he was taking training sessions during the day and undergoing radiation therapy at night. After such an ordeal, it is probably hard to take soccer quite so seriously.
But listening to van Gaal, that seems unlikely. He takes his work no less seriously than he did when he was at Ajax and Barcelona and Manchester United. His conflict with the Dutch journalists who cover his team is rooted, essentially, in his conviction that the country’s traditionally adventurous style is out of step with the modern game; he sees himself, despite his age, as trying to drag it kicking and screaming into the 21st century. He is locked in what he sees as an ideological struggle, one that he feels matters.
More compelling, then, is his own explanation. His personality has “not changed all that much,” van Gaal said, except in one regard: “I have more patience now than I used to have,” he said. “And patience is a wonderful thing.”
This will, in all likelihood, be van Gaal’s last job, even though he has had a great time at this World Cup telling reporters that they should “never say never,” barely a beat after insisting he will never work again. And he would, by and large, be forgiven for having the air of a man in a rush, desperate to accomplish the few things that have eluded him before time is called.
As it is, van Gaal has gone the other way. He has been notably relaxed during the tournament, not just in his interactions with journalists, but with his players, too. He does not have long left in the job to which he has devoted his life. He seems determined to enjoy whatever time remains.