Title triumph gives Van Gaal last laugh
AZ Alkmaar may have claimed the 2009 Eredivisie championship this weekend, but they leapt the final hurdle in their own inimitable style.
"Clutching defeat from the jaws of victory" has been their middle name in recent years and, again this weekend, their expected title winning home game against mid-table Vitesse Arnhem went pear-shaped. An early lead was reversed by two fluke goals to hand AZ their first defeat in eight months.
With Ajax only ten points behind and four games to go, AZ fans felt the ground disappear from under their feet yet again. However, the following day, PSV came to the rescue with a resounding 6-2 thrashing of Ajax. A result which secured the title for AZ and prompted coach Louis van Gaal to proclaim the achievement as his biggest success in football.
After a disastrous 2007-08 campaign, AZ Alkmaar could not have started this season any worse. Having lost their opening home game against NAC Breda, they subsequently suffered a 3-0 defeat in The Hague against promoted ADO. 'Here they go again' was the overall opinion, but coach Louis Van Gaal startled everyone at the press conference by saying his team had played their best game in six months. Howls of laughter and a field day for television shows and newspapers followed. Yet Louis van Gaal is the one currently laughing all the way to his team's title-winning party.
Van Gaal meeting the press is a fascinating, continuing story. In his playing days he earned a good reputation as the representative of the players' union. His speeches in the meetings of football executives baffled all as footballers were not supposed to be eloquent or knowledgeable. He was a likable interviewee in the eighties for his interesting views on the game, but in his first days as the head coach of Ajax his relationship with the press turned sour almost instantly.
In September 1991, Leo Beenhakker suddenly left Amsterdam for Real Madrid. The Ajax-board decided to put their trust in Beenhakker's assistant and former youth coach van Gaal. However, around the Dutch record champions there has always been an influential cadre of former players, well-off supporters and pressmen.
The biggest Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf and one of the leading sports journalists, Frits Barend, spearheaded a campaign to replace Van Gaal with Johan Cruyff. Results in the league went against him, but the coach was saved by a UEFA Cup run, which ended with Ajax triumphing. Only then Van Gaal felt his job was safe, but the scars of this fight with the press have never healed.
The root of the problem is that he does not trust journalists and, secondly, believes most of them are dim-witted when it comes to the tactics of the game. Although he must be aware that the sports pages in newspapers will never be filled with deep tactical exposés on the interaction between the defensive midfielder and the left-back to contain the opposition forward in whatever zone Van Gaal has invented, the need for easy sound bites still makes him mad.
In 2000 he accused the Spanish tabloids of manufacturing his demise as coach of Barcelona and started his farewell speech with the famous line: "Amigos de la prensa. Yo me voy. Felicidados." (Friends of the press. I am leaving. Congratulations.) He added that Catalunya is a great place to live, but not to work in, finishing with: "I've accomplished more with Ajax in six years, than Barcelona has ever done in a hundred." When a reporter tried to continue the criticism, Van Gaal flew off the handle, claiming that the local press had only one vantage point.
Van Gaal's "Sempre negativa, nunca positiva" rant is now a popular clip on YouTube and has inspired several rap artists.
In his time as national coach of Holland, Van Gaal realized that a representative of the Dutch FA needs some decorum. Despite miserable results, the fourteen months went by without much of a ripple. However, upon his resignation he took the best part of an hour to explain to the nation in a live broadcast what, in his eyes, had gone wrong. When he returned to Ajax as technical director in 2004 he declared his love for the club openly in a poem, leaving a year later after a difference of opinion with the board over the future goals for the club.
He returned in 2005 at AZ Alkmaar to continue his successful work as a coach. And when his team was caught in a downward spiral last season, the paranoid face of Van Gaal returned at the press conferences. Several journalists were vilified for asking supposedly stupid questions, or for not asking questions at all, but just dropping in statements which he had to react to.
"Journalist think they know as much about football as I do, but they don't," he once pointed out as the root of the problem.
He also felt that he was the victim of a conspiracy in which referees would never let AZ beat the traditional Dutch top three unless they outclassed them. When his old sparring partner Frits Barend pointed out that decisions usually evened out over the season, hot headed Van Gaal responded with an overview of faulty decisions. He concluded by blacklisting Barend again.
Not only do the press find themselves on the receiving end of his strong opinions; so do his colleagues. When Ron Jans of FC Groningen said that they deserved their goal after so many chances, Van Gaal replied by pointing out that his opponent, in fact, had only one shot on target. He added that he wondered whether Jans had been at the same game as him.
Following another row at their next game Jans stated that he was fed up with Van Gaal for degrading his colleagues in public. The coaches' union gave a warning to Van Gaal, who subsequently withdrew from the organisation he had founded himself.
His self-righteousness in public can easily be taken as big-headedness and annoys quite a few people, especially in Holland where one is supposed to look for consensus. Unfortunately for him, he is not able to fend off devious press remarks with a joke, yet reacts as if stung by a bee, usually taking it as a personal offence.
Obviously in these media crazed days Van Gaal is God's gift to popular magazines and TV shows. Quitting his job as a half-time pundit with the Dutch team, when Van Basten coached, he did not use a white lie like having a lack of time. No, he ostentatiously stated that his comments had been the same at every game and were never implemented. So what was the use? It was as if he saw himself not as a pundit but an advisor.
He also stopped writing his columns in a professional coaches' magazine as these were never picked up by the newspapers. Van Gaal would also rather bite his tongue than admit a sports hack is right, which makes interviewing him uncomfortable at times.
However, the 57-year-old is a beacon of honesty in the murky world of football. The ease with which he is provoked on screen sometimes turns him in a cartoon character, feeding his distrust for journalists, but these journalists still remain the only medium to relate his interesting views on football to the public.
Smirks were all around when AZ stumbled at the last hurdle in 2007, but now his revenge is sweet and well deserved.