Daley Blind has said the Netherlands are drawing inspiration at the World Cup from Louis van Gaal’s recovery from cancer.
The Netherlands head coach revealed in April that he had received 25 radiation treatments for an aggressive form of prostate cancer, having kept the diagnosis from his players during their World Cup qualifying campaign. They had been unaware Van Gaal was wearing a catheter beneath his tracksuit during training sessions or that he was spending nights after matches in hospital.
Van Gaal has said the treatment “had done its job”, enabling him to lead the Netherlands into the quarter‑finals of the World Cup in what could be his final role in football. Blind said the 71-year-old’s illness, and how he handled the situation, is on the players’ minds in Qatar.
“Of course it is in the back of our heads,” the Ajax defender said. “From the first moment we didn’t know about it. He did everything he could to keep it from us. He was even going to the hospital during the nights, so as not to show the team what he was going through.
“We have so much respect for how he is coping with this disease at the moment. But he is as sharp as usual. He is Louis van Gaal and he will never change. What you see is what you get. He is a great personality and we are very happy that he is with us.
“He always knows how to inspire players. It’s in the back of our heads but we don’t need any extra motivation. We want to win every game, we want to play for our coach and we want to go as far as we can.”
Blind’s father, Danny, is Van Gaal’s assistant at the World Cup and the pair shared an emotional embrace after the former Manchester United player scored the Netherlands’ second goal in their last-16 victory against the USA on Saturday.
Blind Jr said: “I can’t remember what he said to me – he just grabbed me! It was just a moment between father and son. We will talk about it again when we drink a coffee in the morning and in the evening when we drink a glass of red wine.
“It is crazy having this experience together. I’m just proud we can share it. This is what kids dream about: scoring in a World Cup or even being able to play in a World Cup. What can you say? There is a lot of joy, a lot of emotion and happiness. This is what we are here for.”
Louis van Gaal claimed the Netherlands have “big chances” of winning the World Cup after swatting aside the USA to advance to the quarter-finals. Van Gaal, who led his country to the semi-finals of the tournament in Brazil in 2014, must now prepare his team to face the winners of Saturday night’s Argentina v Australia game on Friday.
“I think we have big chances here,” said the 71-year-old, in his third spell in charge of his country. “We still have three matches to go. I’ve been talking about this for a year. We can become world champions – not that we will – but we can. I am talking about team-bonding, how we can build the strongest possible team and I derive pleasure from the group of players and, of course, performances and results.”
Denzel Dumfries, who set up the first two goals for Memphis Depay and Daley Blind then capped the scoring with a fine volley, was named the man of the match. When Van Gaal, sitting alongside Dumfries, was asked how highly he regards the 26-year-old, the Netherlands manager proceeded to kiss his defender on the cheek. “Denzel knows that full well,” Van Gaal said. “Yesterday or the day before yesterday, I gave him a big fat kiss. I’m going to give him another big fat kiss [now] so that everyone can see.”
Gregg Berhalter, the USA head coach since 2018, sent on Haji Wright with a quarter of the game to go and saw him pull a goal back via a freak deflection in the 76th minute after meeting Christian Pulisic’s cross, five minutes before Dumfries restored the Dutch’s two-goal margin. Pulisic had missed a chance to give the USA a third-minute lead.Berhalter, out of contract at the end of the year, was noncommittal about his future but said the tournament was a partial success. “I do feel that we have made progress,” he said. “We set out with a goal to show the rest of the world we can play soccer and I think we partially achieved that, although we fell short of our goals.”
Berhalter added: “We are a very young group at the beginning of their careers. We are going to catch up to that. We don’t have a Memphis Depay right now who is scoring in the Champions League and playing for Barcelona. That stuff is going to come. Regarding me personally, for the last month and a half I’ve been only focused on the World Cup and achieving things with this group, and in the next couple of weeks I’ll sit down and think about what is next.”
Louis van Gaal insists he is not looking past the World Cup before the Netherlands’ clash with the USA in the last 16, but he did little on Friday to shoot down the possibility of a switch to Belgium after the tournament.
“We want to become world champions so we’ve got another four matches ahead of us and then we’ll see whether there are any offers on the table,” Van Gaal said through a translator. “If we become world champions, everybody is so opportunistic in this football world that there will be offers. I know that full well.
“But for the moment we are not world champions. And if I have to believe the Dutch media, we will never become world champions.”
Van Gaal further acknowledged the rumblings that have linked him with the vacancy, saying: “Belgium is a wonderful country with really friendly people – [Knokke-Heist] is a wonderful beach town – so yes I’ve thought about it.”
Pressed to expand on what it would take for him to take the job, Van Gaal said that Belgium’s Football Association needed to persuade his wife, Truus, in order to close the deal.
“You have to convince Truus,” Van Gaal said. “Joking aside, I am always at liberty to take decisions myself but there are certain countries that I won’t move to, and my wife, Truus, will certainly not move to.”
The speculation did not end with Belgium. Asked whether taking the reins of an African side would pass muster with his wife, Van Gaal again left the door open: “I don’t think so, but you’ve got to keep your options open.”
The team are 18 games unbeaten since then, having conceded only 14 times, making him an in-demand figure, with Ronald Koeman confirmed as his successor. But despite all the chatter on Friday over his future, Van Gaal insisted his eyes were fixed on the present.
“USA has demonstrated that it has an excellent team, I would say even one of the best teams,” Van Gaal said. “It’s going to be a very tough match but it’s nothing we can’t overcome. We also have a good team.”
Louis van Gaal has accepted criticism of the Netherlands after the draw with Ecuador on Friday but has demanded respect for the 17-game unbeaten sequence since he took charge.
If the Netherlands beat Qatar, who are already eliminated, in their final Group A match on Tuesday they are guaranteed to make the last 16, having claimed four points from their first two matches. After convincingly beating Senegal 2-0 in their opener they were flat in the 1-1 draw with Ecuador on Friday, conceding a late equaliser by Enner Valencia.
Van Gaal, when was asked about the scrutiny the latest display received, said: “I agree with the criticism but we are unbeaten for 17 matches and I think if you look at the goal difference too we deserve some respect.”
The Netherlands have conceded only 14 times during that run, which began in August 2021, but Van Gaal brushed off the notion that his previous statement saying that they are at Qatar 2022 to win the World Cup could be counterproductive.
“I hope this is no pressure at all because always you have to identify the goal and if you don’t identify the purposes and say the quarter-finals is enough you won’t become world champions,” the 71-year-old said.
“We never said we will become world champions, I said we have a chance to become world champions and the players are convinced of that. If you want to become a world champion you will have to be capable of beating everyone.”
A noticeably relaxed Van Gaal made a joke when Frenkie de Jong was asked if he was in good health after it had been observed that the playmaker appeared a bit pale when sitting alongside the Dutch coach at the tournament media centre in Doha.
“Thank you for saying Frenkie looks a bit pale because I’ve seen that as well,” Van Gaal said. “The rest of us have been lying at the poolside. Me not so much but my mother lay in her coffin with rosy cheeks when she died, it’s a matter of genes.”
De Jong confirmed he is fine to face Qatar beyond having a sore throat and not being able to sleep well recently. Van Gaal, meanwhile, explained why he has confidence in Andries Noppert, the goalkeeper who made his debut against Ecuador despite having made only 32 Eredivisie appearances across six years.
“He has a personality of which we feel that he wouldn’t be very [overawed] by this World Cup, which is important,” the coach said. “We assessed how he played in the last weeks to the World Cup – he was in good shape and the other argument, the other reason why we picked him, is that he can give the ball short in the build up which is what we want.”
Van Gaal, who recently had treatment for prostate cancer, came out of retirement to lead the Netherlands again and he suggested he may be open to offers beyond the tournament. “If we become world champions then the football world is a very opportunistic world. You never know,” he said.
After the shock defeat Germany faced criticism that their protest had caused a lack of focus. Van Gaal was asked about this. “That is the question,” he said. “I don’t want to run that risk – we’re here to be a world champion … We put a full stop behind all the political issues [last] Thursday when we invited the migrants and we have this purpose. We are not going to have that tarnished by the actions of Fifa or whichever other organisation.”
Belgium’s Eden Hazard echoed Van Gaal. “Germany’s gesture? They would’ve done better if they didn’t do it and tried to win,” the forward told RMC Sport. “We’re here to play football, I’m not here to convey a political message.”
It was put to Van Gaal that those back home were experiencing the World Cup differently because the spotlight remained on Qatar’s human rights issues. “That has got to do with the environment in the Netherlands,” said the 71-year-old. “A different environment than what we see here.
“Everything has been organised in an excellent way. No criticism whatsoever. Perhaps it’s all about human rights [at home] and maybe rightly so but also perhaps not rightly so. I believe I’ve responded enough to that.”
Cody Gakpo scored the Netherlands’ second in their opening 2-0 win against Senegal, the 23-year-old’s fourth goal in his 10 games. Van Gaal believes the PSV forward can be a breakout player of the World Cup. “He is a player with a lot of talent and possibilities,” said the coach.
“He is young and is a player who is still evolving and has a lot of room for improvement and has a personality that will do everything that it takes. Whether he will be a star at this World Cup, I don’t know, but it is possible.”
The Netherlands face Ecuador on Friday with Memphis Depay, who had had a hamstring problem, being fit to play a half at least after managing half an hour against Senegal. Van Gaal admitted selecting him in the squad contravened his usual code regarding players who are not fully fit.
“This is a player that is quite extraordinary [so] I’ve set aside my principles because I believe he is incredibly important to us,” Van Gaal said. “I explained this to the players. I do all this for Memphis and the players understand this. He played 30 minutes and really isn’t grappling too much with the issue so we’re proceeding to the next step, which is 45 minutes.”
“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 man 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, whatever happens, 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 colon 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 that tracksuit hanging loosely from his shoulders the Iron Tulip 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 Van Gaal 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 in Manchester 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 of 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.