Gerard van der Leyem doesn’t understand the discussion about the field play of the Dutch national team at the World Cup in Qatar very well. “I find it really funny,” says the 70-year-old former Louis van Gaal assistant at Ajax and Barcelona. “We reached the final three times with Orange, often with attacking and beautiful football. The whole world talked about us, but we never won. Now Luis is doing it differently and now he’s not good again.”
Van der Liem sat on the bench next to Van Gaal during the heyday of Ajax in the 1990s, and the team from Amsterdam won the Champions League and the World Cup in 1995, then Van Gaal took his assistant to FC Barcelona.
At Ajax, besides results, it was also about playing attractive football, always in the characteristic 4-3-3 formation. “This system was sacred. We were romantics, and football was for the crowd,” says van der Liem. “But Luis was always reflective and analytical, even then. Football evolves. Of course Luis also looks at it, that it evolves along with it. It’s very simple: he comes to the conclusion that with the current situation the system has a better chance of success.”
Van der Lem knows from experience that Van Gaal didn’t just move to a different approach. He first had to convince the Orange players. “But we succeeded,” said Van der Leyem, who sent Van Gaal an email shortly before he left for Qatar to wish him good luck. “Believe me: if footballers think it won’t work that way, they will really sound the alarm. Luis convinced them that they could become world champions with this.”
The unattractive way of playing football causes a lot of criticism in the Netherlands. During the first half period of the eighth final match between the Netherlands and the United States (3-1), former internationals Marco van Basten and Rafael van der Vaart were ruthless. Van der Liem: “Louis shuts himself up on that. He might hear it and read it, but it doesn’t affect him. He’s focused on that way of playing and won’t let anything or anyone fool him. You don’t have to be crazy, be surprised if he gets to the final, you know. I can see them beat Argentina anyway, because we have better players in general. And if the Orange go too far, everyone will be behind him again. Then no one will be able to care anymore, the players at all.”
Van der Liem asserts that winning an award is the most important thing in football, and it is much more important than anything else. “If you win a World Cup, you carry it with you for the rest of your life. Few people have had that.”
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