Peter Pomerantsev · Louis van Gaal
For many fans, football is a dad’s game. Fathers introduce their sons (and, less often, daughters) to it, and they may build their relationship to each other through the game. Club loyalty is often passed on from father to son. For adult fans, following football can be a legitimate return to lost childhood, with managers as replacement father figures. Football phone-in radio shows are a Freudian feast of grown men blaming managers for all their problems or showing boundless faith in them.
In O, Louis: In Search of Louis van Gaal, the Dutch journalist Hugo Borst zones in on the death of van Gaal’s father when Louis was 11 as the formative event in his development. Van Gaal remembers his father as an ‘authoritarian figure; at home there was a mixture of warmth and strict adherence to moral standards.’ According to Borst, van Gaal as a football manager is trying to be the father he had taken away from him.
At the same time, Manchester United is searching for a new patriarch to replace Alex Ferguson. David Moyes, the manager who first succeeded Ferguson, was the unconvincing new boyfriend your mother brings home. He quickly lost the loyalty of the influential generation of players Ferguson had brought up – Giggs, Scholes, the Nevilles, Butt – who still hang around the family estate like so many Karamazovs waiting for their moment to inherit Old Trafford.
When van Gaal arrived he seemed a perfect fit. Like Ferguson, van Gaal is famous for falling out with journalists, slapping down big-headed stars and micromanaging his protégés. At Barcelona and Bayern Munich these habits made van Gaal insufferable. In Manchester they seemed like a nostalgic return to Ferguson’s day.
But love is quickly turning to hate, as the football his team plays is excruciatingly boring and results are going south. Van Gaal’s ‘philosophy’ of keeping possession has become an end in itself. Manchester United now keep possession without ever doing anything with it. Van Gaal invokes ‘possession’ as proof of progress. Losses are considered OK as long as United had more possession. At times van Gaal’s possession sounds like a psychological tic, football tactics as an expression of a need to control the world.
This is the point at which Van Gaal the stern but benevolent pater familias morphs into something more grotesque. The van Gaal who announced he had ‘achieved more with Ajax in six years than Barcelona has in one hundred years’. The van Gaal who speaks of himself in the third person – ‘Louis van Gaal has nothing else to learn’ – and bears no criticism: ‘Am I so clever or are you so stupid?’ he once asked a reporter. The van Gaal who went ballistic when the Bayern Munich striker Luca Toni wouldn’t sit up straight at lunch and yanked him from his seat.
How much more will United fans stand for? Are we (for I have to admit to being one) so infantile as to need a Ferguson-like figure for ever?
But when it comes to rejection, van Gaal is already ahead of the game. When he joined Manchester United he stressed his contract was only for three years, and he was unlikely to stay long – implying the club needed him more than he needed United. He says he will walk out before being fired.