Fragile, luminous, compelling: Louis van Gaal is football’s essential dad

There is a very Louis moment towards the end of Louis, the brilliant new film by Dutch director Geertjan Lassche that feels less like a documentary and more like a two-hour meditation on the meaning of sport, relationships, mortality; life through the lens of one brutally honest 70-year-old Dutch prozess-trainer.

Louis van Gaal is doing drills with the national team shortly after his latest unveiling as Netherlands manager. Virgil van Dijk approaches him, observed only by Lassche’s wonderfully wry camera, and informs Van Gaal that he, Virgil van Dijk, will be the first penalty taker in any forthcoming shootout. “Ah…,” Van Gaal says, a look of wonder spreading across his face. “So you’ve become a coach now.”

“No … no,” Van Dijk stutters. “All I’m saying, what I mean is …” But Van Gaal is already hoisting an eyebrow and laughing weirdly, before getting back to telling Frenkie de Jong to beat his man more often, then scolding the entire squad, with feeling, for standing still in possession.

The players smile and listen. It’s obvious that they love this old geezer, a Van Gaal who looks pretty startling out there these days, his monolithic head flatter than ever, chiselled like a cliff face, a head that should surely have been designated by now as a Dutch national monument.

What the players don’t know is that Van Gaal has a catheter and a colostomy bag fitted under the tracksuit hanging loosely from his shoulders. Or that he will go straight from national team duty to spend his nights in hospital, watching football on an iPhone on his gurney, fighting the after-effects of prostate cancer treatment. By the time the decisive game against Norway comes around he will be in a wheelchair, a legacy (absurdly) of falling off his bike trying to keep up with the players.

Van Gaal had 25 radiation-therapy sessions before he took the Netherlands job in August 2021. His record since reads: played 13, won nine, drawn four, scored 38. He will take his country to Qatar in November knowing this is the final act in a 50-year career. He’s fragile now, but also luminous and utterly compelling, that famous honesty sharpened to a point by old age and last things.

Lassche’s film, which will be released in the UK later this year, is seen entirely from the perspective of Van Gaal and the people in his life, directed without voiceover, and with sparse, un-narrated archive. It is a great football film that never really feels like a football film: deeply touching, revelatory in parts, and also very funny because Van Gaal is funny.

There is a lovely section where Van Gaal is driving with the De Boer twins crammed next to each other in the back of his car while he shouts back from the front seat and they have a wonderful argument about the 2002 World Cup qualifying campaign. Lassche just lets his camera linger on these identical, grouchy looking middle-aged men being lectured by Dad, like a David Lynch dreamscape.

Later Van Gaal goes to see Erik ten Hag at Ajax, and we hear Ten Hag speaking (pretty good) English to his players before Van Gaal takes over, switches to local tongue and starts with: “Let me just say that in my time you would all be speaking in Dutch”. He pulls Hakim Ziyech to one side. Their exchange goes like this:

“Hakim Ziyech. I think there’s always room for improvement … do you agree?”

“Of course.”

“And do you have a realistic self image?”

“Yes, always.”

“The fans have accepted you, despite you giving the ball away too much … that says something.”

Ziyech says thank you and takes his signed book. Later a reporter asks Van Gaal about his famously overheated media exchanges. “Was your anger always real?” “Yes,” the reply comes. “And that is a stupid question.”

But Van Gaal also has another habit: he’s good at being right, in a way that might not seem instantly obvious. As all roads lead to the ruins of Rome, this brings us to his time at Manchester United. “Manchester was my most difficult period,” he says. “I came in as manager and everything was disappointing. Most of the players on the squad were over 30. It’s unbelievable, I was at the richest club in the world and I could not buy the players I wanted.”

Van Gaal talks to Wayne Rooney on Zoom, who drops in casually that he’d never actually worked properly on tactics during his 10-year United career. “I saw you could actually improve us as a team. I’d never worked on team shape before at Manchester United. I’d never done it! I found it so strange,” Rooney says. “Then to go in and constantly do it the way you wanted, I really enjoyed that.”

Parts of the English press had portrayed Rooney as a kind of remedial man-beast, confused by Van Gaal’s instruction. It turns out he wanted more of this. But then Van Gaal was depicted as a hilarious eccentric throughout his time at United, with talk of mutiny as the players felt the drills and the briefing documents were, you know, a bit of a drag. Van Gaal is going to the World Cup this year. United are still thrashing about in a slough of despond. Perhaps it seems less funny now.

The sacking is discussed with some new detail about how stark it all was. Van Gaal’s wife, Truus, says: “I knew Louis would be sacked. We had a small boardroom there and it was always fun with the old Manchester legends. [Alex] Ferguson, Bobby Charlton. We had a table with good food and drinks. And suddenly they stopped greeting us, just waved from afar. Something was wrong. Then the man [Ed Woodward, United’s then chief executive] denied it. I said ‘Louis, you’re going to be fired, get wise to it,’ and I slammed the door of the apartment shut.”

During the FA Cup final victory over Crystal Palace in 2016 it emerges on social media that José Mourinho has already been hired. “I told Louis, you’ve been fired,” Truus goes on to say. “He got so angry. Why do you have to spoil my party, stop all this negative nonsense. Later he rang me. It’s Louis – you can come home. You were right.” Van Gaal had been sacked, long distance, without a board member in sight. “His voice sounded broken. When I came home I could see he had been crying.”

Otherwise the film is basically Van Gaal walking into rooms and saying stuff, looking at things, having feelings. Often he’s on a balcony leading a riotous singalong. He watches some gorillas in the wild, staring at them hard, and you half expect him to lean in and start telling them how to eat sugar cane better.

We stay in the room to see him having his cancer diagnosed, the news taken with total eye contact and hard questions about the realities. He describes having an injection to dampen his testosterone levels. “It completely wipes out the libido, Geertjan. I also have a catheter which doesn’t help when you want to make love,” he adds, giving Lassche one of his wife’s currant buns with cheese. And you realise in these moments that Van Gaal is basically football’s dad. A little maddening, a little wonky and embarrassing, but utterly essential.

There is football too. Van Gaal meets Edgar Davids, one of his dearest former players, seen here in some startling archive kickabout footage (he really was an absolute miracle). Speaking to his old players, Van Gaal seems to come from some other world outside football, a more priestly, Lutheran tradition of moral absolutes, of right and wrong, of skin scalding instruction.

The Van Gaal Total Man Principle demands total control, subjugation to the team (and to Louis Van Gaal). This tension is the story of his career in many ways, of the passing of his tactical era, and of the tides in elite modern football, a controlled collectivism that works only when players are able to submit. As Van Gaal talks to Davids the shadow of that great Ajax team rises once again. It took three years to win a title there, and four to become European champions with an average age of 23. Had Van Gaal achieved nothing else from there his name was already set in lights.