O, Louis: In Search of Louis Van Gaal
By Hugo Borst
Yellow Jersey Press, 2014
When Louis Van Gaal agreed to become the next manager of Manchester United, he sparked yet another war. This time, however, it was literary, a war of words written on the page rather than words spoken at a press conference. No offence meant to Maartin Meijer’s Louis Van Gaal: The Biography, but of the two translations released in 2014, Hugo Borst’s O, Louis was certainly the more intriguing. The Yellow Jersey Press seal of approval certainly helped, as did the sinister cover photo decorated with the Dutch manager’s own quotes.
So what exactly is O, Louis? Well, it’s certainly a strange one. 32 pages in and Borst makes an announcement; ‘You might be expecting this to be chronological…This is not a biography.’ Instead, the book turns out to be a bizarre, Woody Allen-esque exploration of one man’s obsession, and the subject of that obsession. As such, it’s part biography, part autobiography, part ‘tribute’. ‘Some of this book is about me’, Borst admits. ‘That’s inevitable given that my obsession with Louis Van Gaal has taken on grotesque proportions.’
The pride, the candour, the loyalty, the arrogance, the suspicion, the hidden warmth, the outbursts of righteous indignation – the former Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager is certainly an engrossing character, with far more enemies than he has friends, especially among the media. In short, sharp, non-sequential bursts, O, Louis presents each period of Van Gaal’s career in football, as well as each of the parts that make up his complex character. The prose is witty, analytical and frank, representative of the more daring approach of the Dutch football press. It’s hard to imagine a British journalist suggesting that Sir Alex Ferguson had ‘all the mobility of a slug on sandpaper’ and living to tell the tale.
‘Objectivity has never been my strong point’, Borst warns the reader, but for the most part, that statement does him a disservice. His own narrative may be somewhat irrational but he’s the first to admit Van Gaal’s split personality; the bad and the good, ‘a crazed loon and a consummate professional sharing the same body’. Borst’s own views are presented alongside media transcripts and a series of interviews with less biased authorities. His choice of interviewees – including a novelist, a priest, a psychiatrist and a spin doctor – is unexpected but there’s plenty of intellectual insight on offer. Theatre director Luk Perceval, for example, is fascinated by Van Gaal’s ‘blend of spiritual leader and prima donna.’
The problem with O, Louis is that the obsession gets tiresome, as obsessions always do. There’s only so much desperate discussion of Van Gaal’s poor communication skills and father-complex that one can take before the question begged is, ‘So what?’ 140 pages build up to the revelation of why Borst and Van Gaal have fallen out and it’s an anti-climax of petty proportions. Comedian Theo Massen quite rightly tells Borst that he shouldn’t expect Van Gaal ‘to be a good coach and to act more or less like a normal human being’. However, that doesn’t stop him from trying to pin every possible psychological condition on Louis – narcissistic personality disorder, schizophrenia, autism. Thankfully, psychiatrist Bram Brakker is on hand to speak some sense: ‘Putting any label on a colourful character like him would be to sell him short.’
As it must, the book’s journey ends with a resolution of sorts following Holland’s surprising performance at the 2014 World Cup. At the beginning of the book, Borst says ‘There are few things I want more in life than to understand Louis.’ By the end, he is arguably no closer to understanding Van Gaal but what he does understand is that it’s time to let go. O, Louis is a funny, often frustrating, but ultimately unique and rewarding look at a top manager’s mindset. Now for LVG vs Mourinho, Part Two…
Buy it here