O, Louis

O, Louis: In Search of Louis Van Gaal

By Hugo Borst

Yellow Jersey Press, 2014

Van GaalWhen 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…

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Stillness and Speed: My Story

Stillness and Speed: My Story

By Dennis Bergkamp

Simon & Schuster, 2013

In his introduction to this excellent study of the Dutch master, David Winner suggests that ‘A footballer like no other ought to have a book no less distinctive’. And distinctive this book is, although you feel its winning format could very soon become the norm. Footballing autobiographies have long been a cause for mockery and/or scepticism. Much hinges on the unspecified role of the ghost writer; is this shadowy figure sticking faithfully to the player’s words, or taking all manner of artistic license? Stillness and Speed negates that question and the question of ghost writers altogether. ‘My Story’ may be the subtitle and ‘Dennis Bergkamp’ may grace the spine, but this is very much a collaborative project. Instead of ‘assisting’ with a standard autobiography, Winner builds a brilliant biography around in-depth interviews with The Non-flying Dutchman. Would he have come to life in the way he does in conversation, if he’d written his own story? It’s unlikely.

The levels of interaction are the greatest strength of the format. Winner is a terrific interrogator, fun, fierce and provocative, always ready to ask the difficult question and persist with it, chipping away at the cool reserve. When discussing penalties, for example, Bergkamp finds himself firmly on the back foot, fending off criticisms of his national team’s shoot-out performances.

DB: ‘You’re telling me he [Frank de Boer, Euro 2000] took the penalty wrong?’

DW: He did take the penalty wrong. It was terrible.

DB: ‘No, it was a miss.’

DW: It was a terrible penalty.

DB: ‘He missed the penalty, therefore it’s not good. You can’t have a good penalty that is saved. I’ve tried to explain that…’

The professional that he is, Bergkamp fully commits to Winner’s innovative style, even responding to what others have said about him earlier in the chapter. In ‘Intermezzo’, covering his unhappy spell at Inter Milan, he advises Winner on who to speak to, saying ‘We need an opinion, don’t we? … I don’t mind, as long as I get a chance to react.’ And after ‘Their Truth’ (three cautiously critical interviews with the manager and two teammates), we get ‘My Truth’, the carefully considered retort. It’s the football writing equivalent of Lars Von Trier directing an episode of Eastenders.

So what do we learn? Bergkamp’s dogged pursuit of footballing perfection extends to a keen interest in both physiology and geometry (‘you have to get all angles and the maths correct…It’s like solving the puzzle’). The Dutch legend is as eloquent as you’d expect on the subjects of touch, time, passing and space. Have YouTube at the ready, as we’re treated to in-depth studies of key assists and goals, including that one against Newcastle. And it turns out there’s warmth beneath the ice; while he was never too bothered about making friends in football, once he’d settled at Arsenal he became the team prankster, putting Martin Keown’s clothes up step-ladders and pulling Ray Parlour’s shorts down at training.

All very entertaining but then there’s the other, more intriguing side of Dennis that conforms to that age-old Dutch stereotype. Quiet and polite he may often be, but he’s also confident, driven and obstinate. He’s an ‘adventurer’ who has always made his own decisions, whether that be choosing Inter over the Dutch-haven of AC Milan, or refusing to travel by plane. He had no idols growing up and he’s never been a follower – for Bergkamp, football is all about being unique. Early on, he tells us, ‘My best trainers were the ones who let me do my own thing: Cruyff, Wenger and Guus Hiddink’. Those who tried to dictate his play, on the other hand (namely Louis Van Gaal and Ottavio Bianchi), quickly found themselves with an unhappy player on their hands.

As you’d expect from the writer of the classic Brilliant Orange, many of Winner’s most detailed and illuminating sections here concern matters Dutch. Stillness and Speed begins and ends at Ajax under the watchful eye of the footballing revolutionary Johan Cruyff, with Bergkamp first as a Cup Winners’ Cup-winning school kid and later as the coach of De Toekomst (‘The Future’). In between these bookends, twin chapters ‘Player Power’ and ‘Power Player’ deftly unravel the national team disappointments at Euro 96, World Cup 98 and Euro 2000. As Thierry Henry puts it, ‘That Dutch team with Dennis didn’t win anything – crazy! Too crazy for me.’

Where the book feels surprisingly hollow is in the 130-plus pages on Bergkamp’s 11 years at Arsenal. Abandoning strict chronology, Winner opts for a thematic approach, with chapters on fitness, cheating, leadership and penalties. Detail is substituted for overview. We’re told of ‘The Plan’ that Dennis signed up for but we’re not really told aboutits development, its ebb and flow. Instead of season-by-season analysis, these chapters are dominated by laudatory quote after laudatory quote from the likes of Ian Wright, Tony Adams and Thierry Henry. The surface is more stroked than scratched; Nicolas Anelka, Bergkamp’s strike partner for 2 key seasons (1997-9), is only mentioned once in passing, while Arsenal and Holland teammate Giovanni van Bronckhorst is never mentioned. Instead, a chapter is given over to Bergkamp’s interest in golf. Perplexing, frustrating, but Winner did warn us; a distinctive book for a truly distinctive footballer.

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I Am Zlatan Ibrahimović

I Am Zlatan Ibrahimović

By Zlatan Ibrahimović (told to David Lagercrantz)

Penguin, 2013

‘It was a fairy tale, and I was Zlatan Ibrahimović.’ If you’re looking for a book that confirms everything you thought about the modern football mindset, this may well be it. There are fast cars, tattoos, video games and fights (Van der Vaart, Zebina, Mijhailovic, Onyewu to name but a few) galore. Of his Ajax, Inter Milan and Barcelona teammate Maxwell, Zlatan admits, ‘I’m surprised he got to be so good. Guys that nice don’t usually make it in football. You’ve got to be tough and hard’. ‘Hate’ and ‘revenge’ are words that occur again and again here; Zlatan’s story is one of thriving on the former and striving after the latter.

It might not surprise you to hear that Zlatan can ‘bear incredible grudges’; against the middle-class parents who started a petition to get him ejected from his youth team, against the Malmo management who cheated him out of money in his Ajax transfer, against every reporter who’s ever condemned him, against the Swedish team for sending him home from international duty, against cowardly Guardiola who ‘destroyed my dream’. I am Zlatan is packed with Godfather-style tales of retribution – ‘I don’t forget … I remember, and I get my own back’. There are several sizeable chips on Zlatan’s shoulder, not least his class/ethnic background and his relationship with his one-time alcoholic and distant father (‘I’d been trying to get attention all my life’). The wronged victim stance gets a little hard to stomach at times (on arrival at Ajax, he’s too poor to stock his fridge because he’s spent it on a Mercedes) but it’s all part of the man, the myth.

As is the money. ‘A footballer’s career is short’ he philosophises. ‘He’s got to look after his own interests.’ I am Zlatan covers five transfers (not including PSG) and is at its most fascinating when dealing with Ibra’s role in proceedings. The significance he attributes to them is striking; ‘There’s one game on the pitch. There’s another on the transfer market, and I like them both’. With the help of his mafioso agent, Mino Raiola, Zlatan pushes for transfer after transfer – from Ajax to the bright lights of Italy where ‘footballers are gods’, from Serie B-condemned Juventus to superstar-less Inter, from Champions League-less Inter to Spanish giants Barcelona and then from Messi’s Barcelona to superstar-less AC. There are mind-games aplenty; for his move to AC, Zlatan tells Barcelona that he will only sign for rivals Real – ‘the idea was that those guys would become so demoralized, they’d have to let me go cheap, which would help us get a good personal contract.’

Money, fame and success are the priorities, and in larger quantities than anyone else. ‘Everybody’s interested in the one who’s number one’, we’re reminded again and again. Zlatan chooses Inter over AC first time round because he doesn’t want to play second fiddle to Kaka, while if we read between the bitter lines, Barça doesn’t work out because of their no-star philosophy. In case you hadn’t realised, Zlatan isn’t exactly a model ‘team player’ – he wants teammates in the way a general wants an army behind him. Just as he looks to have bucked the trend at Inter by bonding the club’s many cliques, he tells you he negotiates an improved contract in return. The book is full of record boasts, whether it be transfer fees, goals scored or the number of Barca fans that turned up for his unveiling. He emerges as a figure who isn’t exactly hard to please, just expensive and tiresome.

But is there anyone who Zlatan doeslike? Without spoiling too much, Ronaldo and Van Basten emerge as heroes, while Maxwell, Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Henrik ‘Henke’ Larsson and Olof Mellberg are players he trusts and respects. In terms of managers, Fabio Capello and Jose Mourinho are the two that emerge unscathed and, in fact, adored. Capello is credited with developing his ‘winner’s mindset’ during his spell at Juventus, while at Inter Mourinho was ‘a guy I was basically willing to die for’. With Capello, it’s the mental toughness that Zlatan admires but with Mourinho it’s the added personal touch that wins him over.

Because for all the posturing, Zlatan is a figure who needs to be loved. The ambition to entertain is as key on the page as it is on the pitch. You don’t read this for the historical detail (in the Bosnian War, his father’s town ‘was being raped, more or less’) or the insider’s view on the Juventus match-fixing scandal (‘we were the best and had to be brought down’). You read I Am Zlatan for the cult of ‘Ibra’, for the prima donna antics and boastful lines like ‘An injured Zlatan is a properly serious thing for any team’. As much as it’s a fairy tale, it’s also pure pantomime.

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