There is a very Louis moment towards the end of the Louis, the stunning new film by Dutch director Geertjan Lassche that feels less like a documentary and more like a two-hour meditation on the meaning of sports, relationships, mortality; life through the lens of a brutally honest 70-year-old Dutchman process trainer.
Louis van Gaal has been training with the national team shortly after his latest unveiling as Netherlands manager. He is approached by Virgil van Dijk, who is only noticed by Lassche’s brilliant camera, and informs Van Gaal that Virgil van Dijk will be the first penalty taker in any future shootout. “Ah…,” says Van Gaal, a surprised look on his face. “So you’ve become a coach now.”
“No … no,” Van Dijk said. “What I’m saying is, I mean…” But Van Gaal is already raising an eyebrow and smiling awkwardly, before going back to telling Frenkie de Jong that his man hit more often, then scolding the whole squad, with feeling, for standing still in possession.
The players smile and listen. It’s clear that they love this old man, Van Gaal who looks a bit sad these days, his monolithic head more frowning than ever, she like a cliff face, one that should be named a Dutch national monument right now.
What the players don’t know is that Van Gaal has a catheter and colostomy bag fitted under the tracksuit that hangs loosely from his shoulders. Or that he’ll just walk away from national team duty to spend his nights in hospital, watching football on an iPhone on his wrist, battling the after-effects of prostate cancer treatment. By the time the crucial game against Norway comes around he will be in a wheelchair, a (absurd) legacy of falling off his bike trying to keep up with the players.
Van Gaal had 25 radiation therapy sessions before taking the job in the Netherlands in August 2021. His record since then reads: played 13, won nine, drawn four, scored 38. He will take his country to Qatar in November to knowing this is the final act. in a 50 year career. He is fragile now, but also so bright and strong, 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 voice, and with a sparse, uncommented archive. It’s a great football film that never feels like a football film: deeply moving, revealing 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 huddled side by side in the back of his car as he shouts back from the front seat as they have a great argument about the 2002 World Cup qualifying campaign. Lassche lets his camera linger on the these identical, gloomy middle-aged men that Dad is bringing, like a David Lynch dreamscape.
Later Van Gaal goes to see Erik ten Hag at Ajax, and we hear Ten Hag speaking English (okay) to his players before Van Gaal takes charge, switches to the local language and starts with: “Let me to say that in my time everyone would be speaking Dutch”. He pulls Hakim Ziyech to one side. Their exchange goes like this:
“Hakim Ziyech. I think there’s always room for improvement… don’t you agree?”
“And do you have a realistic self-image?”
“The fans accepted you, despite the fact that you gave the ball too much … that says something.”
Ziyech says thank you and takes his signed book. Later a reporter asks Van Gaal about his famous media exchanges. “Has your anger always been true?” “Yes,” came the reply. “And that’s a stupid question.”
But Van Gaal also has another habit: he is good at being right, in a way that may be immediately obvious. With all roads leading to the ruins of Rome, this brings us to his time at Manchester United. “Manchester was the most difficult time for me,” he says. “I came in as manager and everything was disappointing. Most of the players in the squad were over 30. It’s unbelievable, I was at the richest club in the world and I couldn’t buy the players I wanted.”
Van Gaal talks to Wayne Rooney on Zoom, who casually admits that he never got his tactics right during his 10-year United career. “I saw that you could improve us as a team. I have never worked on a team shape at Manchester United. I never did it! I found it so strange,” says Rooney. “Then to go in and always do it the way you wanted, I really enjoyed that.”
Sections of the English press portrayed Rooney as a sort of correctional man-beast, confused by Van Gaal’s guidance. It turns out he wanted more of this. But then Van Gaal was portrayed as a bit of an eccentric during his time at United, talking about mutiny because the players felt the drills and the briefings were, you know, a little drawn out. Van Gaal is going to the World Cup this year. United are still in the limelight as they get worse. Maybe it looks less funny now.
The sack is discussed with some new details about how bare it was. Van Gaal’s wife, Truus, says: “I knew Louis would be sacked. We had a little boardroom there and it was always fun with the old Manchester stories. [Alex] Ferguson, Bobby Charlton. We had a table with good food and drinks. And suddenly they stopped to greet us, just waved in the distance. Something was wrong. Then the man [Ed Woodward, United’s then chief executive] he denied it. I said, ‘Louis, you’re going to be fired, be sensible about it,’ and I closed the apartment door.”
During the FA Cup final win over Crystal Palace in 2016 it became apparent on social media that José Mourinho was already employed. “I told Louis, you’re fired,” Truus continues. “He got so angry. Why do you have to ruin my party, stop this negative nonsense. Later he called me. It’s Louis – you can come home. You were right.” Van Gaal had been sacked, for a long time, without a board member in sight. “His voice broke. When I came home I saw that he was crying.”
Otherwise the film is basically Van Gaal walking into rooms and saying things, seeing things, feeling things. He is often on a balcony leading riotous singing. He watches some gorillas in the wild, staring at them hard, half expecting him to follow in and start telling them how to eat sugar cane better.
We stay in the room to see that he has cancer, the news accepted with full eye contact and hard questions about the realities. He describes getting an injection to lower his testosterone levels. “It completely destroys the libido, Geertjan. I also have a catheter which doesn’t help when you’re trying to make love,” he says, handing Lassche one of his wife’s currant buns with cheese. And you realize in these moments that Van Gaal is essentially the father of football. A little maddening, a little wonky and embarrassing, but absolutely necessary.
There is also football. Van Gaal meets Edgar Davids, one of his favorite former players, who appears here in some shocking footage from the archive (it was an absolute miracle). Talking to his old players, Van Gaal seems to come from some other world outside of football, a more priestly, Lutheran tradition of moral absolutism, right and wrong, skin-scaling doctrine.
Van Gaal’s Total Man Principle requires total control, submission to the team (and to Louis Van Gaal). This tension is in many ways the story of his career, the end of his tactical era, and the tides of modern top-flight football, a governing body that only works when players can interfere . As Van Gaal talks to Davids the shadow of that great Ajax team rises again. It took him three years to win a title there, and four to become European Champions at an average age of 23. If Van Gaal had achieved nothing else then his name was already in lights.
Louis will be released in the UK by Vertical Entertainment this autumn.