While the phrase ‘a storybook career’ cannot be applied to every professional, it does describe Mark van Bommel’s footballing journey perfectly. Between 1992 and 2013, the Dutchman played for some of Europe’s biggest and most successful clubs, including PSV Eindhoven, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and AC Milan, at each one establishing himself as a hard-tackling and inspirational leader in midfield, while even becoming the Bavarians’ first-ever non-German captain.
He was just as dominant at figure on the international scene, scoring ten goals in 79 appearances for the Netherlands and helping the Oranje to the Final of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. Now retired, the 38-year-old spoke exclusively to FIFA.com about his current plans, his prediction for the 2015 FIFA Ballon d’Or and one of the things he misses about being a player.
FIFA.com: Mark, how are you filling your time these days?
Mark van Bommel: I’m doing great and I’m really busy too, even if that may sound a bit strange. Most players think they’ll have lots of free time to enjoy after hanging up their boots, but it’s actually been the opposite for me. After working on them for over two years, I’ve now completed my coaching qualifications and am working in Saudi Arabia as the assistant coach of the national team. And my children are playing a lot of football and tennis at the moment, which also keeps me busy.
When might we see you on the touchline as a head coach?
I’ve received a few offers, but first I need to develop as a coach. If I think back to the first few training sessions I led and compare them with where I’m at now, the difference has been very positive.
Your former club FC Bayern were in the market for a new coach recently, before recruiting Carlo Ancelotti for next summer. That would have been a bit soon for you, though, correct?
(Laughs) Yes, it would definitely have been too soon.
The current coach in Munich is Pep Guardiola. How important is he for the club?
He’s massively important. Jupp Heynckes and the others that came before him were very important as well – Bayern even won the treble under Heynckes - but Guardiola is an outstanding coach that guarantees you trophies and an attractive brand of football. The conditions he has to work in are fantastic too. If you look at the squad, any coach would dream of working with that group of players.
What do you make of Ancelotti?
It doesn’t really surprise me that they turned to him. As a coach, he’s a calm guy. He’s also shown that he can handle big personalities, and one of the reasons for that is that he played the game at the top level himself. That’s a huge advantage if you want to be successful at the very top clubs. He’s a great appointment.
Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi: which of them will win the FIFA Ballon d'Or?
If you’re talking about trophies and silverware, it has to be either Messi or Neymar. Barcelona have won everything in sight this year, so it can only really be between those two.
How much does it hurt you that the Netherlands will not be competing at UEFA EURO 2016 next summer?
It’s obviously not a good situation. If you can’t finish third in a group with Iceland, Turkey and the Czech Republic, then you can’t go saying it's because we have a young team or we need time to develop. In the Netherlands, you don’t have time on your side – you simply have to qualify every time. Normally we produce teams good enough to do that, but this squad isn’t as strong as squads that we’ve had for previous tournaments and qualifying campaigns.
Where do you think the problems lie?
It’s obviously very difficult to constantly switch from playing a 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3 to a 5-3-2 to a 4-4-2 and so on. You can tweak details here and there but the basic organisation of the team should be clear. Wholesale formation changes don’t work with the national team because you can only work together with the players a few days at a time. It’s not all down to the system, though. You also have to consider the players you have at your disposal. If you have Arjen Robben on one wing and a similarly pacey and direct player on the other, then you have to use that to your advantage and set up your team accordingly. You don’t play with two strikers, for example.
Who will win EURO 2016?
Germany are always among the favourites and you have the usual teams like France or Spain, but Belgium are also definite contenders. You always have a surprise team in there as well, but we’ll have to wait until the tournament itself to find out who that is.
Did you celebrate Germany’s triumph at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil?
There were a few players involved that I played with. I was in touch with Basti [Bastian Schweinsteiger], [Miroslav] Klose and [Thomas] Muller and I was delighted for all of them. I know what it’s like to be in the Final, and to go on and win it must be an amazing feeling.
If you can’t finish third in a group with Iceland, Turkey and the Czech Republic, then you can’t go saying it's because we have a young team or we need time to develop.
The UEFA Champions League also resumes in February. Who do you see winning the trophy?
I think Bayern can go a long way this year, as can Barcelona, while Real Madrid and Atletico shouldn’t be discounted. They may not be as strong as Bayern or Barcelona, but they’re both hard to beat. However, I think if you asked that question to a hundred people, 95 per cent of them would say Bayern or Barcelona.
You were an aggressive player and a leader when you were on the pitch. Do you see players like that in today’s game?
Every team needs a player like that. The sides that win trophies always have one or two players that set the tone on the pitch and pull everyone together when things aren’t going well. They say the right things to get their team-mates believing and tactically they’re very clever. That may sound strange, as people think that these players only kick the opposition and play the game cynically or unfairly, but that’s not the case. These players read the game and decide matches. The other team may be stronger, but if you win an important tackle in midfield, you’re presented with a moment that can turn the game around. Sometimes you just need to set an example. These players can sometimes win a game with one or two key contributions, and I like the guys that can do that. Arturo Vidal is a good example, as is Paul Pogba. Technically they’re extremely gifted but they’re also clever in the way they play the game. They know exactly when and how they have to win a 50-50.
You played in many of the top leagues except in England, where the football would have actually suited your style very well. Why did a move to the Premier League never work out?
There were lots of offers, but each time something with the deal wasn’t quite right or I’d just signed a contract somewhere else. I would have liked to play in England but all in all I’m very happy with my career. Not everyone can say he played for Barcelona, Milan and Bayern Munich.
Which spell of your career did you enjoy most?
My longest stint abroad was when I played for Bayern Munich. I know everyone at the club today, from the board and executives right down to the kit man. I’m still in contact with them, as I am with my other clubs too, but my closest contact is with Bayern.
Do you follow women’s football these days?
In the Netherlands, women’s football is regarded differently to men’s football still. I don’t want to say that the standard isn’t as good – that might have been the case in previous generations – but the women’s game is coming on leaps and bounds these days, and you can already see that in Germany. Women’s football is expanding everywhere and that’s a very good thing.