The silver head of Leo Beenhakker, often engulfed in the blue smoke of his trademark cigarillos, is a glimpse into football’s past. Born to the gritty streets of Rotterdam 67 years ago, he has had a place on the bench at the top tiers of the game for well over four full decades. Currently Technical Director at Feyenoord in Holland’s industrial nerve centre, Beenhakker has been at the helm of such renowned clubs as Real Madrid, Ajax and Chivas Guadalajara as well as his much-vaunted national team in a career that has taken him to eight countries in three different continents.
Part poet, part rogue, part romantic, part tactician, part philosopher, Beenhakker brings a purity of vision to the modern game, so often criticised for being bereft of genuine characters and individual thinkers. 'Don Leo' - as he came to be known during his years in Spain and Mexico – still has an unrivalled passion for football after so many years. After decades of glory and frustration in what the Dutchman describes as this "wonderful, wild jungle of football", he has seen it all.
Read on for a sampling of Mr. Beenhakker’s choice verbiage, always spoken with a wry half-smile and in a deep gritty voice that evokes experience, winning, losing, wisdom and wit.
“The game is not mathematics. In football, two plus two very rarely equals four - it's usually three or five and sometimes zero.”
Beenhakker to FIFA.com on the unpredictable nature of our beautiful game
“Football is just like dope - you can only go so long without it before you simply need to have a hit.”
Don Leo to FIFA.com after a few months out of the game, and just before taking over Trinidad and Tobago’s national team in 2005.
“We know we should have lost to Sweden, on paper. But football is not played on paper; it’s played on a pitch with grass in the real world, and anything can happen out there.”
The Dutchman after guiding Trinidad and Tobago to their first FIFA World Cup™ in 2006 and drawing much-fancied Sweden in their opener in Dortmund.
“Isn’t it great when something crazy works? We’re trying to hold on, so I should bring on a defender, but I bring on a speedy striker instead and let the other team chase him around. I just love it when things like that work!”
Beenhakker after ten-man T&T’s famous 0-0 draw with Sweden at Germany 2006, and the decision to bring on a then-unknown Kenwyne Jones to occupy the Swedish defence for the last few minutes.
“‘I love you Zlatan, you really are a good boy for not scoring on your old friend Leo.’”
Beenhakker tells reporters what he whispered to Swedish ace Zlatan Ibrahimovic after the shock draw in Dortmund, to which ‘Ibra’ – a young student of Don Leo during his time at Ajax – replied: “What can I say, I love Leo. I really do.”
“You can't plan anything in football. The next game is all that matters.”
Beenhakker after leading Poland’s national team to their first UEFA EURO competition, in 2008.
“We're simply very good...”
Leo when asked why there are so many Dutch coaches working at the top tiers of football in Europe and beyond.
“I love football, and I enjoy my job. I've been in this business more than 40 years, but every day is still a real pleasure.”
Beenhakker when asked if his stint with Poland would be his last.
“Nervous? Not at all. It's been a long time I have been doing this job, there are very few situations that make me nervous. Nervousness is a negative impulse and does you no good as a player or a coach.”
The Dutchman shrugs off a question about whether or not he still feels anxiety after all these years.
“There's a green pitch, two goal posts and it's all the same.”
Beenhakker on playing away from home.
“For me, it's always basically the same. In Madrid, as here [in Trinidad], I have 22 players with their own personalities and personal lives and social lives and private lives, but on the field the language is always the same no matter where you're from or what you are like. People are different in the world, but the language of football is always the same wherever you go. You must possess the ball, you must be organised in defence, you must score goals - these are universal principles.”
Leo waxes philosophical on the differences, and similarities, between his various ports of call as a coach.
“The man who wrote that is either stupid or trying to heat the atmosphere before the game. I will find him and find out.”
Leo reacts to being misquoted in the Polish media before the Poland-Germany group game at UEFA EURO 2008.
I am one of a small group of coaches who says, ‘First you have to play to win.’ After that, if it’s spectacular, fine. But you must win. A lot of my colleagues don’t agree. What should I do? Entertain people and say, ‘Well, bad luck, we’re not in the next round’?”
Not always the poet, Beenhakker proves himself a practical man too.