Despite his not having managed any sleep since arriving on Brazilian soil, it was an alert, chatty, straight-talking and philosophical Bert van Marwijk who welcomed FIFA.com into his Rio de Janeiro hotel for an exclusive interview the night before the Preliminary Draw for the FIFA World Cup Brazil 2014™ in July.
At the time, the Netherlands coach had not yet learned which teams would stand in the way of the Oranje gaining another shot at the world title in Brazil, after their quest in 2010 ended in a final-hurdle defeat at the hands of Spain. However, the Dutch national side’s impressive run since that landmark loss, as well as the secrets behind their success, provided some ideal alternative topics of discussion.
FIFA.com: Eleven months ago you stated that picking your team up after their loss in the FIFA World Cup Final in Johannesburg was your most pressing challenge. The results achieved since then prove that you have successfully negotiated that hurdle. Did you underestimate your squad’s ability to bounce back?
Bert van Marwijk: That’s a very good question. I don’t know if you remember, but just two weeks after our defeat by Spain, we had a friendly match scheduled in the Ukraine. I didn’t want to play the game, and we asked the Ukrainian FA to postpone it, but they weren’t willing to do that. I travelled there with a second-string side, and I wasn’t too excited about it. My own motivation was lacking, and I didn’t hide that fact. I think you should always be honest with your players, rather than pretending or disguising your feelings. You know, when you’ve just been knocked out of the last 16 or the group stage of a World Cup, you’re keen to get playing again to focus on something else. When you lose in the Final and you’re four minutes away from a penalty shoot-out, that’s not the case at all.
The players that were part of the squad in South Africa had no motivation either, but since 2008 this team has learned how to win no matter the circumstances, whether they feel motivated or not. So yes, I’m happy to admit that perhaps I did underestimate this new faculty of theirs. After the match against Ukraine, the lads went back to their clubs and the new season kicked off, so they were in a much better physical condition when the qualifying matches for EURO 2012 came around.
Since then, your team has won all of their UEFA EURO qualifying games. What would you say is their new source of motivation?
I told them the same thing again and again during the World Cup: we have a mission. When I saw how calm my players were after beating Brazil, and that they remained just as focused as before, I realised they knew they had not yet completed their mission. I remember we’d arranged a little party to celebrate their win, and they said to me: “Not yet, coach”.
As far as this latest qualifying campaign is concerned, it’s different – I wouldn’t describe it as a mission this time around. The players put their finger on it. What’s motivating us now is a desire to draw lessons from the final that we lost, and to make the most of that experience. Everything was new for my players that night, and I can assure you they’ve learned from it.
Have your methods and message changed since the FIFA World Cup Final?
I try to be as clear as possible with my players. Transparency is one of my ground rules. I want my team to be able to understand my methods, to support them and to put them into practice. To achieve that, you have to stick to the same style of play, and not make changes depending on your opponents or the context of the match. Otherwise the players start to doubt you, and it’s impossible to make real progress.
My aim is for us to be constantly progressing, to always be pushing ourselves to the limit of our system and methods. I’m always telling them that when you play in the same way, with the same intensity, then you’re sure to improve. If you do the opposite, then all you’re doing is reacting to others. The key is to understand that there’s never any guarantee of winning your next match. It’s hard to find the words to explain how we work. I often feel like saying to journalists: “Come with us, follow us around, and observe us. Then you’ll see.”
Have your players surprised you at all during your UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying matches?
Looking back at the match with Hungary, it was a real mental test for us. We missed a chance to go 2-0 up and then lost our focus and found ourselves 2-1 down. We grabbed a couple more to take control of the match again, but the Hungarians managed to find an equaliser. I was absolutely furious with my team; I couldn’t believe they’d allowed Hungary back into the match.
But out on the pitch, they remained composed, they stuck to the game plan without getting into a panic, and in the end we won the game 5-3. I was still angry, but also very proud. They blew me away. Taking the easy way out and being overly confident are classic Dutch traits. That was the first thing I had to battle against in this job, right from the start.
At what point did you become convinced that the players fully understood your message?
Matches come thick and fast, and you have to learn from each one. Our World Cup qualifier against Norway in Rotterdam was enormously satisfying for me. It offered proof that my words were getting through to the squad. We had already qualified for South Africa, but we put 100 per cent into the match, never taking our foot off the pedal. We won 2-0 and it was at that point that I knew they understood what I wanted. There’s a big difference between believing and truly believing.
Since taking over in the summer of 2008, your record has been exceptional, and you’ve made history by taking your side to the Final of South Africa 2010 and winning every qualifying match (FIFA World Cup and UEFA EURO combined) you’ve been involved in. Do you ever step back and think about what you have achieved?
[Smiles] People bring up these records, but quite frankly, I never think about them. I tend to concentrate on the way we’re playing and my players’ mindset – that’s all that interests me. The opponent that this team really needs to fear is itself.
Has the way in which other national coaches regard you changed since South Africa 2010?
I got to know Vincente del Bosque, whose company I enjoy, and I believe the feeling is mutual. We even took part in a joint interview after the Final. I’ve got a lot of respect for Marcello Lippi too. I’ve learned that he feels the same way about me, and I take that as a huge compliment. He and Del Bosque have both accomplished so much in the game.