His players describe him as being close to them and ready to listen, and after spending half an hour in the presence of Bert van Marwijk at the Dutch Football Association (KNVB) headquarters, it is easy to see why. “I like to be surrounded by people who want to improve,” the Netherlands coach told FIFA.com less than two months after leading his side to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ Final.
Before taking the Oranje reins, Van Marwijk carved out a solid reputation in his homeland. His first coaching experience came at Maastricht in 1982, and after spending four years there he took on another five posts before being appointed by Feyenoord in the summer of 2000. The Rotterdam side provided him with an excellent platform and in 2002 he masterminded their UEFA Cup triumph, earning himself a move to Borussia Dortmund two years later. Van Marwijk failed to clinch any trophies with the Ruhr outfit but the experience proved invaluable, and after returning to Feyenoord he claimed the Dutch Cup in 2008 in his final campaign before replacing Marco van Basten.
With his charges soon to begin their UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying campaign against San Marino, Van Marwijk sat down with FIFA.com to discuss his philosophy on the game and coaching work, South Africa 2010 as well as the upcoming qualifiers.
FIFA.com: Bert, you are about to contest two important EURO 2012 qualifiers soon after losing the FIFA World Cup Final. How do you switch from one tournament to the next?
Bert van Marwijk: I've been feeling it out. When you get knocked out of a World Cup in the group stage or the last 16, the players want to play as quickly as possible again so they can move on. It’s a different situation when you lose in the Final. We had a friendly against Ukraine two weeks ago, which came too soon. The players had only had three weeks of holidays. They’d only had a week of training and the World Cup was still on their minds, so I played a B team. I told the players it wasn’t a preparation game but a chance to prove themselves. The motivation will start to come, though. It was too early before. It’s impossible to be motivated so soon after losing a World Cup Final, but the moment is right now and my players will be focused on the EURO.
When your opponents say afterwards that they felt you were almost unbeatable, I take that as a huge compliment.
What is the secret to your approach, given that you have turned this team into a machine for securing wins?
There are two factors in football: the technical and tactical side, and then the mental side. The question you have to ask yourself is if you believe in something. From the very first day, I tried to instil the feeling that we had to believe in our chances of winning the title in South Africa, and that when you believe it, you can do it. I told my players we had a mission. The Netherlands have always been able to beat anyone in a one-off match, but there we had to do it over six weeks.
What methods did you use to reach that goal?
A good team is one in which everyone is able to tell the truth. The players don’t need to all be friends - they need to accept that while respecting everyone else’s qualities. You need to have the guts to be honest. From the start, I spoke about stability. I love creative and attacking football, but the first step was to defend as a team. When you manage that, you allow your opponents fewer chances and that gives everyone on the team more confidence, as well as belief in their team-mates. The players understood my message from the very first day and they showed that in my first match on the bench. That was against the same Russia side that beat us at EURO 2008 and we played a very solid game. There was plenty of discipline and I saw our obvious potential that evening.
Looking back, do you think the Netherlands really showed their true selves in the Final against Spain on 11 July?
My team was different in the Final, it’s true. We weren’t ourselves in the first half, but you have to understand that it was the first time all of them had played in a World Cup Final. They were very nervous and that explains the very physical style and the fouls, because we were coming late into tackles. Spain had already won a EURO with pretty much the same team, so they were more used to this kind of occasion. We played more freely in the second half, as happened against Brazil in the quarter-finals. My regret is that we had to wait so long.
Did you still believe you could win towards the end?
After the match, the Spanish players told us that, in the second half, they were really afraid they were going to lose the Final. That says a lot about our strength. I was 100 per cent sure we were going to penalties because, after the red card, I felt that something had clicked in our minds and that Maarten Stekelenburg was having a great night. So I was optimistic. Spain deserved their triumph and they’re a fabulous team to watch, but we could have won it. We missed two one-on-one chances through Arjen Robben, and just lacked a finishing touch.
Was it frustrating to see your players struggle in the first half without being able to intervene?
We spoke about the pressure in our preparations for the match, but despite that it weighed heavily on us. That’s the beauty of top-level sport: you can’t control emotions like that, even when you try to anticipate them.
Would you agree that you have made the Netherlands more direct and pragmatic?
You have to take into account that this sport is changing, that the ingredients of the game are better, the players are faster, the play too, and that there’s less space on the pitch. During our preparations, we played three warm-up matches and scored 13 goals while conceding two. Our football was attractive. Then, in the World Cup, we came up against opponents who waited for us to make mistakes without really attacking. It’s more difficult to be constantly creative when space is very tight and you have much less time to execute things. You have to look at football differently and develop a different notion of creativity. You need more patience and you need to wait for the right moment, because your opponents are on the lookout for the slightest error. You have to adapt to the changes in football. In the semi-final, we won 3-2 but we could have scored five. Everyone praised our attacking play then. When your opponents say afterwards that they felt you were almost unbeatable, I take that as a huge compliment.
I teach the players to never feel satisfied with what they’ve achieved and to never feel like they’ve already made it. You lose when you become arrogant like that.
You spoke earlier about stability being an essential factor. Will we see the same team with the same strengths during the qualifiers for EURO 2012?
Stability on the pitch is the key. The players have to know each other 100 per cent. My philosophy is to get the ball to feet and be creative. In addition to that, however, I also teach the players to win, to never feel satisfied with what they’ve achieved and to never feel like they’ve already made it. You lose when you become arrogant like that. I had to instil that attitude: to stay focused on our mission and see only the next step to climb. That mustn’t change during the qualifiers, but I’m aware that it won’t be easy.
During the FIFA World Cup, you explained that you were using methods learnt in the Bundesliga. What did you mean by that?
My style of play has been my philosophy since the start. My beliefs haven’t changed. After that, you always learn from your different experiences. In Germany, I learnt how to win a match even when you’re not playing well or how to get a draw on an off-day, knowing that going after victory could result in defeat. But the Germans could also learn from the Netherlands. You know, the difference between Spain, Germany, England and ourselves is that in the three other teams, almost all the players play in their national championship. They have the same calendar and the same training styles. In my case, I have to deal with players from Italy, Spain, England, Scotland and so on – and I have to do it our way, with our own philosophy.