Louis van Gaal is one of the most successful coaches of his generation. The Dutchman won two European club competitions, including the UEFA Champions League, at the head of the strongest Ajax squad since the glory days of the 1970s.
During his tenure in Amsterdam, Van Gaal presided over the development of Patrick Kluivert, the De Boer brothers, Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Nwankwo Kanu, Edwin van der Sar, Marc Overmars and Jari Litmanen. He then headed abroad and won La Liga in 1998 and 1999 with Barcelona, adding to a CV which has made him one of the most respected coaches currently working in Europe.
After a period back at Ajax as head of football, Van Gaal made the move to Alkmaar in 2005, returning to the club at which he had finished his playing career and moved into coaching as assistant manager. Within the space of two short seasons, he has helped to bring AZ back to the forefront of Dutch football, but that has not satisfied the ambitious 56-year-old, who agreed to meet FIFA.com in his office in the DSB Stadion for a friendly and revealing exclusive interview.
FIFA.com: Where else to start than what has been in the news most recently. Did you really apply for the England manager's job?
Louis van Gaal: The Dutch media made a mountain out of a molehill. I've actually got a contract with AZ until 2010. I have a clause in it which enables me to leave earlier but only to coach a national team. I drew up a list of five possibilities as the club didn't want to have a whole host of countries knocking at their door. England were on the list and since the job was available, the media made a lot of fuss about it. I'm happy here, there's real chemistry between the president, the players and the staff and I like the overall atmosphere at the club.
So coaching a national team is no longer one of your aims?
As I said, my ambition at the moment is to take part in a major international tournament with a country and to win it. I've won almost everything there is to win at club level. What I feel is missing is the experience of a EURO or a World Cup at the head of a national team. AZ definitely want to keep me on and I've always finished my contracts out of a sense of loyalty. The president is looking to build for the long term with me and he wants to keep me on until I'm 65, but I don't want to be coaching a national team at that age and definitely not when I'm even older.
Do you still have regrets about your time as Oranje coach?
I always look to the present and the future, not the past. I never had the chance to take part in a major tournament with the Netherlands and that's a real shame, but I resigned because some of the players refused to accept my methods. I am who I am and I have my own ways. I'm not going to change and I have no desire to.
People talk about the 'Van Gaal system'. How would you describe this?
It's a footballing philosophy more than a system. A system depends on the players you have. I played 4-3-3 with Ajax, 2-3-2-3 with Barcelona and I can play 4-4-2 with AZ. I'm flexible. The philosophy stays the same though.
How would you describe this philosophy then, and can you implement it with any team?
I don't think that you can adapt it to every possible situation. You need the right mindset, and it depends on how the players see the coach and vice versa. The coach is the focal point of the team but you need to have an open mind, and so do all the players. Everyone needs to work together to achieve a common goal. Preparing your tactical formation is essential. Each player needs to know where he has to be, and that is why there needs to be mutual understanding because you need absolute discipline. This is a sport played by 22 men, and there are 11 opponents out there playing as a team. Each individual needs to know who he has to beat and be there to support his team-mates.
What kind of situation was AZ in when you came back and where are they now?
When I got here, they were still playing in an 8,000 capacity stadium which hardly ever sold out. Now we have a new ground with room for more than 20,000 fans, and last season we sold out almost every match. That's already an important step. The aim is for AZ to become a big club domestically and recognised throughout Europe on the same level as the big three over here: Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord. The president wants to work in stages so that every aspect is covered, not just the results on the pitch. Having said that, the fact that we are ahead of the big three in the UEFA rankings thanks to what we achieved last season is an essential element in the progress we are making.
When you lost the title in the final match of last season, did that not mean that you also lost some impetus? Was it not even tougher to start all over again?
It's always a real disappointment to lose out on a championship in the final match. The club needs a title to confirm the progress it has made. It's the next step that we have to take if we want recognition in the Netherlands. We only have a budget of 16 millions euros, compared with 65 million for Ajax and 60 million for PSV, but we have been in the top three the last two seasons and we got to the final of the cup, which we only lost on penalties. The president is a wealthy man but he doesn't want to bump up the budget for the sake of just spending more. Money isn't the be all and end all. Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord all pay two to three times the wages that we do, but the gap is closing.
It must be frustrating though to have players leave the club to join one of the big three.
When you develop players and bring them on, you get real satisfaction out of it so no, I don't feel frustrated. We have other things acting in our favour, such as the quality of the football that we play. We like to attack and that is a selling point for us. When I won the league for the first time with Ajax, we did it on a low budget and we can do the same here. If I didn't believe that then I would never have come here.
Do you have any regrets from your two spells at Barcelona? Would you do it all again if you had the chance?
You always have to look at the context. I don't regret any of my decisions since my philosophy today is no different from what it was then. I don't want to act out a role. As I've already mentioned, I want to be myself, and I'm not going to change my personality. I'm happy as a coach, even if it's not easy at times. And I still won two titles, a Copa del Rey and a Supercup, and there aren't many coaches who can say that. When Nunez was in charge, the club spent a lot less on transfers. We never broke the bank to get a player.
What is your opinion on Frank Rijkaard, who after scaling the heights of European football with Barcelona is now coming in for criticism?
History seems to be repeating itself as far as he is concerned. He is a nice man, open-minded, but all Barca coaches go through some tough times. You just have to ride them out.
Winning titles as quickly as you did at Ajax you set the bar very high very early. Is that not a double-edged sword?
When you are successful very quickly, obviously expectations get that much greater. You can't possibly meet them and then the criticism starts. Sometimes it's unfair, but that's just the way it is, so I accept it. Since I arrived at AZ, we've finished second and third in the championship, so expectations have been raised, particularly since the club has spent some money as well. And results aren't going our way yet this season.
What was behind your slow start to the season?
We sold two players, Arveladze and Koevermans, who managed 55 goals between them last year. We didn't replace them so we're missing a goal machine. We're playing well but we can't find the back of the net.
What is your fondest memory as a coach?
The first league title I won with Ajax in 1994. My wife passed away that year. She died in the January and we won the championship in May. It was a very emotional period.
You've coached an incredible number of top players throughout your career. Which one has made the greatest impression on you?
I'm not going to single out a name. Players count for nothing, the team is everything. I set more store by a player's character than by his on-field qualities, and particularly whether he is willing to give everything to the cause. There are some incredibly talented players who haven't got the character or the personality to suit my methods. Litmanen, for example, was a different player at Barca than he was at Ajax. You have to adapt to a new culture when you move to a different club, and not every player is able to do that.
What for you was the defining moment of 2007? And what would be your New Year's wish for 2008?
What I remember most in 2007 is when we lost the title to Excelsior Rotterdam on the final day of the season. For 2008, I'm hoping we'll get a place in the Champions League.