The room fell silent as Louis van Gaal listened to the question. He’d been asked by an Argentine reporter about the coruscating view Angel Di Maria held of him, his former Manchester United player having labelled him the worst coach in his career.
There was a nod of the head, a hint of a reaction on his face as he pressed a finger to his right ear and listened to the translation. He doesn’t always take kindly to criticism, so there was a collective intake of breath as to what might follow.
Initially, there was a surprise. Van Gaal looked as if he was choosing diplomacy ahead of the Netherlands quarter-final date with Argentina, a contest that drips with history, skill and tickertape and encapsulates everything magnificent about World Cup football.
Louis van Gaal was at his mischievous best ahead of the Netherlands’ World Cup quarter final
‘Angel is a really good footballer and when he played in Manchester United, he had a lot of personal issues,’ Van Gaal began. ‘There was a break-in in his house and that also affected his fitness.’
Then, though, there was a little glance to his left. Memphis Depay was sat next to him and Van Gaal’s demeanour changed. His eyes twinkled, his smile broadened and the audience began to titter.
‘It is sad he said it – but he is one of only a few players with this opinion,’ Van Gaal continued. ‘Of course, sometimes the coach makes decisions the players doesn’t like it. Di Maria wasn’t the only Manchester United player who had that… there was Memphis Depay.’
The Holland manager joked with Memphis Depay about their time at Manchester United
Van Gaal leaned across and put his arm on Depay’s left shoulder. What followed wasn’t an answer, more something pilfered from a Peter Kay routine.
‘Sometimes it wasn’t good for Memphis in Manchester but now we kiss each other on the mouth!’ Van Gaal said, mischief so evidently in his mind. ‘I’m not going to kiss him now but that is how it goes in football!’
The room, now, was roaring with laughter. Van Gaal carries a hulking, intimidating presence and while he is happy to play the fool, he will not suffer them and there were enough flash points during this 30-minute joust to understand the friction that exists between him and the Dutch media.
The mood in the camp is buoyant as they prepare for a huge game against Argentina in Qatar
But this performance – for that is what it was – could not have set a better tone ahead of the contest at the Lusail Stadium that is completely sold-out, the majority of tickets hoovered up by Argentines; the mood in the camp is buoyant and much of it is down to the affection that Van Gaal commands.
‘The players respect our coach, he is strong and marvellous,’ Depay declared. ‘Everyone knows what their responsibility is and it is important if you play in the Dutch squad that you bring a team spirit along. It is clear that all of us want to give him a wonderful tournament.’
A tournament that Van Gaal says is only just starting. The Netherlands moved serenely past Ecuador, Senegal and Qatar from Group A and looked to be hitting their stride last Saturday when dismissing the United States 3-1 last Saturday but Argentina represent a totally different challenge.
Brighton’s Alexis Mac Allister heaped praise on his Argentina teammate Lionel Messi
‘We have great players and a clear vision in our team of how we want to play,’ said Brighton midfielder Alexis Mac Allister. ‘We have our weapons. I know Louis van Gaal is a top coach, world renowned, and I have a great deal of respect for him but we will try our best and we come to win.’
The Argentine weapons, of course, our headed by the little maestro wearing number 10. Mac Allister looked like he might pinch himself at one point when he began to eulogise about Lionel Messi, so blessed does he feel to have the chance to play alongside him.
‘Leo surprises us every single day,’ said Mac Allister, whose international career is in its infancy. ‘He is just unbelievable. The things he does in training, the things he does off the pitch. He is feeling good and that is something that gives us all confidence
When Van Gaal was asked about what he plan he had devised to stop a man who is on a crusade to finally win the greatest prize of them all, the sardonic tone and roll of the eyes left no ambiguity about his thoughts.
Mac Allister said the forward ‘surprises us every day’ with ‘the things he does in training’
‘I’m not going to reveal my tactics to you,’ he glowered. ‘That would be pretty stupid. What I think of Messi? It is not too difficult to come up with an answer. I do not think there needs to be too much hoo-ha over this. I think my players are professional enough to deal with this.
‘There will be 40,000 Argentina fans, there will be 1,400 Netherlands fans – which is 400 more than people expected, by the way! – but I am really pleased about that. I do not want to play down the importance of what we have done but Argentina are different to the countries we’ve played so far.’
You could see Van Gaal was loving it all. This, potentially, could be his last match in management and while he playfully suggested he may be tempted for one more roll of the dice if the project was “nice”, the effects of the last 12 months and his impact of prostate cancer shouldn’t be understated.
Argentine manager Lionel Scaloni is under huge pressure to deliver in the World Cup
His critics will tell you he is yesterday’s man, that his tactics are uninspiring and lack adventure, but this wise-old septuagenarian has enough knowledge to set a trap that could potentially wrap his opposite number Lionel Scaloni up in knots.
You should not underestimate, either, the emotion that is invested in this all for Argentina, who have never beaten The Netherlands over 90 minutes at a World Cup. Scaloni is under intense pressure to deliver; Van Gaal, by contrast, is relishing his Indian summer.
‘I look marvellous, I look incredibly young!’ said Van Gaal, prompting more laughter as he got up to leave. ‘There is always a possibility, as Memphis put it, that you can have defining moments like the goal Dennis Bergkamp scored in 1998. We will continue to remember them forever.’
And that will certainly be true if Van Gaal and his band of laughing cavaliers can march into the semi-finals.