The Netherlands’ inspiration at 2022 World Cup: A coach who battled cancer and hid it from players

DOHA - Holland coach Louis van Gaal during a press conference of the Dutch national team at the media center on December 8, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. The Dutch national team is preparing for the quarterfinals against Argentina. ANP KOEN VAN WEEL (Photo by ANP via Getty Images)
Holland coach Louis van Gaal during a press conference of the Dutch national team at the media center on December 8, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (ANP via Getty Images)

DOHA, Qatar — The cancerous cells had crept into Louis van Gaal almost as stealthily as he’d eventually hide them. He was 69 and a few years removed from a fulfilling soccer life when, in late 2020, they were detected. Donning a hospital gown, van Gaal disappeared into a CT scanner. He soon sat across from a doctor, who diagnosed him with prostate cancer.

He took the news with unflinching eye contact and blunt questions. He learned that 90% of cases were treatable. But he knew that suffering was ahead. He’d already lost his first wife to cancer. Over the coming year, he’d have to confront pain and fears head on. He ultimately underwent 25 radiation treatments. The first three weeks “were disastrous.” The cancer, he’d later say, was “pretty aggressive.”

But it was a secret when, in the summer of 2021, with his battle ongoing, his nation called with an “emergency.”

The Dutch men’s national team, whom van Gaal had previously managed twice, including to the 2014 World Cup semifinals, had just flamed out of the Euros and needed a new manager.

The Dutch soccer federation, the KNVB, wanted to know if van Gaal would go against his second wife’s wishes and return to coaching.

His answer was yes. He didn’t mention the cancer.

He took charge of training that August with a colostomy bag and a catheter hidden under his tracksuit. He concealed any inklings of weakness from his players. "They still see those ruddy cheeks of mine and think, 'What a healthy pear that is,’” van Gaal would later say. “Well, of course, I am not.”

He’d spend nights after matches at the hospital, watching film on his phone from a gurney. He arranged with the hospital to sneak in and out through a back door, so as to avoid the public and media. All they saw was the man affectionately known as the “Iron Tulip” leading a stabilized team through World Cup qualifying, and curing the ills of the 2018 cycle. They never saw the injections that sucked away his testosterone, or the radiation that sucked away his energy and just about everything. “I had all the possible side effects,” he’d later say.

After taking the job, he nonetheless attacked recovery with soccer always on his mind. He once bore his eyes into those of his doctor and said, with the straightest of faces: “Don’t forget, I’ve got a training camp in five days.”

He clinched World Cup qualification last November while confined to a wheelchair. (He’d fallen off his bicycle and injured his hip.) He finally went public with the cancer battle in April, after a year’s worth of treatments had been successful, and with the World Cup seven months away. “You do, of course, tell your friends and relatives [about the diagnosis],” he said on Dutch television. But he didn’t tell colleagues or players, “because that might influence their choices or decisiveness or whatever. I thought they shouldn't know.”

The players were “shocked” by the revelation. They soon resolved to fight for van Gaal like he’d fought, albeit in a different way, for them. “Of course it gives us more fight and motivation," captain Virgil van Dijk said last month. Of course, they do not need extra motivation to take aim at a World Cup title, but they were nonetheless inspired.

“We have so much respect for how he is coping with this disease at the moment,” defender Daley Blind said here in Qatar.

“But,” Blind added, “he is as sharp as usual.”

He has been unapologetically himself — direct and genuine, strict but then spontaneously humorous. On Thursday, ahead of a quarterfinal showdown with Argentina, journalists who implicitly accused him of coaching unattractive soccer drew animated, elaborate answers and stern scowls. “You keep asking me the same question,” van Gaal said at a news conference. “You do not understand that football is evolving, and it’s much more difficult than it was 20 years ago to play as offensively as [my teams] used to play.”

Another reporter asked about Angel Di Maria, the Argentina winger who’d played for van Gaal at Manchester United, and who’d called the Dutchman “the worst coach of my career.” Van Gaal, in a hilarious effort to prove that not all Manchester United players felt that way, turned to Memphis Depay, the Dutch forward seated next to him. “And now,” van Gaal said, “we kiss each other mouth-to-mouth.” Van Gaal leaned in. Depay wagged his finger, then doubled over in laughter. Van Gaal broke into a smile.

Tactically, as his exchange with reporters suggested, van Gaal has evolved over the years, from a free-flowing attack at Ajax in the 1990s to the more rigid, counterattacking 5-3-2 that he deploys today. But personally, he is largely the same man he was at Ajax, Barcelona, AZ Alkmaar, Bayern Munich and Man United. He takes an individualized, human-centered approach to management. He’s the type of coach who barks out orders and instills discipline — and then, to prove that he has the “balls” to make bold decisions, drops his pants in front of his players (as he once allegedly did at Bayern).

The one difference, nowadays, is that he has more patience, he said Thursday.

And perspective. "I've been through so much in my life, sickness and death,” he said when he revealed the cancer fight. “I've probably become richer as a person because of all those experiences."

And as for his latest challenge — Argentina on Friday night at the Lusail Stadium (2 p.m. ET, Fox/Telemundo)?

He has not lost a game since taking the Dutch job, but “what are you going to do about Messi?” a journalist asked Thursday.

“I’m not going to reveal our tactics to you,” van Gaal said. “That would be pretty stupid.”