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Who Is Louis Van Gaal, The Netherlands' Eccentric Coach Who Waged Cancer Battle In Secret?

Equally inspirational as he is intrepid, meet the Netherlands’ coach whose personal battle has served as an inspiration for his team.

By Andrew Woodin
Louis van Gaal during the International Friendly match between The Netherlands and Ecuador at The Amsterdam Arena

Ahead of his squad’s quarterfinal clash with Argentina in the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal fielded questions about how his Dutch team would scheme to shut down the opposition’s talisman and seven-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi, but van Gaal, always one to fly by the seat of his pants in antics-filled pressers, didn’t surrender too many secrets. Instead, he channeled his signature rapier wit while keeping his cards close to the vest.  

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

“It’s not that difficult to come up with an answer as to how to stop [Messi],” van Gaal added. “You might want to block and close the passing lanes. I can’t see this creating too much of a hooha.”

Still, if anyone can develop a strategy for slaying dragons, it’s van Gaal.

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At the age of 69, van Gaal was just a few years removed from a busy soccer managing career that saw him the Netherlands to the 2014 World Cup semi (also against Argentina) when, in late 2020, his doctor diagnosed him with prostate cancer. By that time, van Gaal was no stranger to the nightmares that accompany the disease, as he'd already lost his first wife to cancer. But while the pain’s familiar, it’s never the same.

Though he expected a battle, there’s one thing to know about the sharp-tongued Dutch manager who’s prone to theatrical press conferences: van Gaal’s a fighter, and like college hoops coaching legend and cancer research advocate Jim Valvano who taught the world “to never give up,” van Gaal began his own valiant quest to conquer the beast within. His dauntless determination meant embarking on countless doctor visits, including undergoing 25 different radiation treatments … quietly. Even in 2021 when he once again took the Netherlands’ coaching post, van Gaal nobly hid his condition from the outside world, even his players. Instead of focusing on himself, he focused on his players, arriving to the pitch with a catheter and a colostomy bag secretly hidden in his tracksuit.

Louis van Gaal during a training session of the Dutch national team at the Qatar University training complex

Instead of spending nights at home, relaxing with a brandy, he followed up vigorous days of competition with routine visits to the hospital where he’d pour over match footage from his phone while “resting” on a gurney, according to Yahoo Sports. Affectionately referred to as the “Iron Tulip,” van Gaal became such a regular guest of the hospital, he was able to arrange for secret passage through the back door, away from the public and the prying eyes of the media. Poked and prodded, van Gaal said that he “had all the possible side effects” cancer throws at you, and yet he attacked his recovery with a daily vengeance more powerful than a Virgil van Dijk header.

Though his players were initially shocked when they learned the news, they embraced their coach’s fight like it was their own, and van Gaal’s battle soon became an inspirational rallying cry that has galvanized the Dutch squad and the nation.

“We have so much respect for how he is coping with this disease at the moment,” Daley Blind revealed in Qatar, according to the Guardian. “But, he is sharp as usual.”

Van Gaal says the difference in his life now amounts to his newly acquired patience and perspective.

"I've been through so much in my life, sickness and death,” he divulged when he opened up about his cancer fight for the first time. “I've probably become richer as a person because of all those experiences."

So, as for his hero’s journey, whatever happens on the pitch against Argentina, van Gaal's already won.

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