Print journalists, radio presenters, biographers, TV personalities, pundits; there are a lot of jobs in football, even if you are not a former professional. Hugo Borst has done it all though. Starting out as a journalist for esteemed Dutch football magazine Voetbal International, Borst made his strides through journalism before ending up at Algemeen Dagblad, Esquire, Unibet and Panorama among others. The talented writer also became a pundit in the most popular Dutch football talk show Studio Voetbal, something he has been on a weekly basis for five years.
A true lover of football and a heavyweight in Dutch football journalism, Borst is one of the main editors of Hard Gras, a magazine reminiscent of the niche Sunderland-based magazine The Blizzard. Currently, he is one of the presenters of NOS Radio Langs de Lijn, a show that covers the live Eredivisie football and other sports on the Sunday afternoon.
In short, Borst has earned his stripes in football. But today, the main reason to talk to Hugo is not his accolades in general, it’s the tenth book he wrote, ‘O Louis’, in which he talks about his relationship with Dutch manager Louis van Gaal, currently the main figure at Manchester United.
Here is an exclusive interview with Borst talking about the criticism from Raymond Verheijen and how Van Gaal is viewed in Holland.
Raymond Verheijen has been highly critical of van Gaal this season. How is he viewed in the Netherlands? Is he respected?
No. He is considered by many people in football to be a pain in the neck, a pain in the ass, whatever you want: somebody who knows it better. A know-it-all. That’s the way he is considered in Holland. He is always critical of every coach there is, and the only you can do it is the way Verheijan is doing it.
What do you think could be the cuase of United’s current injury crisis? Verheijen has said it’s over-training, van Gaal is too intense; van Gaal is a dinosaur…
No, no, no. He is very modern. That is ridiculous. Absolutely not. He is still reading about new things happening. Louis van Gaal is a reader and a talker and if he thinks something is happening there, he wants to investigate it. He is not a mastodon. No, definitely not. He has his bad points, but for instance the injuries to Daley Blind and Angel Di Maria, that’s contact. But when there are a lot of muscle injuries—there are a lot—maybe he is training in a different way and the players can’t cope with that. I don’t know.
Totally different. Cruyff did it all on intuition. Van Gaal is doing it as a teacher: a theoretical coach. And Louis van Gaal was also a professional player, although he was semi-pro. He combined it with working as a PE teacher. He wasn’t brilliant at all, especially not compared to Johan Cruyff, but as a coach, the thing is… Romario once played at Barcelona. Cruyff said to him: “Don’t do that. Don’t walk so much. Don’t run so much. Don’t sprint so much. You lose the strength to score.” That’s what Cruyff said to him, but Louis van Gaal would recommend to defend a little bit more. That’s the way they’re different to each other.
Who is more total when it comes to their total football?
Cruyff stopped in ’96, almost 20 years ago. He is a mastodon for me, with all due respect. But if I have to chose, I would have to chose Louis van Gaal, because the game has developed so much in the last five to 10 years and he knows everything about it. He is fully focussed in life and in football. He is the modern manager, although he is 63 or 64.
Someone once said he invented the modern game…
He likes that very much! He likes to hear that. If you ever meet him, just say it to him, and he will say: [puts on van Gaal voice] “You have got good knowledge about football!”
Where would you rank him in the list of the best ever Dutch managers?
On top. He thinks Rinus Michels is better—he think Cruyff worse, stands lower than him in the table—because Michels was the first. He was a pioneer, because Dutch wasn’t anything at all. We didn’t win anything. And with Rinus Michels, ’71, ’72’, ’73 with Ajax, and of course the national team with beautiful football. Yes, that is so extraordinary to come out of nothing. But there’s more. After that, Rinus Michels won the European Championship in ’88. It was ugly football. It was terrible. There wasn’t anything in the aesthetics at all. So if I compare them, I think Louis van Gaal achieved a little bit more than Rinus Michels.
Van Gaal is very good at saying he is the best, but is Michels the only man he looks up to?
Yes. He said in his own biography that he didn’t like how the teams of Guus Hiddink played. His allergic reaction to Johan Cruyff is famous. And what did Cruyff do next to Barcelona? He didn’t become a champion with Ajax. He was there three or four years. He got second in the league. So he is better. Louis van Gaal is absolutely better than them. I place him on top, before Michels. Hiddink above Cruyff. That’s the order.
Where do you think he would rank his greatest team against other great team from the history like Guardiola’s Barcelona, Sacchi’s Milan and Ferguson’s United?
Ajax. Above, because he could build them quite slow. He started in ’91, immediately won the UEFA Cup in ’92. Then he built it out to the Champions League. That’s a process of four or five years. In ’96 he even became a finalist again. I think, for him, Ajax is on one, but he knows that such a thing takes five or six years to build. That’s not possible any more. His Ajax Amsterdam: maybe fifth or sixth place. Behind Real Madrid in the ’50s.
Does he try to place himself in history like that?
He wants to. Well, he knows that he made history with Ajax. That was very special. But he must also know that two years at Bayern Munich is not enough to be remembered as the founding father. He likes it that we say he built Bayern Munich in the beginning and Guardiola finished it, but he is propagandising. Maybe it’s a little bit true, but I don’t know.
He set up Guardiola at Barcelona and Bayern—he set the foundations. In his recent biography, Guardiola has said he quite likes United. Can you see him follow Van Gaal again and what do you think he thinks about Pep following him around everywhere with his career?
Why not. I can’t imagine that he wouldn’t like it. He was captain under Louis van Gaal. They have a good relationship. What I know from colleagues in Spain—one knows Guardiola quite well—he enjoyed Louis van Gaal and how he opened his eyes.
Also Guardiola likes Johan Cruyff too. Another coach who was influenced by Van Gaal is Frank de Boer of Ajax. I expect him to have a career in the Premier League also. Louis van Gaal inspired lots of important coaches. Of course too, Mourinho. So that’s what he likes to hear. He likes to be a very important man, and he is an important man. But the only thing is, if you are an important man you shouldn’t [Hugo beats his chest] do this, and that’s what he sometimes does. Not now here in England though I presume. I think he is very relaxed and laid back. The press conferences are very positive. I didn’t see him angry yet; really angry. So you haven’t seen the real Louis van Gaal yet. That’s still to come. Absolutely, absolutely. One day there will be an explosion in the press conference room and there will be fireworks. If you put YouTube on you will see some great stuff.
I think he learned a lot at the World Cup. Truus van Gaal asked him, “please Louis, don’t get annoyed. Don’t get angry. Don’t get annoyed. You can handle it. I can’t.” I don’t know if that’s why he was so easy-going or why the national team did quite well, so there wasn’t much reason to get angry in the way that Louis van Gaal can get angry.
How do the tabloid journalists treat him?
Quite deferential really. There was one moment where a journalist said “good morning, Louis!” He replied: “Good morning.” The next guy starts up with “good morning, Louis!” And he snapped back: “I already said that. Why are you saying that?” Yes! That’s Louis van Gaal. We haven’t got a tabloid culture.
In England, when we read and learn about Dutch football most books and information is focussed on the history of Ajax. What else are we missing out on?
Feyenoord has got a better youth academy than Ajax has got. Not much of a difference, but over the last four or five years it has been the best football academy of Holland. You see a couple of players coming through like Martins-Indi and De Vrij, and after that they made a transfer.
Feyenoord had great debts, and after all the selling they break even. That’s the work of Wim Jansen, who was a good player in the 70s. He also played in the national team. Good friend of Johan Cruyff. A very shy and anti-media person who works in the shadow of the big stadium, De Kuip. They’ve got very good players. I saw a player last May. 12 years of age. Never seen anything like that before. He was amazing. It’s possession play. Attacking.
There’s a big discussion going on in December because the Dutch clubs are doing so poor in Europe. In the Champions League, he doesn’t have anything to say, but also in the Europa League there’s not much involvement at all. In Holland, a lot of our teams are playing on artificial grass. In the top league, there are three or four clubs, and in the lower divisions, even my club Sparta, which is a traditional club—the oldest professional club—we have for the first time gone artificial. It’s a question of money. All the teams can train on it. And the problem was, we had poor natural grass. What they fix here and what they do here is amazing stuff. So, I would suggest that some of the groundsmen here, come and give some help to Holland.
Have Ajax always been his club?
Yes. Ajax is his club. After that it’s Sparta. He started at Ajax as a youth player. He was playing for an amateur club, and then picked at 16 or 17 years of age, but then Johan Cruyff was the main centre-forward, and he was playing out of position because he was a very good player with heading. He just played one match for the first team of Ajax because Cruyff wasn’t there.
In England, players from some nations such as Holland are viewed as being more eloquent, well-spoken and analytical than their English equivalents. Is Dutch football culture more intellectual?
Yes, I think so. Though your Premier League: you’re spoilt. You have got the best players in the world playing here. If you live you can go to the stadium and see some players here. It’s poor if we watch in Holland and go to a Eredivise game. But what we always discover is young players, and what they have is a tactical smartness. That’s the difference with England, that the younger players are smarter because they’re well educated? I don’t know.
What I notice in Holland, lots of lovers of English football are visiting England and going to the lower divisions to have the smell of real English football. It’s great. And Sparta was a club like that. We played in an English tradition always. We had a lot of English managers. Louis van Gaal had a manager, Barry Hughes from Wales. They hated each other. There was a story about Barry Hughes. He was the coach and it wasn’t go well in the game, and Louis van Gaal says, “we need to make a substitution.” And Barry says, “you’re going out!”