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 Van Gaal’s failures, his philosophy and who he will be looking to buy in the next transfer window.
Has van Gaal read your book?
He says he hasn’t read it. I believe he hasn’t read it. He has more important things to do than reading a book about himself, but his surrounding circle have read it, and he probably asked, “are there any things I should be concerned about?” But I never heard about anything. The only thing he did say was, “with my face on it, it’ll sell well”, which is on the front.
You started your writing career at 16 around Sparta…
Yes, Sparta. It was our club. I was a supporter from six years old. I started to go there with my father in ’68, and ten years later, I was 16, and we saw a man coming into the club who, yeah, walked a little bit strange. Is he a football player? Someone said: “does he have an umbrella in his shirt?” What a strange character. But he… I can’t say I was obsessed by him straight away, but he struck me because he was different. And he always stayed different, because Louis van Gaal was player, captain, advisor to the board; he was organising the parties at Sparta Rotterdam; he thought it was very important that women were involved, so the women of the players should celebrate the football too. He was always more than just a player.
On that note, with wanting to bring women into the club culture more, Van Gaal is a vocal supporter of Gay Pride, and has spoken out against homophobia in the past. How much do his morals and politics feed into his approach to management and leading a club?
Louis van Gaal is very often offended by people calling him a dictator. At his very deepest level, he is a democrat. Of course, he can be very aristocratic and arrogant sometimes, but in a way, if he can explain his philosophy of football, he can let it go if he sees what players do with it and he sees they understand his philosophy of football. But he doesn’t like the homophobia in football. He is a modern man. A family man. He is a product of the ’50s, I think. But he can grow with his time. The man is 63, 64. The world changes and he is able to understand the changing world.
What was interesting last summer is that Louis van Gaal offered us, the world, Holland, football that was very un-Dutch; a defensive way of playing. It surprised me because what he literally said in his authorised biography is, “I would rather lose and play well, than the other way around.” That was in 2009. So he changed his opinions on football, and I like it. A man has to develop himself and you have to be a little bit modern to grow with the new generation.
How much did his failure in his first stint with the Dutch team fire him on to make amends with the rest of his career?
It hurt him. Oh it hurt him, yeah. It hurt him very much, because he is not loved. He has got problems with Koeman, Cruyff, Hiddink; three very important people in football. They loved it a little bit, not openly, but behind his back, and he did such a great job with building up Ajax from the very beginning again in the 90’s. We saw it all happening. It was amazing. I don’t think it’s possible any more for a team in a small country to win the Champions League. That’s not possible any more, but he did it and that’s how he made a name for himself. That’s how he started building up a good CV. After a couple of years he did the national team and everything went wrong.
Was that his first major setback after Ajax and his first stint at Barcelona?
Well, let’s call it average. If you or me are coaching Barcelona, we have a chance of one out of two to become the champions, so I don’t know about that. And the football was terrible then at Barcelona. It wasn’t good. But he did well over there, although Johan Cruyff thought Barcelona was his, and he’s much more loved in Catalonia than that strange Louis van Gaal.
After that, the national team came and it was a disaster. I remember Rivaldo saying, “I feel pity for him because I won. He’s jealous of me because I won the World Cup he didn’t qualify for.” So that must have hurt him.
Do you think van Gaal regrets what happened with Rivaldo?
No. He never regrets something. He’s rather stubborn.
What was the problem at the club?
What struck him the most probably was that the players, the ones that he worked with in ’95, didn’t cooperate with him; didn’t think the way he was thinking. They grew up. What was very important for them was the third half*. Players were interested in going out, and you know what happens when players go out, it goes wrong. Luckily in Holland, we don’t have a tabloid culture. So, it wasn’t written about but everybody knew what happened then. It was between 2000 and 2001. He couldn’t work with that kind of mentality.
In his autobiography, he said he despises that way of living. That was the problem. He didn’t click with the players. If things are going well, and he is doing well, there is a click between the players and the coach. And often they are young, because young players you can still influence them. They are malleable. Older players sometimes are a little bit of a problem. But he did very well with Robben and Van Persie in the last World Cup. And the younger players—the defenders and others—they thought with his philosophy and they fit in, and he literally helped them. That is what he will do at Manchester United if he is given time.
*[Editor’s note: “The third half” is a phrase used in Northern Europe and Scandinavia to describe a well-developed post-match drinking culture or social scene within a team; the third half of action after the first and second, and therefore often seen as just as important as the match itself for those who partake in it.]
Do you see that click at United yet?
Not yet. I don’t see any sabotage, but it still has to improve. It has to develop.
A few people have said that the stats show that David Moyes’ first 10 games were better than Van Gaal’s. For United fans who are yet to be convinced by Van Gaal, what are the signs of the click that they should be looking out for?
Don’t doubt Louis van Gaal. That is my advice. If the man has two or three years, he will bring them back to the top for sure. I hope they contract Kevin Strootman. Those two know each other quite well. Strootman likes to play for Van Gaal. I don’t know how much he costs of course. They spent a lot of money in the summer. I don’t know what’s left. He’ll probably come in the summer if not [in January] otherwise.
Was giving van Gaal free reign to spend £150m a mistake?
Like every coach he has had some flops. Tops and flops. I remember—he regrets it very much, and he wouldn’t be pleased about me talking about it if he read this—but there was a guy called Gabrich. He chose him for Ajax, desperately, because he didn’t have a centre-forward. He chose him only on video and he couldn’t play for peanuts. Worse than a flop. He won’t do that any more.
What surprised me is that he didn’t contract a defender. A very good defender. He contracted some interesting players in attack and midfield but if you start building a house, I would start at the bottom. It was not good what he did. It was a mistake. One good defender. It must be possible to buy a defender with £30m or £40m. Although, Ron Vlaar for instance, he did very well [at the World Cup] but he’s not the quickest, and if you play the way Louis van Gaal will, there will be lots of space behind Vlaar. I don’t know if he’s the ideal person. There must be better ones. He is too average. He is Premier League [quality] for sure, but in the middle.
How would you define Van Gaal’s philosophy in its purest form? What kind of football does Louis van Gaal look for his teams to play?
First, is organisation; second, discipline; third, enjoy it; and fourth, play offensive. Those are the main things he wants to see. That’s why I don’t understand why he didn’t contract defenders. If you want good organisation, it won’t work with attackers. Of course, they can defend a little bit; 10 metres to the left and there’s no pass coming up. But first, start there. That’s a mistake.
Was he planning on getting another, more powerful midfielder to shield a poor defence? There were rumours of Strootman in the summer even with his injury, and Vidal.
Strootman, no doubt, he would have played for Manchester United. He would have been the first one he contracted. That was a disappointment for both them. You never know with Strootman whether he’ll come back at the same level. He is a fighter. He has got a very good mentality.
Interview by Greg Johnson for RoM and Sabotage Times. Foreword by Michiel Jongsma.