Loved & hated at Ajax, Barcelona & Bayern Munich - Louis van Gaal's 20 eventful years as a head coach

The Dutchman is one of the most successful tacticians of the past two decades, but has been involved in plenty of controversy as well throughout his career
By Stefan Coerts | Dutch Football Editor

September 28 was just another day for most people but it was a rather special occasion for one of the most colourful figures of the footballing world. On Wednesday, it was exactly 20 years since Louis van Gaal was appointed as head coach for the first time in what would prove to be an epic coaching career.

Although the Dutchman is currently unemployed, following his exit at Bayern Munich earlier this year, there's little doubt that Van Gaal is one of the most esteemed tacticians to have worked in the past two decades, and it all started at Eredivisie giants Ajax in the autumn of 1991.

The then-40-year-old had already been under contract with the Amsterdam side as assistant coach since 1988 and the club's board opted to give Van Gaal the chance to prove his worth when Leo Beenhakker resigned in order to join Real Madrid; a decision they would not regret.

LOUIS VAN GAAL | Coaching career in numbers

Club Games
Wins Draws Losses
Win %
286 196 51 39 69
196 108 35 53 55
14 8 4 2 57
174 101 37 36 58
 Bayern Munich
77 47 16 14 61
143 144 62

The Godenzonen won their first match under their new coach, 1-0, against Orebro in the Uefa Cup and it was in this competition that Van Gaal would enjoy his first big success in the managerial hot-seat. Although Ajax had to settle for second spot in the Eredivisie, they impressed in Europe and would go on to win the competition by beating Torino on away goals in the final.

Over the next few years, Van Gaal would guide Ajax to three Eredivisie titles, one KNVB Beker, three Dutch Supercups, one European Supercup and one Intercontinental Cup. However, the highlight of his career was most certainly the 1-0 win over AC Milan in the final of the 1994-95 Champions League, courtesy of a late Patrick Kluivert strike.

After recording 196 victories in 286 games at the helm of the Dutch titans, Van Gaal opted to leave the Amsterdam ArenA as one of the club's most successful coaches and signed a contract with Barcelona in the summer of 1997.

Nevertheless, things went much less smoothly in Catalunya than the Dutch coach expected. Van Gaal did guide Barcelona to two consecutive La Liga titles, but this didn't do anything to improve the troublesome relationship he had with fans and press alike in Spain right from the start.

MOMENTS OF MADNESS | Van Gaal's three most eye-catching actions
1. Van Gaal goes Karate Kid in Vienna during the 1995 Champions League final

Although the 1995 Champions League final against Milan was all about Patrick Kluivert's late winner for Ajax, Van Gaal got his fair share of attention as well for one particular incident during the game. When the referee refused to award the Dutch side a free kick when Marcel Desailly nearly decapitated Jari Litmanen, Van Gaal was apoplectic and imitated Desailly's action with an impressive karate kick.

2. Van Gaal is not afraid to show Luca Toni that he has the balls to do anything

The Bayern coach was far from pleased with the performance of some of his star players and was looking for a way to make it clear that he had the courage to drop any player who was not pulling his weight. Van Gaal came up with a simple solution as he dropped his pants right in front of his players. Not the kind of stuff you'd expect your coach to do, but the act left no doubt that Van Gaal is not your average tactician.

3. Van Gaal entertains fans with an unlikely speech during the title celebrations

When Bayern secured the Bundesliga title in 2010, they had every reason to celebrate, and Van Gaal made good use of this opportunity to address the fans in publicly. The Dutchman grabbed the microphone and started an impressive rant that Bayern were the best. Meanwhile, stars like Franck Ribery and Bastian Schweinsteiger looked bewildered at their head coach as he went on like a man possessed.

To make things even worse, he was having all kinds of trouble keeping star player Rivaldo in check. The Brazilian refused to play on the left wing any longer after winning the Ballon d'Or and Fifa Player of the Year award in 1999, but Van Gaal didn't budge and benched the forward, much to the dismay of the fans.

Barcelona expected Van Gaal to go all the way in the Champions League in 1999-2000 after the disappointing results in Europe in his first two seasons in charge and the ongoing unrest between Van Gaal and the rest of the world. It was not meant to be, though, for the Camp Nou side as Valencia proved to too strong in the semi-finals, ending Barca's dreams of lifting another Champions League trophy. Characteristically, Van Gaal launched a scathing attack on the press and all his critics when he announced his resignation on May 20, 2000.

Against all odds, the Dutchman returned to Camp Nou in the summer of 2002 for a second spell in charge of Barca, but mission improbable turned out to be mission impossible for Van Gaal as he got the sack after barely six months in charge.

He was not long out of work after his first exit at the Catalans as he found his dream job only a few months later. The Dutch Football Association (KNVB) were in the market for a new national team coach because of the departure of Frank Rijkaard after Euro 2000, and they unsurprisingly opted to go for the biggest high-profile name who was available.  

VAN GAAL IN QUOTES | The most controversial quotes about the Dutch tactician
"Van Gaal really has Alzheimer's if he writes stuff like that. You wonder whether he has one or two screws loose."

- Johan Cruyff
"Van Gaal is the Hitler of the Brazilian players, is arrogant, proud and has a problem. He has no idea of football. His type is sick, he's crazy."

- Giovanni
"I haven't had fun on the pitch once under van Gaal. I had had more than enough of it."

- Franck Ribery

Little would Van Gaal have known that the job in charge of Oranje would result in the biggest disappointment of his career to date, though, when he accepted the KNVB's offer. Despite the presence of players such as Edwin van der Sar, Jaap Stam, Edgar Davids and Patrick Kluivert, the Dutch failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup, and a disillusioned Van Gaal stepped down in January 2002.

After his second spell in charge of Barcelona, Van Gaal's career as head coach appeared to be nearing its end as he accepted an offer from Ajax to become director of football. Nevertheless, things were not going his way in the first half of the noughties as he lasted less than a year before he furiously slammed the door shut in Amsterdam following an internal conflict. 

When Van Gaal was looking for a new challenge in 2005, AZ president Dirk Scheringa didn't hesitate and immediately snapped up the controversial coach, a decision that would quickly pay off. The former Barcelona tactician used the opportunity given to him by Scheringa to rebuild his reputation as one of Europe's best coaches, as he guided the Alkmaar minnows to second spot in the table in his first season and within one victory of the Eredivisie title in his second.

Once again, his tenure at a club appeared to have a disappointing end as Van Gaal opted to resign in the summer of 2008 after a disastrous third campaign in charge. A group of players led by skipper Stijn Schaars managed to convince their coach to stay on though and one year later, Van Gaal was celebrating AZ's first Eredivisie title since 1981.

VAN GAAL IN QUOTES | the man himself speaking
"We are the best! And not just the best from Amsterdam, but also the best from Rotterdam. And Eindhoven. And Europe! And the world!"

- After winning the Intercontinental Cup in 1995
"Am I this brilliant or are you the one who is that stupid?"

- Reaction to an 'ignorant' question from a journalist

"My friends of the press, congratulations. I am leaving!"

- After resigning as Barcelona coach

His successes at the DSB Stadium earned Van Gaal the interest of Bayern, and the Dutchman happily jumped at the chance to take charge at a third European giant after his previous spells with Ajax and Barcelona.

A familiar pattern was to be seen in Bavaria as the 60-year-old led FCB to success right away and also integrated plenty of youngsters. However, Van Gaal once again proved that dealing with stars is not his speciality, as he forced out Luca Toni, while there wasn't much love lost between the Dutchman and Franck Ribery either.

These struggles weren't too much of a problem when Van Gaal led Bayern to the Bundesliga title, DFB Pokal and Champions League final in his first season at Sabener Strasse. Nevertheless, when results dropped in 2010-11, it appeared to be a matter of time before things imploded and, indeed, he was shown the exit doors in April of this year.

Van Gaal announced shortly after his departure at Bayern that he'd take a one-year break away from football and he has so far not been tempted to make an early return, despite the interest of several clubs.

It remains to be seen though whether the flamboyant coach has the intention to return to club football at all. Van Gaal has often said that all that's missing from his trophy cabinet is a prize with a national team and there's little doubt that he would jump at the chance to take over at a big nation.

Somehow, one can't help but hope that Van Gaal will indeed get this chance in the next few years. After all, a coach of his stature deserves to be active at the highest level and what better podium than a World Cup to show what he can do for a team?

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