World Cup 2022 briefing: Louis van Gaal is a man apart in Qatar

The main event

Louis van Gaal as the sentimental choice to win this World Cup feels like a fault in the space-time continuum. And yet the austere, brusque character who led Ajax to glory in the 1990s and whose tedious freeze-frame football had mid-2010s Manchester United fans barrelling to the concourses has reconfigured as world football’s friendly uncle. His battle with cancer and the reality that, at 71, this will likely be his final stand on the world stage has softened hearts, though. He has softened, too.

Van Gaal has also emerged as a rare voice of conscience in an elite class where the next pound will always be chased ahead of principles. “It’s ridiculous that the World Cup is [in Qatar],” he said earlier this year. “Fifa says they want to develop football there. That’s bullshit. It’s about money, about commercial interests.” Take note, David Beckham and others.

Related: ‘Messi is liberated’: Jorge Valdano on Argentina, politics and his goal in ‘86

With Fifa set to collect a record $7.5bn of revenue and stadia dotted with empty seats as the Doha supercity empties out in the tournament’s latter stages, such plain-speaking has been proved correct. Van Gaal, though lately banning political questions as they might distract his team, continues to have the ear of the journalists. Not for him the “we want to win” or “this is football” cliches trotted out by his contemporaries.

At Fifa’s main media centre on Thursday, the great man’s press conference was a sellout. Those hacks who sat through his United team’s matches would regularly wonder why he couldn’t just do press conferences for a living, such was the richness of entertainment compared to the plodding football out on the field. In Qatar, it’s been much the same. His Netherlands team would win few prizes for artistic impression, and while playing Argentina in the quarter-final recalls the Brilliant Orange team meeting the same opposition in 1974 and 1978, Van Gaal’s team are functional, less-flying Dutchmen liable to use the long ball.

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Argentina also brings Van Gaal up against one of his former United players, Ángel Di María, with whom he had a difficult relationship. “My problem in Manchester was the coach,” said Di María last year. “Van Gaal was the worst coach I ever had in my career.” On Thursday, the Dutch manager sidestepped the winger’s complaints before delivering one of the comedic gems the hacks had queued up for.

“Well, he is one of the very few players who ever said that,” he said. “And usually it is the other way round … a head coach sometimes needs to take decisions that don’t always end well. There’s somebody next to me here, Memphis Depay. The same thing happened to him. He also played for Manchester [United] and now we kiss each other, mouth to mouth. We’re not going to do it now.” Cue that uproarious laughter only a room full of journalists can produce.

Should the Netherlands prevail, they would end the hopes of another sentimental choice to win this World Cup, Lionel Messi, and Van Gaal has a plan for him. “Messi is the most dangerous creative player, he is able to create a lot and to score goals himself,” he said. “But when they lose the ball he doesn’t participate much, this gives us chances.”

Many a coach has set a plan for Messi and failed miserably, though few have the experience and charisma of Van Gaal. If defeat to Argentina proves to be his last stand in football, he will be missed. He has proved a man apart in Qatar, and the game needs more leaders like him. JB

Related: World Cup 2022 Golden Boot: top goalscorers, game by game

Talking points

Brazil’s collective joy is a positive thing
“It is not being disrespectful to anyone else, that is how we do things, that is us,” Tite says of Brazil’s dancing celebrations. “This may also help the education of young kids back in school and we will continue doing things in our manner.” Some bemoaned the joy Brazil took in beating South Korea, infuriated by the team’s desire to shake hips on their way to a World Cup quarter-final. Others will see it for what it is: a group of professional athletes playing out their dream in a tournament that is the pinnacle of their lives. Tite was also criticised for bringing on third-choice goalkeeper Weverton, but it meant every player in his squad has had game time in Qatar. It showed the human touch to give a good squad man the chance to play his part at a World Cup. It all adds up to a great togetherness; no player is left behind whether they are on the bench or in the stands injured. Everyone is treated the same, and that will help them in their aim to win the trophy. WU

Roy Keane voiced his disapproval at Brazil’s dancing celebration after each goal during their game with South Korea.
Roy Keane voiced his disapproval at Brazil’s dancing celebration after each goal during their game with South Korea. Composite: Getty

Adios, Luis Enrique
Luis Enrique exiting his role as Spain manager made him the fifth World Cup coach to depart, following South Korea’s Paulo Bento, Otto Addo of Ghana, Belgium’s Roberto Martínez and Gerardo Martino of Mexico. Those four had reached the end of their contracts, but Luis Enrique had a deal in place until the end of this year before today’s mutual parting of ways. “It is determined a new project should start,” read a Spanish FA (RFEF) statement. A later announcement read: “the RFEF has chosen Luis de la Fuente as the new national coach.” De La Fuente has been with the national setup since 2013, and led Spain’s Olympic team to the silver medal in Tokyo last year. There he worked with a number of Luis Enrique’s squad. He will have the benefit of youngsters like Pedri, Gavi and Ansu Fati reaching their peaks but, like Luis Enrique, will have to find the proper centre-forward Spain have lacked since the heydays of Fernando Torres and David Villa. JB

Beyond the football

A migrant worker’s death during the tournament has proved a prickly issue for the Qatari hosts. A Filipino man contracted to fix lights in a car park at the Sealine Resort – the training site used by the Saudi Arabia national team – died after he reportedly “slipped off a ramp while walking alongside [a] vehicle and fell headfirst against concrete”.

Officials in Qatar have launched an investigation, and said “the company will be subject to legal action and severe financial penalties”, if it is found that “safety protocols were not followed.” When questioned on the matter by reporters, the chief executive of the 2022 World Cup, Nasser Al Khater, responded angrily.

“Death is a natural part of life, whether it’s at work, whether it’s in your sleep,” Al Khater said. “We’re in the middle of a World Cup. And we have a successful World Cup. And this is something you want to talk about right now?” JB

Related: Supporters surge to Qatar as Morocco carry hopes of entire Arab world

Global media-watch

The press in the Netherlands expects orange-clad fans to be outnumbered in the Lusail Stadium, with reports that just 1,400 Dutch supporters have obtained tickets. There is at least optimism that the team could progress but De Telegraaf devoted a whole piece to worrying about Frenkie de Jong and Nathan Aké potentially being suspended for the semi-finals if they are booked against Argentina.

In De Volkskrant, William Vissers compared Van Gaal to the legendary Rinus Michels, adding that the current Dutch coach has changed with the game. “Van Gaal is willing to admit that he is milder than before, but only in behaviour. Not in vision, in the execution of ideas. Then he is strict and sharp. Beyond that, ahead: smoother, softer. The authoritarian coach no longer fits in with football anyway, and certainly not in a tournament where it’s all about team spirit.”

Across the border in Germany, fingers are still being pointed after the team’s early exit. According to Bild, a two-hour crisis meeting raised concerns about a “holiday feeling” at the team’s training base. Hansi Flick’s side were based at the Zulal Wellness Resort, a three-hour round-trip from Doha, and reports suggest some players found the vibe a little too laid-back. Flick has dismissed the criticism and turned his focus to Euro 2024, where Germany will be hosts. “We have missed a great opportunity [in Qatar],” Flick said. “We will learn our lessons.” MBe/NMc

The internet reacts

Luis Enrique is not the only live streamer to feature prominently during this World Cup. Sergio Agüero is also a Twitcher, or whatever the kids are calling it these days, and dropped by his old teammates on Wednesday to judge Papu Gómez’s new haircut. The Briefing reckons it’s a bit more Walter Samuel than David Beckham, but we’ll let you be the judge …

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Today’s matches

Croatia v Brazil, 3pm GMT The unstoppable force meets the immovable object in the first of the four quarter-finals. Tite has encouraged his Brazil team to start games aggressively – “we want to score goals quickly, so later we can feel more comfortable” – but in Croatia they meet the masters of the World Cup slugfest. Zlatko Dalic’s side beat Denmark and Russia on penalties (and England in extra time) to reach the 2018 final, and prevailed in another shootout to get past Japan on Monday. “Our last match is confirmation we can do it again,” warned Luka Modric. “We’re prepared for anything.” NMc

Netherlands v Argentina, 7pm GMT Friday’s later game is a fixture to fire the senses, even on paper. The 1978 final, the unforgettable 1998 quarter-final and a tense tussle in the semi-finals in 2014 – their meetings rarely disappoint, save for a group-stage stalemate in 2006. Croatia or Brazil await the victors in the semi-finals. NMc

And finally …

As Portugal played down reports that Cristiano Ronaldo threatened to leave their World Cup training camp after being dropped, Tyson Fury weighed in with his advice on growing old gracefully. “The age factor will not wait for anybody, no matter how you’ve lived,” the 34-year-old Fury told TalkSport. “Even Ronaldo is on the slide now,” the world heavyweight champion added before serving up an exceedingly strange analogy. “If you look at Ronaldo, he’s 37 years old, he’s had the best doctors, the best physiotherapists – he’s lived like an egg in Mr Kipling’s cake.” NMc