Interview with new UAE coach Bert van Marwijk. The Dutchman has taken over as UAE manager for a second time.
Benjamin McFadyean (interviewer): Let me start by asking what’s the situation regarding coronavirus in Holland at the moment? It’s quite a sad situation including the impact it’s had on football. They just allowed a maximum of 4,000 spectators in the English grounds’ dependent on the COVID-19 risk in the area; do you have any spectators in Holland at games?
Bert van Marwijk: I’m in Holland, yes. I’ve been here nine months now. Most of the time I’m at home. The situation in Holland is similar to that in many countries: public venues like restaurants, theatres and cinema, most places where people socialise are all closed. It’s the same difficult situation as in other countries, including the UK, no doubt. A few weeks ago, they allowed some fans in the stadium at 20 per cent capacity, but now, due to COVID-19, no fans are allowed either. Not good but needed. The playing behind closed doors is wreaking havoc on club finances. Many clubs are getting into debt. I hope we get back to including fans soon for the sake of both them and the clubs themselves.
BM: You were a cup winner in 1978 and won the Dutch cup with AZ Alkmaar, that must’ve been an incredible experience. Was the cup win the highlight of your playing career?
BVM: I was born in East Holland, and my career started with the club I dreamt of playing for Go Ahead Eagles. I debuted at 17. At that time Go Ahead played in the highest division in Holland. The first team had an English coach: Barry Hughes. He changed the colours of the club and added ‘Eagles’ to the name. We used to have red and yellow shirts before he changed the club colours to purple. When I was 23, I transferred to AZ Alkmaar, where I played for three years. In 1978, we won the Dutch cup: the KNVB Cup. I remember that fondly because we won 1-0; I played on the left-wing and gave the assist for Henk van Rijnsoever’s goal in the 1-0 win over Ajax. You don’t forget such occasions; it was also a special night for the fans.
BM: You and coaching ... was that always on the cards?
BVM: When I was young, I had very long hair and something of an attitude, I was, for sure, a rebel. I only wanted to kick the ball, score goals, and play football, you know? I just wanted to be on the pitch; other things didn’t interest me at all. Later, around 27 I when I was playing at MVV Maastricht in Holland, I noticed things that were going wrong in football, which you don’t see when you are younger. The big money really started coming in the late 1980s, and it changed the game. I had played with Willy van Bommel at MVV, a good friend of mine, an excellent right-wing player himself. He lived in the same street as me and the manager of the club Frans Korver came to us and asked us if we both wanted to take on coaching the youth set-up. I didn’t know much about coaching, but I didn’t hesitate. Willy and I made a good team. We started by getting the young player to play five against five and trained all the basics, shots on goal, etc. Slowly, I developed into a coach, and the rest is history.
BM: And for some successes ... with Feyenoord Rotterdam, a massive highlight was you taking the club to the 2002 Uefa Cup final against Borussia Dortmund. In a season in which the club also achieved an impressive third place in the league, the most fantastic thing was the final was held in ‘De Kulp’, the Feyenoord stadium.
BVM: That was amazing. We started the season in the Champions League and were in the same group as Bayern Munich, Spartak Moscow, and Sparta Prague, but we ended up finishing third so dropped into the Europa League. We started to play in the Uefa Cup. On route to the final, we played against top European clubs, Rangers, Inter Milan, PSV Eindhoven, and then the final against German champions Borussia Dortmund. I remember the Dortmund team well, although I did not know I would soon be coaching them. Top Bundesliga players like Dede, Ewerton, Tomas Rosicky, it was going to be tough against Borussia Dortmund. But we managed to build a 2-0 lead before BVB got a goal back to 2-1, despite Juergen Kohler being sent off. Deep into the game, we managed to score a third goal; I started to think ‘we can do this’. The great Czech striker, Jan Koller, who is over two-metres tall and a fantastic player, got one back for Dortmund, even though they were down to ten men. The last 10 minutes were unbelievably tense, but we hung on and won the Uefa Cup, the European title since 1974, I will never forget it. I follow the Premier League on television and attended a few games last year. I was in England with my son-in-law Mark van Bommel and my two grandsons. I went to watch Liverpool v Everton, the Merseyside derby. Anfield is a special ground, and I enjoy going to games there. After the game, I chatted with Carlo Ancelotti — an old friend and a really nice guy.
BM: Everyone was hoping that you would bring Dutch players into Dortmund. They are highly respected in Germany, especially for their technical skills, but you found limiting circumstances at the club, right?
BVM: Maybe three or four weeks into my coaching contract, I started to realise that there was panic in the club because BVB had a debt of 130 million euros at the time. There was no money to invest so we couldn’t afford to get new players. That was a completely new situation for me. But, under the strain, we started to bond as a team. We focused on reaching European qualification, and I never spoke to the players about the financial problems; we just played our game. We became tight knit. In the second half of the season, we played the best I have ever managed, and that was with no money. Although we missed the European places by one place, finishing in seventh, what should have been a disappointment was a season never to forget.
BM: How do the coach and sporting director maintain conversations about signing players when you want to build a roster, and there’s no money in the club?
BVM: When I start somewhere, I know what to expect, most of the time. At Dortmund, it was a challenge. I went down there and said to management: ‘We don’t have a good goalkeeper’ and ‘I don’t have a good striker, what can we do?’ One by one, I was told we couldn’t afford new signings, it was tough at first. I had to find a solution. I had to get them almost from nothing. That’s why I started to watch the youth. Every Tuesday, I invited four or five young players to the first team training sessions. One of the players who shone through was Nuri Sahin. He was 15 years old at the time, but you could see what a player he would become. I gave him his debut when he was 16; I saw Borussia Dortmund’s revelation at the time. Until recently, when Moukoko made his first appearance for Dortmund at 16, he was the youngest player in the Bundesliga. That was a time I got to give the very young players a chance at BVB. We had to.
BM: I would like to ask about your career managing the Dutch national team and Feyenoord as well. What is the actual touchline experience like for a coach, how different is it to being a player? And are you able to influence the game a lot from the touchline? How does it work in practice? Do you have to shout, or signal, or do you talk to your captain? How do you influence the game?
BVM: On the sidelines, you don’t have a lot of influence anymore. The most influence you have is before the game, in the locker room, and during the training sessions. There are all kinds of different coaches: some jump around for 90 minutes, some shout from the sidelines a lot. But, in my experience from when I was a player and had a coach like that, you just ignore them after a while. A coach also can’t say nothing for 90 minutes. The most important thing is to set the team up before the match. The team has to know exactly what to do in all the situations that arise in the game. You don’t need to say much. You cannot give much information during the game. The player must know what I mean right away; in a full stadium you can’t communicate, that’s not possible. What you do during the game is support the players. They need mental support, and that is what you do.
BM: I can imagine that the team talk in half-time must also be a highlight.
BVM: Yes, at half-time, you cover what you spoke about before the game and remind the players what they forgot. You can show everything on video analysis, but it was not possible during my time in Dortmund. Technically, things have improved, which helps the coaches. During the week at training, we discuss the game and improve any issues. A coach’s work on the training pitch is the most critical part, that’s how it was a hundred years ago, and it still is now.
BM: Lastly, looking at BVB now, what do you see when you look at players like Erling Haaland, Gio Reyna, Jadon Sancho, or Jude Bellingham? With the young talent BVB have, there’s the potential to sweep across European football, but what do you expect from Borussia Dortmund in the next couple of years? How good is this new generation?
BVM: As a coach, I’m jealous when I see the squad Dortmund has, it’s unbelievable how many good young players they have. Especially on the offensive side, all the talent is at a very, very high level. You have the best striker-maybe in the world of football right now, Haaland, and he is in Dortmund. Then look at the back-up-the potential of Youssoufa Moukoko is impressive. I think there is an immense talent, but I would be looking for some potential defensive options if I were coaching. BVB needs some more talented young players for the defensive part of the team. If the defence clicks, I think the future of Dortmund is very good, very exciting. And the way they have played over the years is also very exciting. I think we can expect good things.
BM: You have coached many teams: Hamburg, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Australia. Undoubtedly the greatest experience was the Fifa World Cup 2010 in South Africa, taking an unfancied Netherlands side to the final?
BVM: That’s one of the highlights for me, of course. When you play the World Cup, it is the highest you can achieve in football. We played the final, and it was 0-0 against Spain after 90 minutes. And then, after 27 minutes in extra time, Spain scored. If the toe of Casillas had not been there, we would have won the World Cup for the first time. It was moments before Arjen’s biggest shot. Winning the Uefa Cup in 2002 was sensational, but I cannot think of a more tremendous honour than coaching your home country in a World Cup final. In the end, it’s football. In my time as a coach with the amateur clubs like Millen or Limmel, at the start of my career, winning has always had the same feeling wherever you are coaching the UAE, Australia or Borussia Dortmund.
Bert Van Marwijk was born in Deventer in the Netherlands. As a forward and a midfielder, he played 393 matches in the highest Dutch division, the Eredivisie. He began his career at Go Ahead Eagles, his hometown club. After six seasons, he left Deventer to play in Alkmaar with AZ. In 1978, he moved to MVV Maastricht, where he spent eight seasons before a single season with Fortuna Sittard. He ended his playing career in 1988 after one season for the Belgian Football Club Assent having played 468 matches and scoring 72 goals at senior level. In 1975, Rinus Michels called upon van Marwijk to play for the Dutch national team in a friendly match against Yugoslavia, his only cap.
Van Marwijk began his professional managerial career at his former club Fortuna Sittard. They finished seventh in the Eredivisie in 1998 but reached the KNVB Cup final in 1999. Fortuna had players like Mark van Bommel and Wilfred Bouma in the squad at the time.
In 2000, he became the manager of Rotterdam-based club Feyenoord. In his first season, he led the team to a second-place finish in the Eredivisie and his second season (2001—02), he had one of his career’s biggest successes.
After beating SC Freiburg, PSV and Inter Milan in the knockout stage, he won the UEFA Cup final after beating Borussia Dortmund in the final, 3—2. Feyenoord placed third in the league alongside van Marwijk in the 2002, 03 and 04 seasons. In July 2004, he began managing German Bundesliga club, Borussia Dortmund.
In both of his first two seasons with Dortmund (2004-05 and 2005-06), BVB finished seventh in the Bundesliga table. During the third, Dortmund was stagnating, and situated mid-table in ninth. Van Marwijk and the club announced that they would part ways at the end of the 06-07 season. However, on December 18, they parted prematurely.
Van Marwijk’s return to Feyenoord would be short-lived; before the end of the 2007-8 season, van Marwijk succeeded Marco van Basten as head coach of the Dutch national team after Uefa Euro 2008.
Van Marwijk’s management staff included former internationals Frank de Boer and Philip Cocu. In the 2010 FIFA World Cup, he led the Dutch to the final against Spain after defeating Slovakia in the round of 16, Brazil in the quarter-finals and Uruguay in the semi-finals. They lost, however, 1—0 in extra time. He opted for a tough style of play, especially in opposition to Spain, a strong contrast with the Dutch football tradition.
On December 8 2011, van Marwijk extended his contract with the Royal Dutch Football Association (KNVB) for four more years through to the summer of 2016, including participation in the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016 tournaments. However, at the Euro 2012 tournament, the Dutch ended up without a single point; heavy criticism prompted van Marwijk to resign on June 27th.
In September 2013, van Marwijk became the head coach of German side Hamburger SV after refusing offers from English side Southampton and Portugal’s Sporting CP. On February 8, Hamburg lost their sixth consecutive league match and gave up three goals in their fifth-straight league match. The supervisory board at Hamburg met on 9 February 2014 to discuss the future of van Marwijk, opting to let him continue in his role. However, he was sacked on February 15 after Hamburg lost 4—2 to Eintracht Braunschweig.
On August 26, 2015, van Marwijk became the Saudi Arabia national team’s new manager on a one-year contract. On September 3, 2015, he won his first game, 7—0, against East Timor at the 2018 Asian World Cup Qualifiers. On March 24, 2016, he clinched qualification to the third (final) round by winning 2—0 against Malaysia. After criticism from local media for not staying in the country and watching league games, van Marwijk helped Saudi Arabia directly qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in their last match against Japan. Saudi Arabia qualified for their fifth FIFA World Cup and first since Germany 2006. After their final qualifying match, van Marwijk left the position unable to agree on a new contract with the Saudi Arabia football federation.
On January 24, 2018, van Marwijk was appointed head coach of the Australia national football team, but Australian coach Graham Arnold replaced him in March 2018.
On March 20, 2019, van Marwijk became the new manager of the UAE team. In December 2019, UAE Football Association and van Marwijk ended their cooperation following the UAE’s 4-2 defeat to Qatar in the Arabian Gulf Cup before being reappointed as head-coach in December 2020.