Don Leo's Odyssey
From Amsterdam to Madrid to Guadalajara to Budapest, Leo Beenhakker has never stopped learning
He coached the Real Madrid of Butragueño and Hugo Sánchez. Managed the Netherlands at the time of Van Basten, Gullit and Rijkaard. Brought Zlatan Ibrahimović to Ajax. Qualified Trinidad and Tobago for a World Cup. And his travelling instincts carried him to a thousand more dugouts. Leo Beenhakker — until recently the sporting director of Újpest FC – has seen a lot in life, and in football, during his 40-year career.
Bow-legged, with a crooked smile and a passing resemblance to Nick Nolte, Leo Beenhakker reaches out for a handshake. "What on earth is so interesting about meeting a Dutch arsehole like me?" he asks. A lot, if truth be told. Before holing up in the summer of 2011 at Újpest — traditional giants who won their last Hungarian title an eternity ago — Don Leo dragged his old, battle-worn body to every corner of the globe. Successor to Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff's contemporary and Guus Hiddink's predecessor, Beenhakker coached the biggest teams of the eighties and nineties and some of the biggest players. The Dutch adventurer then set sail. Mexico first of all, before Trinidad and Tobago, then Poland at Euro 2008 before he returned to the Netherlands with Feyenoord.
What has driven you on during your career?
I've always looked to go and discover something different. There's no point asking me where I have come from or where I am from originally. I don't know. All I know is I was born more or less in the port of Rotterdam. I spent my youth watching passing cargo ships from all over the world, hoping to jump on one of them so that I could leave and discover the world. I always had this taste for an adventure. I also understood that even though football's supposed to be a universal language, the perception of the message changes depending on the country you're in. Trinidadian players interpret your words in a totally different way to Polish players, for example. You realise very quickly the key question isn't what you say but what they hear. We're talking about the human element and that for me is the most exciting part. Imagine the cultural shock I had when I quit Trinidad after the 2006 World Cup to take charge of Poland. In two weeks, I went from a Caribbean Island full of Rastas who party in the street all night listening to Bob Marley to a totally depressing and rigid Eastern European country. And despite everything, I liked both.
From your time with Poland, we recall above all the context surrounding the game against Germany at Euro 2008...
I'd never known anything like it. The Polish press created such a fiasco… [one Polish tabloid notably published photos of Beenhakker holding the severed heads of Michael Ballack and Joachim Löw]. My main job was to protect the players from this atmosphere that had nothing to do with football but with the history of the two countries. We were capable of matching Germany from a technical point of view, but because certain players thought they were on some mission — due to the influence of the media or maybe people in their entourages — we couldn't win. They put themselves in a situation where the match was too big for them because they wanted to gain revenge for historical events. Poland has a painful history; they have been battered from both sides, once by the Germans, once by the Russians. That generates a lot of frustration. The older generations of Poles still can't accept that Germany has rebuilt itself and become such a rich, powerful country with a very good standard of living. They say to themselves, "Hang on, they lost the war." As the match got closer and closer, I noticed more signs that suggested this frustration would spill over in to the game. We had the same problem in Holland in the 1970s. That's the main reason we lost the 1974 World Cup final. At the time, a lot of players had lost family members, an uncle or an aunt, during the Second World War. That was the case, for example, with one of our defenders — Wim Van Hanegem. When you play with emotion you can't play well.
You recently worked in Hungary. Like Poland, it seems the ghosts of the great past teams are preventing the Hungarians from reinventing their football?
The principal problem there is nostalgia. I don't know… I get the impression they are unable to shake off their memories. It is as though they are stuck at a certain point in history. When I was in Poland, the people at the FA and the older generations always talked to me about how great they were in 1974 and 1982. Ok, but bloody hell, we're in 2012! It's the same in Hungary. Of course they had some great teams, in the fifties and sixties, but what have they done since? Nothing. Football's constantly evolving. You can't afford continually to refer to a glorious past. If you do that you're dead. Every year, if you're a trainer, you have to make an evaluation of the state of football, the way it's being played, in order to translate the general trends according to your means. In Hungary, there is no philosophy, no awareness of the present moment. They work the same way as 10 or 20 years ago. They have been left behind.
Were you able to have an influence as sporting director of a club like Újpest?
It wasn't easy. There is a form of intellectual inertia. Every change causes some soul-searching that they don't appreciate because it makes them uncomfortable. It destabilises and exposes them. You always have to be convincing — I couldn't just say 'we did it like this in Holland' because that wouldn't work. Back home, training, youth development, is a constant process, day after day. We detect the talents, we put them in the right conditions and we possess the expertise. That's what enables a small country likes ours to produce the likes of Van Persie, Sneijder or Van der Vaart. In Hungary you can watch an Under-15 match and spot some very good players, but then what happens? It's tricky because the structures aren't good, starting with the pitches. At Újpest, they have a training pitch that you wouldn't even dare walk your dog on because he might get injured. I had the same problems in Poland. They told me, "We have a population of 40 million and we produce as many talented players as France or Portugal." And I replied, "Ok, but what do you do with these talents?"
Why do you think Dutch coaches like Rinus Michels, yourself, Guus Hiddink or Louis van Gaal are able to adapt to different surroundings?
Firstly, we have been well trained. I think we are talented enough to be able to learn foreign languages. As we are a little country, we learn German, English, Spanish and French from a young age at school. But I think the main reason lies in the awareness we have of others. We try to understand the person opposite us and how he functions. I'd say that's our principal quality: our capacity to take an interest in others. We are like robots with lots of antennae that allow us to absorb a lot of information. This ability to adapt is a gift from God. When I arrived in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Switzerland, Trinidad or Poland, I never felt threatened; I could work as though I was at home. And I always gave the same talk at the start: "You have your lives, with your own social, cultural and religious habits. That's your business, don't change anything, keep that to yourself. But for the rest, for the football, we are going to try to do something together."
If you were still coaching a club, would you rather be in the dugout at Manchester City or at Ajax?
City. I know Ajax already. I spent eight years there.
Ok. What about a different club renowned for youth development where you could bring through a generation of 20-year-olds…
Of course I'd go for the club that focuses on youth development. It's so enjoyable to see young players progress. That's sort of what I did in Hungary. There was a coach, but I always hung around at training. When I can help a young player fulfill his potential, when he manages to carry the advice I've given him at training in to a match, I go home a happy man. It makes my day. I love it! On the other hand, if at the start of the season a kid is making 50 mistakes per game, and he's still making 50 at the end, the conclusion is he has no talent. Talent is the ability to learn quickly.
You were responsible for bringing Zlatan Ibrahimović to Ajax…
Yes. We paid Malmö €9m to buy him. That was a record for Ajax. I spent hours trying to convince our finance director. And yet I'd never actually seen Ibrahimović play in a match. Only at training. I'd received a phone call from a contact of mine who said, "Hurry up, come us see this youngster at Malmö." The team was on a winter training camp in Spain, near Alicante. I watched him and thought, "Jesus Christ, I've got to have him!" So we splashed the money after an almighty battle with Malmö. The first week was a disaster. Then after three weeks, the 50,000 supporters at the Arena started whistling him. The coach, the rest of staff, the directors… everyone started avoiding eye contact with me. In the end, there were only two people left who believed in Ibrahimović: Zlatan and me. Then he exploded in to life. But my word it was tough. Everyone wanted to kill me.
Did he already have a big ego?
Yes, and that's why I adored him. I loved him, I still love him — I love his personality. I always told my bosses, "Give me 11 arseholes like him and we'll be champions." Great players are always strong characters. Do you think it's easy to manage Hugo Sánchez or a guy like Bernd Schuster? Of course they're arseholes! But they'll never let you down on the pitch. They're capable of changing the course of a game. From the start, Zlatan was a silly sod. In the dressing room, on the pitch, at training, I used to think, "Fucking hell, who is this guy?" That's why I loved him, because of his nature.
Weren't Arsenal and Wenger also keen to sign him before Ajax came in?
I don't know about Wenger, but Capello, oh yes, he was more than interested. He was coaching Roma at the time. Three or four days after I had signed Zlatan, we bumped in to each other at a game. He came over to me. "Hey you, son of a bitch!" he said. "What's wrong Fabio?" He screamed, "I almost got the green light from my president for Zlatan." I replied, "Hard luck, you poor bastard. These things happen."
At Real Madrid, how did you deal with the characters in the famous Quinta del Buitre [Butragueño, Míchel, Manolo Sanchís, Martín Vázquez and Miguel Pardeza)?
It was very tricky. Too complicated really. My problem wasn't explaining to Butragueño, Míchel, Gordillo or Camacho how to play football. The problem with these clubs is finding a way to get so many great players playing together. The other big issue is the intense pressure they're put under by the media and the fans. You have to succeed in creating a healthy working environment every day, ensuring the players are totally focused and keeping their feet on the ground, match after match. That's the real headache. There are so many egos at these clubs… In my entire career, I never worked as hard as I did during those years at Real. It was 24/7.
Who was the most important player in your system?
I don't like to say things like that. I don't like saying this player was the most important, blah blah blah… If Míchel and Gordillo were so influential in midfield it's because we had guys like Butragueño or Hugo Sánchez up front to finish off their work. I had two very intelligent forwards who knew how to defend and which positions to take up. Gordillo as well was a joy to watch because he had Camacho behind him. Michel was free in his head because he could count on the defensive work of Gallego. The hardest job is to mould a team. Let me tell you something: no player in the world is capable of playing at the same level for 60 matches a season. I remember when Emilio [Butragueño] had a bad day he could count on Hugo [Sánchez]. He could say, "I'm not feeling at my best today, you're going to have to get your head down." And Hugo would do the job, with Emilio playing off him. It worked the other way around as well. That's the key to a team's success: coordination and solidarity. By the end we were almost unbeatable.
Was that Real Madrid side even more talented than the Dutch team you took to the 1990 World Cup?
The Dutch group I had wasn't a team. I never had a real team during the 1990 World Cup. The talent was unquestionably there, but Ruud [Gullit] was coming back from a long injury, Rijkaard wasn't at his best, Van Basten was struggling mentally. The team gathered a few weeks before the tournament. I only had six weeks to prepare everything and it wasn't me who planned the team's preparation program. We found ourselves in places where it was impossible to train properly.
Where were you?
In Yugoslavia. The conditions were dreadful.
Because the country was heading towards war?
Yes, but not only that. The infrastructure wasn't good enough. I accept my part in the failure but half the team were against me. A few weeks before the World Cup, the coach [Nol de Ruiter] was sacked. The press then put pressure on Rinus Michels, the technical director, to appoint Cruyff. But as Michels didn't get along with Cruyff he couldn't appoint him. So I was chosen and found myself in charge of a group of players, half of whom had requested the return of Cruyff. I tried everything to get it to work, but when you aren't speaking to your players it becomes impossible. In Marco Van Basten, I had the greatest phenomenon of the nineties. I had Gullit, Rijkaard, Koeman… The Netherlands will never have a better generation. But it didn't work. Not only that, it was a disaster. Once a player thinks he's bigger than the team you've lost. That remains the most frustrating experience of my career. I didn't sleep for the entirety of that three-week competition.
Why, through the decades, have so many Dutch players and coaches gone to Spain?
It's not a coincidence. The connection started with Rinus Michels, then carried on with Cruyff, and Guardiola was the heir. In a way the Spanish have even overtaken us because they incorporate an obligation for results as well. Like the Italians, they are prepared to win a game playing horribly when it isn't possible to play nice football. If they have to get 11 men behind the ball and then hoof it in to the stands, they can do it. That's the way it was when I was at Real Madrid — a kind of compromise between Latin pragmatism and the Dutch school. You know, us Dutch, we're a strange race. Before the 1994 World Cup, a TV presenter summed it up nicely. He said, "At the start of the competition you have 23 teams who are there to win. And one team who is there to show off how much talent they have: the Netherlands."
How has the actual game changed since you started coaching?
Firstly, everything is so much quicker. Not in the sense of running or moving quicker, no. Quicker in the head. There's no longer space, which means there's less time to think, analyse and control the ball. You have to find a solution before the ball arrives at your feet. Secondly, we no longer defend to protect the goalkeeper, we defend high to try to win back the ball as quickly as possible. That's the wonderful thing about Barcelona. It's impossible to play like that for 90 minutes. Even horses can't keep that tempo up. Yet Barça manage to do it because all the energy of every single player — from the defenders to the forwards — is channeled towards regaining control of the ball as quickly as possible. Then once the team has possession, they take their time, they all have a feel of the ball, they pass it about some more. As they prepare their next move, they are recovering from the efforts of the pressing they've just done.
Do you really think this is something new?
No, but Barcelona sometimes carry it out to perfection. Because after doing all that, you have to take a decision, a collective decision, and I don't know how to explain this but I get the feeling their players think the same thing at the same time. There's always a moment, I don't know where it comes from, when you feel like there's a signal and then bang! They all attack together at an unbelievable pace. Bing, bang, boom! The speed is infernal.
Do you not think we misinterpret Barcelona and Guardiola? People seem to think they incarnate football, yet in reality they only represent one way of playing football…
It's quite simply today's football. That team has such a high level of notoriety, so much visibility, and so much quality, they influence the entire planet and have become an example for everyone. I don't know what the future will hold but today everyone tries to have possession and to control the game. That's sort of the way we think in the Netherlands: if you have the ball for 70 minutes you have 70 minutes to try to create chances and only 20 minutes to defend. So if the best way of defending is to have possession, then try to keep the fucking ball! You don't want a sterile form of possession or to pass without going forward. That's irritating. You need to think of how you are going to bring the ball forward. Even the Germans, who for a long time looked to win the ball deep and then use the space to counterattack in to, are thinking along these lines. When you watch a player like Rooney, you see how he fights like a madman to defend and to try to win the ball as high up the pitch as possible. A few years ago, if a coach asked his star forward to defend, he'd have said, "Go fuck yourself, that's not my job." Nowadays everyone is involved in closing down. There's no longer room for lazy players. If a player doesn't help out defensively, the opposition has so much quality they'll always find a teammate in space.
We don't know much about your time in Mexico in the nineties and early part of the 21st century.
It was fantastic. When people ask, I always say that from a professional point of view, Real Madrid is the best thing that happened to me, but from the point of view of lifestyle, contact with the people and the country itself, Mexico was paradise. Mexican players are unbelievable, as keen as mustard. My favourite player there was Cuauhtemoc Blanco. He was brilliant but a bit crazy. A guy who liked to live outside the law. Sometimes you had to fight with him, sometimes you had to hug him. I loved that.
In 2003, you said, "I have learned that when you win you have to show dignity. That's the lesson I learned at Real Madrid: never be arrogant, never underestimate an opponent." Would you agree that José Mourinho doesn't see things like that?
No. You have to understand it's like a game for José. Personally what I like, besides his class as a coach, is his personality. I adore him, I'm José's number one socio, I love his explosive side… I find I can relate to him: he always defends his players, always takes their side, although that doesn't mean he's like that in the dressing-room or he isn't tough with them. Everywhere Mourinho goes his players are crazy for him. It was the same back in my day. When I was at Real and Johan [Cruyff] was at Barcelona, we respected each other, but we slagged each other off in the press. Just for the fun of it.