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The van Gaal paradox: Unbeaten at the FIFA World Cup, but without a trophy

The ways of football are really mysterious. Whenever a game in the knockout phases at the FIFA World Cup ends in a draw and subsequently goes in extra-time or penalties, it is counted as a draw in history. Therein lies the paradox, after Argentina won the shootout against the Netherlands, 4-3, in the quarter-finals at Qatar 2022.

The Netherlands, who did not lose a match in this tournament, are out of contention and will be on a plane home after Friday’s defeat in the Lusail Iconic Stadium, while Argentina, who have already lost a match, their opener against Saudi Arabia, 1-2, are through and have a shot at the trophy.

Cruel, disappointing, some would say even unfair. But that is the world of football, this is why the sport is so popular and every team that starts the competition knows exactly what to expect in a tournament where emotions can run high.

This is especially true for Louis van Gaal, the Netherlands’ manager, who will step down after the tournament. One of the most respected coaches in the Netherlands’ history, criticised and loved alike, is now the holder of an enviable record – he did not lose a single game at the FIFA World Cup, but failed to win the trophy both times he coached the Netherlands.

Van Gaal had three stints on the bench of the Oranje and led the team twice at the FIFA World Cup, in 2014 and 2022, as his record at the FIFA World Cup now reads a 12-game unbeaten streak, with eight wins and four draws – provided the game against Argentina is recorded as a draw.

Not only he was unbeaten in the last stint on the Netherlands’ bench, spanning between August 2021 and December 2022, but his record for the national team is also superb. In 64 games, van Gaal won 41, drew 19 and lost only four, for a winning efficiency of 64%.

In the first stint, the Dutch manager also failed to help his team qualify for the 2002 FIFA World Cup, being replaced immediately after the mishap.

“First and foremost I won’t be continuing. I only did it for this period of time. This was my very last match of my third term as head coach. In that time I coached 20 matches and we didn’t lose a single one. I don’t know how many matches we won, but you can Google ‘Louis van Gaal, Dutch team’ and see the goal difference for yourself,” he said in his post-match press conference following the 4-3 penalty shootout defeat.

It was surely a bitter pill to swallow for van Gaal, who is widely known for his inflexible tactics and his quite difficult personality, having multiple clashes in his career with different stars, as Angel di Maria, Argentina’s winger, described him as the most difficult manager he ever worked with, during his stint at Manchester United.

This time around, though, van Gaal seemed calmer, joking with the press during the 2022 FIFA World Cup and even trying to create a sense of unity around the team, even if he was not the most easygoing manager.

For some weeks, it really looked like the Netherlands were poised to create memories and challenge for the World Cup trophy. They even mounted an otherworldly comeback in what could easily become a vintage match in the history of the FIFA World Cup, after coming from behind to tie the match, 2-2, against Argentina, and preserve van Gaal’s streak in the world football flagship competition.

Eventually, it all ended with bitter disappointment, like at the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Back then, the Netherlands also lost on penalties against Argentina, with Ron Vlaar and Wesley Sneijder missing shots in the semi-final.

To sum it up, van Gaal, who had a brush with cancer this year, but survived the health scare, is still unbeaten at the FIFA World Cup, with his side, the Netherlands, being eliminated twice by Argentina on penalty kicks.

“Then you have practiced on penalties all year and then you miss them anyway. I asked the players to take penalties at their club and they all did. Then you miss the first two penalties, then you can’t win anymore,” said the coach, visibly disappointed after the game.

For the Netherlands, Ronald Koeman will take over, but van Gaal will surely be etched into the history of the team as the coach who did not lose any game at the FIFA World Cup, but neither won the trophy.

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