Barcelona fans are coming to terms with the arrival of Louis van Gaal and the departure of Rivaldo. Strangely, says Phil Ball, they might see it as a fair swap

As in the Middle Ages, when physical ugliness was considered to be a sign of a dysfunctional soul, the Spanish cannot bring themselves to say anything nice about Louis van Gaal – El Enano Veneno (the poisoned dwarf) as they dubbed him during his first mandate with Barcelona from 1997 to 2000. Laurent Blanc, after his brief sojourn at the Camp Nou, called him “inhuman”, and Win­ston Bogarde said he found him “heartless. He has no compassion – like a robot.”

During Van Gaal’s first spell, the Span­ish media mercilessly ribbed him about his appalling Spanish accent, jumping gleefully on the phrase he used most often to attack them: “Sois siempre negatiffo”(You’re always so negative) he would bleat – incapable of getting the word “negativo” right. But his main crime in the eyes of the Barça faithful was his lack of public commitment to “the cause”. Johan Cruyff, Venables – even Bobby Robson – had all in varying degrees understood the need to identify with the tenets of Catalanisme, the Dutchman giving himself over almost wholly to the culture (although he has never learnt Catalan) and El Tel managing a few phrases on his first day in the Camp Nou. All scripted of course, but it was appreciated.

Van Gaal just ain’t that kind of guy, although curiously for him he has pledged to “learn from” the mistakes he made first time around. This has been seen as a radical concession from a man who has previously preferred to view his own judgment as infallible, so there may be some surprises in store.

Of course, the main surprise so far has been Van Gaal’s treatment of Rivaldo, now bound for Milan. Rivaldo’s surprise release from Bar­celona has been the talking point of the summer, and some commentators here have chosen to see it as the beginning of yet another tempestuous spell for the poisoned dwarf. However, there has been a certain reluctance, in particular on the part of the Catalan press, to wade in and condemn the move as summer madness.

Van Gaal made plenty of enemies in local media circles last time around, but the muted displeasure so far shown at Rivaldo’s exit suggests that they think he might have actually got it right – reluctant though they are to be seen to be currying his favour at this stage of the new relationship. There were plenty among the Barça hardcore who never rated Rivaldo very highly, complaining that his individualism slowed the play down, that he hid during the big games, that he was too prone to injury and that he was “selfish” – more interested in pay rises and his own image than in the good health of the team.

His recent press conference in Brazil, in which he claimed that “I never liked Van Gaal, and I guess he never liked me” puts the whole episode into some­thing of a nutshell. In the 1999-2000 season, Van Gaal played him out on the left wing, a position that the Bra­zilian claimed was wasting his talents. The arguments and sulking of both parties during that season were proof enough that they were unlikely to ever patch things up.

Of course, Van Gaal’s return to Bar­celona was also a surprise. It was en­gineered by president Joan Gaspart – after Van Gaal probably the most hated man in Spain. Only Gaspart could have a layer of skin thick enough to bring such an unpopular figure back, and the de­cision has been described in certain circles (particularly Madrid) as the last throw of a mad emperor – as when Cal­i­gula made his horse a consul.

The Camp Nou has been an unhappy place for the past few years, and there is a definite sense that it can’t get worse, even with Van Gaal, especially given the goodish vibes that the signings of Gaizka Mendieta and Juan Roman Riquelme (both on year-long loans) might be the spark for a new, more fluid midfield, less dependent on the whims of Rivaldo.

Van Gaal, unpopular though he was, won two con­secutive titles and a King’s Cup during his three-year stay, knocking Real Madrid temporarily off bal­ance. And, despite his poor accent, his grammar was fine – a point rarely appreciated by his detractors. The man is nothing if not meticulous, and the sense of disbelief among the faithful at his return has gradually mutated into a grudging acceptance of the fact that if the poisoned one could just manage a smile, or a word or two of Catalan, they might just get behind him.

From WSC 187 September 2002. What was happening this month

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