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In Leipzig six months ago, after the draw for the World Cup, Trinidad and Tobago’s manager Leo Beenhakker went up to England’s Sven-Göran Eriksson. The Swede remembers it with a chuckle: “He said, ‘We will beat England. You will see, Sven.’”
It was classic Beenhakker: the Dutchman is as
much performer as football
Born in bombed-out Rotterdam 63 years ago, Beenhakker was never even a decent amateur footballer. But he took coaching courses, and got his first job at 21. His ticket to the top was a lowly assistant’s post with Ajax in the late 1970s. When the manager was sacked Beenhakker was promoted, and though he did not last long, he was now a “former Ajax manager”.
He managed Holland, Real Madrid, where he acquired the nickname “Don Leo”, and in 1990 took Holland to the World Cup. This dismayed many players, including the current Dutch manager, Marco van Basten, who had voted for Johan Cruyff as coach. Some of them complained that Beenhakker was not enough of a tactician for the job.
It is true that the Rotterdammer is more psychologist and motivator. A brilliant Dutch side tore itself up with squabbles, and Beenhakker said after the tournament that “75 per cent of what happened would never be revealed”.
He says now: “I carried that with me for 16 years. Not that it has weighed me down every day, but I always promised myself that if I got another chance I wanted to experience the ambiance of such a great event. With Holland then, that passed me by completely.”
His days as coach seemed over, and he had held desk jobs as general manager at various clubs, when 14 months ago Trinidad came calling. They were bottom of their World Cup qualifying group and had just fired their manager, the Tobagonian Bertille St. Clair, after a 5-1 loss to Guatemala.
Beenhakker was not their first choice. Austin “Jack” Warner, the Trinidadian vice-president of Fifa, had initially preferred the English manager Ron Atkinson. But Trinidad’s senior players Dwight Yorke and Shaka Hislop threatened to leave the team if Atkinson, who had recently been forced to make a public apology for racist remarks, was chosen.
Beenhakker took Trinidad to their first World Cup. However, he did not enjoy his time on the island, and plans never to return. “All that time I lived in my hotel room,” he told the Dutch press. “You couldn’t go on to the street. Every day people are gunned down cold there.” The rhetorical exaggeration is classic Beenhakker.
His reward was the World Cup. He was born to the tournament, not because he is a great manager but because it gives him the opportunity to do what he does best: communicate.
Beenhakker is a wonderful performer, known for theatrical sighs and memorable phrases: what’s at stake in a big game is “death or gladiolas”, and thanks to him the Dutch call the Champions League trophy “the cup with the big ears”. Occasionally he writes witty football columns. Here in Germany he has given dazzling press conferences in four languages.
After the 0-0 draw against Sweden on Saturday, everyone wanted to listen. Beenhakker had clearly contributed to the result. Just after half-time, Trinidad’s Avery John was sent off. Most coaches would have sent on a defender for a forward and played backs to the wall. Beenhakker instead replaced a midfielder with a striker.
“It was so amazing to do that,” he says, breaking into a smile. “The result was that they were defending our two [strikers] with five guys. That was what I was looking for and it was amazing it worked!”
His words place him in the Dutch coaching tradition. First, he displays no modesty about his own role. Second, Dutch coaches habitually field only one more defender than the opponent has forwards. Everyone else is pushed forward to control midfield. That becomes more necessary, not less, if you lack great players.
Beenhakker says: “The other teams have more quality. We have a defence from San Juan Jabloteh – bet you’ve never heard of them – and Gillingham, Wrexham – which you won’t know where they are – and the New England Revolution, so we have to compensate.”
But he is loyal to his players, usually calling them “my boys”. There is none of the Dutch froideur of 1990. Beenhakker says: “We laugh a lot. That won’t win you a match, but it is very pleasant to spend weeks with them.”
Additional reporting by
Richard Milne and Stacy-Marie Ishmael