Argument

The Iron Tulip and the Louse

The Iron Tulip and the Louse

One is over six feet tall and practically chinless, a control freak in the locker room who thinks he is God’s gift to the beautiful game. The other is a portly 5′ 6" with almost no neck and used to chug up and down the field with a bleached blond mullet before he started making dubious music videos as a coach. One sits serenely on the sidelines flanked by his renowned assistants until his team scores. The other is a Tasmanian devil of emotion and flailing limbs. And after their teams play, one will depart Brazil and the World Cup.

But first, maybe they’ll have a beer together. Despite their superficial differences, Mexico’s Miguel Herrera — he’s the short one — and the Netherlands’ Louis van Gaal have much in common, not least having captured the imagination and interest of fans around the world.

Miguel Herrera was a defender by trade, a hard-working, scrappy sort known to be willing to throw down and fight if it was needed, and even when it strictly wasn’t. He had a chance to make the 1994 World Cup team snuffed out by then-coach Miguel Mejia Baron, who thought it too risky to take a chance on Herrera’s temper staying in check. Now, of course, his emotional outbursts are part of the personality that many have come to admire.

By contrast, Aloysius Paulus Maria van Gaal — yes, that’s his real name — played as a midfielder and never rose to the top ranks of his professional club, Ajax, let alone to the Netherlands’ national team. Nonetheless, he was a player who could interpret well what coaches like Belgium’s Guy Thys, whom he played for at Royal Antwerp, wanted players to do. By the time his playing career ended in 1987, van Gaal was already working as an assistant coach.

But there are similarities between the two coaches that run deeper than the differences. Like Herrera, van Gaal didn’t grow up with a father, but in a sense, for both men, it meant they never really stood in the shadow of one, either. They have made their own way in the world.

Of course, van Gaal is famous now partly because in addition to coaching the Netherlands, he’s also signed on to coach one of the world’s most famous clubs, Manchester United. He has approved new player signings for the English club even as his national team is busy at the World Cup.

Herrera would know something about that sort of double-duty. He took over as head coach of Mexico on an interim basis in October of last year, while still continuing to coach Club América, arguably the Manchester United of Mexico. After safely qualifying El Tri for the World Cup by winning a crucial playoff versus New Zealand, he finished the year off with Club América before returning to national team duties.

Statistically, van Gaal’s squad may be the most impressive of the World Cup thus far, but many admire how well Herrera has done with Mexico, not only because the team had a horrid 2013 before he came on board, but also because his salary is the lowest of any coach at the tournament.

Herrera has impressed many with his efficient use of an unorthodox 5-3-2 formation that has produced sparkling counterattacks for Mexico. Van Gaal advocates the same formation for the Netherlands, even though it’s just as unusual a choice for a team that has traditionally played four at the back. Ultimately, the winner may be whichever side can best exploit the advantages of the approach. However, Mexico may have an ace up its sleeve, especially if the match comes down to penalty kicks. Goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa is on form and has allowed far fewer goals than Jasper Cillessen has for the Dutch.

Though Herrera’s style may be cuddlier than that of the bombastic van Gaal, there’s no doubt van Gaal’s demanding approach has garnered results.  And even if his celebration doesn’t reach Herrera’s elevated levels, van Gaal has an exuberance all his own.

After the two coaches meet in Fortaleza, their paths are sure to diverge. Van Gaal, with his long, successful résumé and multi-lingual abilities, will go to Manchester United. Herrera, with his one memorable national club championship, may well stay on as Mexico’s coach, or perhaps a team in Spain will look to take a chance on him. As expressive as his body language is, Herrera speaks mainly Spanish, which likely limits his coaching opportunities abroad.

So it comes down to this: the Iron Tulip versus the Louse (who, it must be said, looks more like a toad these days). Even if their music videos differ, Herrera and van Gaal are united in their fierce desire to win. On Sunday, only one will.