Former Feyenoord, Borussia Dortmund and Netherlands manager Bert van Marwijk sat down with Benjamin McFadyean to look back on his managerial career.
Van Marwijk’s time as a manager lasted 24 years and saw him take charge of some of the world’s biggest sides and compete for some of the world’s biggest prizes, including the biggest of all, the World Cup.
Taking his country to the final in South Africa in 2010 was one of his biggest achievements, as was winning the UEFA Cup with Feyenoord in 2002.
He also managed Australia, Saudi Arabia and UAE, and shared his thoughts and memories from throughout his career with Benjamin McFadyean.
BM: You had a successful career as a player, playing 468 matches over 19 years in Holland and Belgium, was a coaching career always on the cards?
BVM: When I was young, I had very long hair and something of an attitude, I was, for sure, a rebel. I only wanted to kick the ball, score goals, and play football, you know? I just wanted to be on the pitch; other things didn’t interest me at all. Later, around 27 when I was playing at MVV Maastricht in Holland, I noticed things that were going wrong in football, which you don’t see when you are younger. The big money really started coming in the late 1980s, and it changed the game. I had played with Willy van Bommel at MVV, a good friend of mine, an excellent right-wing player himself. He lived in the same street as me and the manager of the club Frans Korver came to us and asked us if we both wanted to take on coaching the youth set-up. I didn’t know much about coaching, but I didn’t hesitate. Willy and I made a good team. We started by getting the young players to play five against five and trained all the basics, shots on goal, etc. Slowly, I developed into a coach, and the rest is history.
BM: With Feyenoord Rotterdam, a massive highlight was the 2002 UEFA Cup win. In a season in which the club also achieved an impressive third place in the league, the most fantastic thing was the final held in De Kuip…
BVM: That was amazing. We started the season in the Champions League and were in the same group as Bayern Munich, Spartak Moscow, and Sparta Prague, but we ended up finishing third so dropped into the UEFA Cup. On route to the final, we played against top European clubs, Rangers, Inter Milan, PSV Eindhoven, and then the final against German champions Borussia Dortmund. I remember the Dortmund team well, although I did not know I would soon be coaching them. Top Bundesliga players like Dede, Ewerton, and Tomas Rosicky, it was going to be tough. But we managed to build a 2-0 lead before BVB got a goal back to 2-1. Deep into the game, we managed to score a third goal; I started to think ‘we can do this’. The great Czech striker, Jan Koller, who is over two metres tall and a fantastic player, got one back for Dortmund, even though they were down to ten men. The last 10 minutes were unbelievably tense, but we hung on and won. I will never forget it.
BM: In 2005, you were appointed coach of Borussia Dortmund. The fans at the time were hoping that you would bring top Dutch players to Dortmund, but you found limiting circumstances at the club, right?
BVM: Maybe three or four weeks into my coaching contract, I started to realise that there was panic in the club because BVB had a debt of €130 million at the time. There was no money to invest so we couldn’t afford to get new players. That was a completely new situation for me. But, under the strain, we started to bond as a team. We focused on reaching European qualification, and I never spoke to the players about the financial problems; we just played our game. We became tight-knit. In the second half of the season, we played the best I have ever managed, and that was with no money. Although we missed the European places by one place, finishing in seventh, what should have been a disappointment was a season never to forget.
BM: How do the coach and sporting director maintain conversations about signing players when you want to build a roster and there’s no money in the club? How challenging was it at BVB?
BVM: When I start somewhere, I know what to expect, most of the time. At Dortmund, it was a challenge. I went down there and said to management: ‘We don’t have a good goalkeeper’ and ‘I don’t have a good striker, what can we do?’ One by one, I was told we couldn’t afford new signings. It was tough at first, I had to find a solution, I had to get them almost from nothing. That’s why I started to watch the youth. Every Tuesday, I invited four or five young players to the first-team training sessions. One of the players who shone through was Nuri Sahin. He was 15 years old at the time, but you could see what a player he would become, I gave him his debut when he was 16. Until recently, when Youssoufa Moukoko made his first appearance for Dortmund at 16, he was the youngest player in the Bundesliga. That was a time I got to give the very young players a chance at BVB. We had to.
BM: Looking at BVB now, what do you see when you look at players like Gio Reyna and Jude Bellingham? How good is this new generation?
BVM: As a coach, I’m jealous when I see the squad Dortmund has, it’s unbelievable how many good young players they have. Especially on the offensive side, all the talent is at a very high level. Jude Bellingham for example, an incredible talent. Then look at the potential of striker Youssoufa Moukoko, he is also impressive. I think there is an immense talent in the side, but I would be looking for some potential defensive options if I were coaching them. BVB needs some more talented young players for the defensive part of the team. If the defence clicks, I think the future of Dortmund is very good, very exciting. And the way they have played over the years is also very exciting. I think we can expect good things.
BM: The World Cup is coming up. Undoubtedly, the greatest experience of your career was the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, taking an unfancied Netherlands side to the final…
BVM: That’s one of the highlights for me, of course. When you play the World Cup, it is the highest you can achieve in football. We played the final, and it was 0-0 against Spain after 90 minutes. And then, after 27 minutes in extra time, Spain scored. If the toe of Casillas had not been there, we would have won the World Cup for the first time. Winning the Uefa Cup in 2002 was sensational, but I cannot think of a more tremendous honour than coaching your home country in a World Cup final. In the end, it’s football. In my time as a coach with the amateur clubs like Millen or Limmel, at the start of my career, winning has always had the same feeling wherever you are coaching the UAE, Australia or Borussia Dortmund.
BM: Bert, wishing you all the best for your retirement, congratulations on an inspiring career.