Europe not enough for Van Gaal

Despite impressing in Europe, domestic pressure finally told on the FC Barcelona coach.

By Graham Hunter

A tearful Louis van Gaal signalled the end to his second spell as coach of FC Barcelona on Tuesday morning, although still claiming that he remains the right man to extricate them from the lower reaches of Spain's Primera División.

Perfect ten
The Dutch coach, whose team has won all ten of their UEFA Champions League ties this season, revealed that it was the enormous and distracting level of pressure on him which made him accept club president Joan Gaspart's wish that they part amicably, but immediately.

Loyal players
Van Gaal, who battled with his emotions throughout a 50-minute press conference and who spoke through tears when commending the loyalty of his players, said: "In my opinion the players have been and remain with me, but I can see that a few of them have not been able to perform to their normal level despite that commitment to me. I asked myself why that was and the answer seems to me to be the perpetual criticism and pressure which is heaped upon the club. And when that affects the players more than I can, it is wrong and it is the time to change."

Lack of form
Currently Barcelona are three points above the relegation zone, 20 points behind leaders Real Sociedad and in danger of not qualifying for European competition next season for the first time in their history. Injury to team captain Luis Enrique, lack of form from Frank de Boer and new signing Juan Riquelme, and Barcelona's inability to shore up their defence have combined to give them the worst first half of a season in their 103-year history.

Media scrutiny
Van Gaal avoided recriminations but argued that media coverage of his work and his relationship with Gaspart had been detrimental to the team's chances of success. In fact, the former AFC Ajax and Netherlands coach pinpointed the perpetual media scrutiny of Barcelona's tribulations as the most difficult hurdle for his successor.

'Without anger'
He said: "I am leaving without anger and bad feeling except from the immense disappointment at not having met the expectations of the club and its fans. I do not think that I or the players have had the correct support from the Catalan football media and, in all humility, I would ask them to give support to the incoming coach because we are all in the same boat together."

'Looking for guarantees'
Carles Rexach, last season's coach who was forced to hand over control to Van Gaal in May 2002, has been offered the position but it is believed he may be looking for guarantees that it is not a very short-term measure but until the end of the season. "There's no point in me being appointed as a bridge for one or two games," he said yesterday after being recalled from a scouting trip to the South American Under-20 Championship in Uruguay.

Champions League success
Radomir Antic, who coached Club Atlético de Madrid to the Spanish double in the 1995/96 season, is considered the most viable alternative but, apart from lifting Barcelona from their ignominious league position, it is the next coach's ability to win the Champions League which will have caused Gaspart the most concern. With six points from two games in Group A, Barcelona are poised to qualify for the quarter-finals and only outright victory in a tournament the club has won once, in 1992, could salvage anything meaningful from a disastrous season.

Future prospects
The success of Rexach, or whoever steps in now, will be crucial, perhaps not only to the prospects of that happening but also to the prospects of president Gaspart seeing out his presidential term, which still has just over two years to run.