We stalked around the lobby of the Everest Hotel in Kathmandu to get a hold of our head coach Lodewijk de Kruif. Since the coach was leaving in a few hours and it was already midday, we weren’t sure if we would get a one-on-one interview with him. Spotting him sporting a blue track bottom and a polo shirt (a bit of a change for someone who is too used to seeing him in formals for the matches), he was chatting with a reporter. We pounced after he was done and asked him if he could spare us a minute or twenty-two of it (it really took over twenty minutes!).
Plaantik: Coach! I know you’re leaving and you must be very busy and stressed. But would you like to give us a one-on-one interview?
De Kruif: How many questions?
Plaantik: About fifteen or sixteen. But I won’t poke too much don’t worry.
De Kruif: Won’t poke too much? Okay, then. Let’s find a seat.
(We find a few couches away from the busy lobby of the hotel where players and coaching staff are mingling around; some are beaming after going through to the semi-finals.)
Plaantik: Coach, for someone who has been following and watching Bangladeshi football for a while, I’d like to start by expressing my appreciation for the football that we displayed in SAFF 2013. Now this year, we struggled in the first game, the referee costing us our second, and in the third we were just being complacent…Having said that, this was your first stint with sub-continental football, what are your initial thoughts on the football here?
De Kruif: Of course, it’s quite unfortunate that our fate has been like this. But I think when you see the match against Pakistan, you know what we are capable of. I mentioned before this team has the will and the courage but not the experience. It will take time. I have only been here for 2 months and there is a lot more work to be done. The national team needs more time together. I have plans for that. We are going to go back and the boys will go back to their clubs. But what I want is, every month we have a week together to train and maybe play an international friendly. I talked to the people of India and Sri Lanka. Maybe we can have a friendly with India in November and one with Sri Lanka in October or December. I want the national team to be in sync. I don’t know what the boys do at their clubs but I want to keep a track of them.
Plaantik: We don’t have many international games and some even get cancelled. A lot of us were looking forward to the India and Pakistan friendlies at Craven Cottage. Does this job get boring for you at times?
De Kruif: It does. And it was unfortunate that those games got cancelled. Indian Football Federation said they had a problem with money and Pakistan pulled out too. Pakistan also pulled out from a friendly in Dhaka. But we will work on getting more international football. This part of Asia doesn’t lack in football. Maybe we can get Laos and Indonesia to play friendlies.
Plaantik: How do you like Bangladesh so far?
De Kruif: The weather is so different from what I am used to in the Netherlands. It’s gloomy and rainy there. And I love the people. Everyone is so eager to make you feel welcome. I live out of the hotel because I don’t have long spells of staying in Dhaka yet and sometimes I stepped out to see the local places but I mostly get out for the football. When I heard about this job, I didn’t know about the football of Bangladesh. When you hear about Bangladesh in other parts of the world, you think it is always under water, a lot of people in a little area and political problems. No one talks about the good things like how warm the people are. I think for a country, it doesn’t matter what your economic status is, you just have to show with spirit that whatever it lacks, you make it up with a positive outlook. That’s the way forward. It’s the same with football. I want a positive vibe around my players.
Plaantik: How did you get the post from BFF? Since you were previously in charge of Nigerian giants Heartland, can you tell us how different it is to manage a national team from managing a club in Nigeria?
De Kruif: Rene Koster told me this post was available and Kazi Salahuddin and his son were in a hurry to finalize it. There’s a massive difference. I don’t get to work with my players as often as I would like to which I could with a club. A club is a year round job and with the national team here, I don’t get to train with them as much. I don’t get enough friendlies. I think we should play as much. So it’s a bit difficult.
Plaantik: Despite being a cricket-heavy nation, and I will get back to you on cricket, we do have a massive fan base for football. Most of them, however, don’t follow the league football here. A lot of them have never even seen the national team play live in a stadium. What do you have to say for them?
De Kruif: Well, we have computers and internet now so the people want to watch what is easily available for them. But you have to know how to pull the people in first. You shouldn’t make the people think like you think. You should think like the people. What do they want? In Nigeria, it is the same. People watch more European leagues than their own league so we called for a free day. The entry was free for everyone. The next week, the adults were charged with 50 cents and you could bring in two kids for free. For the kids, we gave away juice boxes, candies and player cards. You have to know how to reel the audience in. The clubs should promote more and give away memberships like they do everywhere else. They should make the fans feel included. To make the teams more attractive, maybe some clubs can pull players in their late 30’s, early 40’s, big names in the world of football in their heydays, like they do it in Middle East and the Indian league. It could benefit the players to learn from someone with experience as well as pull in the fans.
Plaantik: There are a lot of people out there who are willing to work to make the football in our country better but don’t have the resources. We (Plaantik) don’t have much access so we are trying to improve the information side of football for now as much as possible from our own pockets.
De Kruif: That’s a problem, you know. People want to keep the money in their own pockets rather than being enthusiastic to make an investment for something to improve. It takes a lot of time for something to come together and get good results. This is football; you cannot have a super team or a super league overnight.
Plaantik: You mentioned in a press conference that we should focus on youth development. My father used to play divisional football once. He came to watch the first match against Nepal and was heartbroken. His theory is, since we lack the infrastructure, we should round up all the potential youngsters, keep them in a village farm somewhere, completely isolated, feed them and train them for a few years. What do you think about that?
De Kruif: That is how a football academy works in the first place – complete isolation, proper education, a good diet and concentrated training. If something like this happens in Bangladesh, it would be easier for us to strain out the good potentials, reject the ones who are not so promising and bring in a new batch. It works like this in Europe with the football schools and it should be happening here too. I should speak with your father more on this. Maybe he will have a local angle on how it should be done, which is more realistic for the Bangladeshi people. We do have a pool of talented young players now. They have impressed a lot in this tournament and showed a lot of courage and determination.
Plaantik: I think Taklis Ahmed was one of the most outstanding ones out there. Mobarak is someone who has a lot of speed but seems to lose possession a lot. He keeps his head down when he runs with the ball…
De Kruif: He is quite young, you know, I don’t know how old he really is but his passport says he is quite young so he will be someone who would be a fine footballer when he gets the proper training. I know out there on the pitch, he keeps his focus down on the ball and doesn’t look around much for a bigger view of his surroundings. And you should see him in training. He is so keen. He is always asking me if he can do more and what steps he should take to improve himself better. I love that attitude. Rene and I, after a match, we sit down and we think about, “did we do everything that was possible to do to get the result?” Babu, Waheed and our injured keeper are all so young (according to their passports) and they show the determination. Waheed got a bit of stick from the press for the match against Pakistan but he was determined. He took a shot even. You need to take these things into account and understand who is really willing to play and adapt and try things that were not usual to them before.
Plaantik: You mentioned something yesterday about getting rid of the players who failed to show they were willing to take the chances they were given to play for the country. I’m sure you’re aware how corrupt the political system can be around here and how it has a hand on the sporting boards as well. Suppose you want to get rid of someone from the team selection and the board says you can’t because he is the relative of some political leader or he has some political influence, what would you do?
De Kruif: I will quit. Simple. If someone thinks they can run the team, how the football is played and which players should be included, then they should be the coach. I will quit my job, I don’t like when people interferes with my decisions. I am the coach. I am the one who selects the team that goes out on the pitch. It’s not the job of the board or anyone else.
Plaantik: What do you think about cricket, popularly known as “the gentleman’s game”?
De Kruif: I have no idea about it. I have never watched a match. I think I should. How does it go generally?
Plaantik: It’s quite long. A guy hitting a ball and eleven men going after it. It can get quite dull if you don’t really get into it. No urgency. You can go live your entire day and come back to the match still not sure who will win it.
De Kruif: Nothing like football then. Why is cricket so popular here?
Plaantik: Probably because we were colonized by the British. Only a handful of countries play it and compared to football, we are relatively better in cricket. But the reason why some of us love football more is because you can take a football and go anywhere in the world and people will speak your language through their feet.
De Kruif: That’s the beauty of it. I was pleasantly surprised to find the enthusiasm over football here. There is room for improvement. And the players have so much potential.
Plaantik: Football used to be massive in the 80’s here.
De Kruif: That’s what I heard. Salahuddin told me a little. I think we could go back there again with little steps.
Plaantik: Who was your favorite player while growing up?
De Kruif: Johan Cruyff. I was quite young when he was at the last stages of his career with his spells at Ajax and Feyenoord but he was still amazing. It was his style of play, the Dutch “total football” and also the fact that he was Dutch that made me appreciate him as a footballer and maybe follow his steps.
Plaantik: But you were a defender in your playing days…
De Kruif: Ahh yes, at first I was an attacking player, but then I broke my ankle twice (points to his left foot) and it was not wise to be in the attacking creative role anymore.
Plaantik: You’re a left footer! So am I!
LDK: Yes! We are special people in that department, do you write with your left too?
Plaantik: No, it’s just the foot. There was something you mentioned about watching DVDs on Italian defense to improve our own defense. Did you do that as a defender?
LDK: I did. It’s been there all the time. The Italian defense, I admit, is a bit too physical for football at times but it’s how they are. So intimidating… big Roman gladiator style with a look that says, “you will not get past us to our keeper”. We need that intimidation.
Plaantik: What are your thoughts on the fee that Real Madrid paid to sign Gareth Bale?
De Kruif: It’s ridiculous. But you know they will make it up through marketing and selling shirts. But from the perspective of the people who are football fans, it is insane.
Plaantik: The World Cup is almost here. Do you think the Dutch can finally lift the curse?
LDK: Of course, we can definitely qualify. But I’m not so sure about the back. We have a lot of players still waiting to break through so hopefully it will be sorted before that.
(Kees Kalk, our goalkeeping coach, sits next to him, impatient to go to lunch.)
Plaantik: Who’s your current favorite Dutch player?
De Kruif: Let me think. (Five seconds later) I think it’s Robin van Persie. He has a surprise element to him. I know he is known for his left-footed tricks, but every now and then he uses the right, like a bicycle kick goal with his right. His turns and tricks, I love that element of surprise. That’s something I want our players to understand too. To surprise the opponents, let them have some unexpected turn of events.
Plaantik: This is the last one. We uploaded your press conference videos and transcripts. The Plaantik Takers think you resemble Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho. What do you have to say about that?
De Kruif: Could you ask that question loudly so that Kees can hear?
Plaantik: (in a loud voice) PEOPLE THINK YOU RESEMBLE A BIT OF ARSENE WENGER AND JOSE MOURINHO…
De Kruif: Thank you. That is an amazing compliment as they are both fantastic managers.
Plaantik: Coach, thank you so much for giving us your time. I won’t keep you any longer.
De Kruif: This was good. Thank you.
(This interview was conducted by Plaantik’s Editor-in-Chief Aarony Zade for Plaantik)
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