It’s a sad reality that, for many, the very mention of Bert van Marwijk’s name conjures one of the most brutal images in World Cup history.
The Dutchman, who was this week unveiled as the manager to take Australia to the 2018 World Cup, was in charge of the Netherlands in 2010 when Nigel de Jong channeled Daniel LaRusso of “The Karate Kid” in a sickening challenge on Spain’s Xabi Alonso.
Van Marwijk’s no-nonsense style while at the helm of his home country allows for an easy perpetuation of the storyline that he sanctioned such behaviour, but the blame for De Jong’s tackle is too much. In the end, it’s the player who chooses his actions on the pitch.
Instead of as a thug, Van Marwijk should simply be viewed as the strong-willed character that he is. Ultimately, that’s what should spring to mind for Australian football fans, rather than the stud marks tattooed on Alonso’s chest.
Indeed, a glimpse into his personality was offered when he left Saudi Arabia four months ago. Despite guiding the Green Falcons to their first World Cup in 12 years, Van Marwijk stood firm on internal politics.
“It appears that success has many fathers,” Van Marwijk told Voetbal International. “After the World Cup [qualifiers], I notice that many people suddenly want to interfere with the national team.
“It’s a pity, especially for the regular group of players we have been able to work with the past two years. Those players have approached me from all sides to stay, but I have no choice. Every coach must have the freedom to determine his own method.
“I will not let anyone tell me how to do my job.”
He then expanded on the reasons for his departure as well as his moral objections when speaking to Dutch broadcaster NOS.
“I ended the negotiations,” he explained. “Last week, after qualifying for the World Cup, a number of people were sacked from my staff, which I think is unacceptable.
“I now hear from the media that there is a successor. So now I know it’s over.”
In this sense, Van Marwijk is little different to his Socceroos predecessor, Ange Postecoglou, who left his post in November amid tensions with Football Federation Australia.
Where the two differ, however, is that Van Marwijk is not so tightly wedded to a specific formation or philosophy. Through his time with Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands and Feyenoord, the 65-year-old has shaped his teams based on the strengths of those at his disposal. His teams are defensively strong, but the tactics to be so have varied.
Postecoglou, rightly or wrongly, stuck doggedly to his attack-at-all-costs principles and 3-2-4-1 formation in leading Australia to their World Cup berth. This rigidity, in part, created a brittle relationship between him and his employers — not to mention the local media.
It is hard to see tactical inflexibility being an insurmountable issue for Van Marwijk, though, particularly as his tenure is expected to end in July, regardless of the Socceroos’ results in Russia.
Instead, the new boss is as likely to get the most out of Australia’s players at the World Cup as anyone, leaving the national team in an ideal state for local manager Graham Arnold to take over long-term.
This approach has the added benefit of not disrupting Arnold’s A-League front-runners Sydney FC until after the current season, which creates the groundwork for a more harmonious relationship between manager and governing body.
From this standpoint, it’s a win-win situation for Australian football. For short-term results, the pragmatic Van Marwijk may well be the best possible manager for Australia given the present situation.
Arnold, meanwhile, will escape any heat if a disrupted preparation happens to cause Australia a poor run of results, and afterward he will have a full four years with the team before the next World Cup rolls around.
Van Marwijk may not be the sexiest name for Australia to have recruited, but his appointment does appear to be a case of needing the right person for the job right now.
Rob Brooks writes about Australian football and the A-League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @RobNJBrooks