The following is an excerpt from Issue Seven of The Blizzard, the football quarterly. Available in both hard copy and digital formats on a pay-what-you-like basis, the Blizzard exists to allow the best football writers in the world to tell the football stories that matter to them, without editorial line or agenda.
Joachim Barbier spoke at length to former Ajax, Real Madrid, Ajax, Real Madrid, Trinidad and Tobago and Poland manager Leo Beenhakker, including asking him about how he first brought Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Ajax.
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He coached the Real Madrid of Butragueño and Hugo Sánchez. Managed the Netherlands at the time of Van Basten, Gullit and Rijkaard. Brought Zlatan Ibrahimović to Ajax. Qualified Trinidad and Tobago for a World Cup. And his travelling instincts carried him to a thousand more dugouts. Leo Beenhakker — until recently the sporting director of Újpest FC – has seen a lot in life, and in football, during his 40-year career.
Bow-legged, with a crooked smile and a passing resemblance to Nick Nolte, Leo Beenhakker reaches out for a handshake. “What on earth is so interesting about meeting a Dutch arsehole like me?” he asks. A lot, if truth be told. Before holing up in the summer of 2011 at Újpest — traditional giants who won their last Hungarian title an eternity ago — Don Leo dragged his old, battle-worn body to every corner of the globe. Successor to Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff’s contemporary and Guus Hiddink’s predecessor, Beenhakker coached the biggest teams of the eighties and nineties and some of the biggest players. The Dutch adventurer then set sail. Mexico first of all, before Trinidad and Tobago, then Poland at Euro 2008 before he returned to the Netherlands with Feyenoord.
Joachim Barbier: You were responsible for bringing Zlatan Ibrahimović to Ajax…
Leo Beenhakker: Yes. We paid Malmö €9m to buy him. That was a record for Ajax. I spent hours trying to convince our finance director. And yet I’d never actually seen Ibrahimović play in a match. Only at training. I’d received a phone call from a contact of mine who said, “Hurry up, come us see this youngster at Malmö.” The team was on a winter training camp in Spain, near Alicante. I watched him and thought, “Jesus Christ, I’ve got to have him!” So we splashed the money after an almighty battle with Malmö. The first week was a disaster. Then after three weeks, the 50,000 supporters at the Arena started whistling him. The coach, the rest of staff, the directors… everyone started avoiding eye contact with me. In the end, there were only two people left who believed in Ibrahimović: Zlatan and me. Then he exploded in to life. But my word it was tough. Everyone wanted to kill me.
Joachim Barbier: Did he already have a big ego?
Leo Beenhakker: Yes, and that’s why I adored him. I loved him, I still love him — I love his personality. I always told my bosses, “Give me 11 arseholes like him and we’ll be champions.” Great players are always strong characters. Do you think it’s easy to manage Hugo Sánchez or a guy like Bernd Schuster? Of course they’re arseholes! But they’ll never let you down on the pitch. They’re capable of changing the course of a game. From the start, Zlatan was a silly sod. In the dressing room, on the pitch, at training, I used to think, “Fucking hell, who is this guy?” That’s why I loved him, because of his nature.
Joachim Barbier: Weren’t Arsenal and Wenger also keen to sign him before Ajax came in?
Leo Beenhakker: I don’t know about Wenger, but Capello, oh yes, he was more than interested. He was coaching Roma at the time. Three or four days after I had signed Zlatan, we bumped in to each other at a game. He came over to me. “Hey you, son of a bitch!” he said. “What’s wrong Fabio?” He screamed, “I almost got the green light from my president for Zlatan.” I replied, “Hard luck, you poor bastard. These things happen.”
The Football Ramble team