World Cup quarter-final: Netherlands v Argentina, Lusail Stadium, Friday, 7pm (Irish time) – Live on RTÉ 2 and BBC One
Another strange day at the Doha circus. Mercifully, some Louis van Gaal levity drowned out the enduring misery as the Netherlands manager keeps trying to snog his players on live television.
At every opportunity, he gives it a go, in Qatar of all places.
The travelling Dutch media are at odds with the 71-year-old as Marco van Basten plays the Eamon Dunphy role back in Amsterdam to Van Gaal’s Jack Charlton. In a nutshell, van Basten wants total football to Van Gaal’s sensible soccer.
“Football is no longer played like it was in 1974 or 1988,” responded Van Gaal. “Then it was an open game, which it no longer is. You can have all sorts of opinions about that, but that is how football has evolved.”
The Argentinean press pack were also seeking a blood-soaked quote: “Ángel Di Maria said you are the worst coach he has had, and penalties, have you practiced since 2014 when Argentina beat Holland in the semi-final?”
“Di Maria is a really good football player,” said Van Gaal, visibly unmoved. “At the time when he played for Man United he had a lot of personal issues. There was a break-in at his house.”
In 2015, Di Maria and his young family were eating dinner in their Cheshire home when three burglars entered the premises.
“That also affected his form that year,” Van Gaal continued, taking no prisoners at a confrontational eve-of-quarter-final briefing. “That he referred to me as the worst trainer is a pity because usually it is the other way around. Memphis also played for me at Man Utd and now we kiss each other on the lips.”
Van Gaal attempted to peck Memphis Depay (28) but the Barcelona striker turned the other cheek. Half the auditorium exploded in laughter, the other half raise hands, silently demanding an opportunity to halt the comedy sketch.
All this transpired on the same day Qatar World Cup chief executive Nasser Al-Khater took issue with a BBC reporter asking about the death of a migrant Filipino worker, contracted to fix lights in a car park at the Sealine Resort, where the Saudi Arabia team were training.
Plenty of unforgettably cold comments have been uttered during this World Cup but Al-Khater’s “death is a natural part of life, whether it is at work, whether it is in your sleep” will take some beating. The Athletic reports that a fork lift truck “slipped off a ramp while [the man, believed to be named Alex, was] walking alongside the vehicle and fell headfirst against concrete.” The World Cup supreme committee stated the incident took place on a property that is not under their jurisdiction, adding that the deceased was not working “as a contractor under the remit of the supreme committee” but confirmed his family have been contacted.
The Qatari authorities are investigating the death but Al-Khater’s reaction casts a pall over the build-up to the Netherlands versus Argentina at Lusail stadium.
An Irish angle to the sixth World Cup meeting between Oranje and La Albiceleste briefly reared its head. Alex Mac Allister, the 23 year old Irish-looking Brighton midfielder is the son of Carlos Mac Allister, the former Boca Juniors left back, who has the biggest Irish head imaginable.
The great, great grandfather of Mac Allister junior left Donabate for South America in 1868. We know this because Keith Duggan of The Irish Times interviewed Dickie Mac Allister, a cousin of the future Argentina star during an GAA All Star trip to Hurlingham, Buenos Aires in 2002.
“I don’t know what happened in Argentina because between 1920 and 1970 the connection with Ireland was sort of lost,” said Dickie. “Perhaps because there was hard times in Ireland but now the relationship is getting strong again.
“I think there is only one reason [to come to Argentina]. It is a Catholic country. But not English speaking. Perhaps in those times, the Irish speak only Gaelic, so maybe the English was not very important.
“They were shepherds - they had expertise in that.”
Alex Mac Allister has kept up the herding tradition alive in Doha, guiding Saudis, Koreans and Mexicans away from Leo Messi.
The Mac Allisters have become a bona fide news line with RTÉ tracking down a Donabate ‘McAllister’ residing in Madrid.
“Before ‘Colo’ Mac Allister appeared in the football game here in Argentina, I remember that my name was very difficult,” said Dickie last week. If I go to a bank or a school, I have to spell every focail of my name.”
Colo means ‘ginger,’ and Alex did not like the nickname in Argentina camp, so Messi shut it down. If only Gianni Infantino had Messi to protect him growing up as a bullied flamed-haired son of migrant Italians in 1970s Switzerland.
Anyway, Carlos is a fascinating character who became a front bench politician after winning three caps in 1993, including two in the tetchy World Cup play-offs against Australia which proved the beginning of the end for Diego Maradona’s international career, before rising to secretary of sport in Mauricio Macri’s 2015 government.
Mac Alister has three professional footballer sons. Both Kevin and Francis previously played for Boca Juniors. Macri was Boca president from 1994 to 2007.
Unfortunately, the chance to annoy hundreds of stressed Argentine journalists by asking Alex Mac Allister about his Fingal roots, on the eve of what is potentially Messi’s last World Cup appearance, was foiled by the press conference being switched rooms at the last minute.
At least Van Gaal wore his top hat, entertaining the neutrals if not the combatants.
“I am not going to reveal our tactics to you,” he baulked when asked about containing Messi. “That would be pretty stupid. Even you [un journalista] could come up with the answer that we need to block the passing lines. What do you think, Memphis?”
Depay laid into another reporter for an alleged misquote when asked about Van Gaal being the “embarrassing uncle at a party.” When his imminent retirement is mentioned, Van Gaal was so slapstick that Giovanni Trapattoni would have purred with delight.
“I may continue to work as a head coach, but I am 71, and I look like a god, and incredibly young looking. Can you please translate that into Arabic.”