The man who taught Spain to play

Pass masters Xavi and Iniesta are just two talents to emerge from the Barcelona academy which Van Gaal built

It has been hard to find the common causes of success in this World Cup, where reputations have been broken as quickly as they were made, but Louis van Gaal is the red line running through most of the sides which have prospered. Three of the semi-finalists bore his imprint.

Joachim Löw acknowledged before Wednesday's semi-final with Spain that he had met the Bayern Munich coach for dinner and a glass of Rioja before the tournament to discuss the talent which he had sent up to the national camp and, had the Germans prospered, it would have created an interesting conflict of loyalties today for Van Gaal, an Amsterdammer.

As things have transpired there is a conflict anyway, Van Gaal being the man who, as well as helping develop Dutch football at Ajax, set about reforming the youth system at Barcelona which has spawned some of the finest talents now performing for Vicente del Bosque.

"I dream of the team winning the European Cup that is composed entirely of players from our youth system," Van Gaal said during his first spell at Barcelona in 1998, and 12 years on he can claim to have contributed handsomely to Spain's national side. Seven Spanish players who finished the quarter-final against Paraguay learned their football at Barça's academy, which he built up.

There were sneers when Van Gaal set about his work in Catalonia, but the Dutchman overhauled the Barça youth system, which is centred on the club's own boarding house, an elegant 18th Century farmhouse known as La Masia. Boys from out of town still stay there from the age of 13, taking lessons while being coached in the Barcelona style.

Van Gaal decreed that style was to be a passing game. His first fascination with it was to be found when he became coach at Ajax in 1991 and introduced a creed based on his players passing the ball endlessly until they found any space the opposition provided. It took the Dutch side to two Champions' League finals by 1996, beating Fabio Capello's Milan with something resembling a boys' team in one of them. They say that collectief was Van Gaal's favourite Dutch word back then. He interviewed prospective signings to see if they were collectivist enough. The depth of that culture was certainly evident in Spain's semi-final display.

When Van Gaal moved to Barcelona in 1997 for the first of two spells as manager, the young players loved him. Xavi acknowledges that he owes the particular way he plays football to Van Gaal, who gave him his Barça debut. Before Barcelona were beaten by Internazionale en route to May's Champions' League final with Van Gaal's Bayern, Xavi told La Vanguardia: "I find it beautiful that we might play against Van Gaal in the final. I appreciate it tremendously and I owe much to him. Sometimes he even preferred me over Pep Guardiola, and I was only 18. That's quite a bit. Van Gaal is a formidable guy."

Van Gaal also gave Andres Iniesta and Carles Puyol their breaks. Puyol still texts him. Xavi and Iniesta communicate with him through Puyol. Pep Guardiola's mother, Dolors, recalls her son's excitement when he arrived to take his place in Van Gaal's Barcelona. "Look, Mum!" he shouted. "Every time I look out of the window, I can see the Nou Camp."

Van Gaal's role in the evolution of the Spanish touch-and-go game is by no means the only Dutch-Spanish connection. Johan Cruyff, of course, can argue that he began that process of teaching the Spanish to pass, having preceded Van Gaal from Ajax to Barcelona. The two men don't speak but they do speak the same language where football is concerned.

The Spanish players also adored Van Gaal because he was so true to the cause. Van Gaal squabbled with his best player at Barça, Rivaldo, because the Brazilian was so intent on dribbling rather than passing – even though those dribbles had a habit of winning matches. His imperious manner saw him row with many others as well but he still won two Spanish titles in three years. "He really notices every detail," Guardiola said of him.

Another of his pupils was a young interpreter called Jose Mourinho, who wrote scouting reports for him, though Mourinho is not quite so doting as the Spaniards. "I am not his disciple," Mourinho said when he and Van Gaal came face to face in the Champions' League final. "Having the opportunity to work with him for three years at a great club like Barcelona was fantastic but I paid my debt." The froideur of Van Gaal's response reflects a disappointment that Mourinho has not adhered to his principles. "He was very modest back then when we worked together. I taught him a few things but now he plays only to win."

Those principles have been modified in recent years. It was while coaching the Dutch national side that he concluded defences had become too sharp to succumb to endless passing. His new obsession became focusing on the instant when a team loses the ball and are therefore vulnerable.

Löw's 2010 World Cup side demonstrated some of that outlook, though it will be Van Gaal's earlier principles to which the Spanish will return today.

Spanish path to the final

Group stage

Spain 0-1 Switzerland

The Swiss shock the world with a scrappy winner from ex-Manchester City man Gelson Fernandes. "No team has ever won the World Cup after losing their first game."

Spain 2-0 Honduras (Villa 2)

David Villa opens his account with a brace. His first is a stunning shot into the top corner before a deflected effort makes it 2-0. He has a chance to net a hat-trick from the penalty spot but blazes wide.

Spain 2-1 Chile (Villa, Iniesta)

Another bit of brilliance from Villa, who chips into an empty net from 30 yards after the goalkeeper's rush of blood, and a goal from playmaker Andres Iniesta (above) is enough for Spain to finish top of Group H.

Last 16: Spain 1-0 Portugal (Villa)

Spain see off their big rivals in the Iberian derby. Villa's 63rd-minute goal comes after great work from Barcelona pair Xavi and Iniesta.

Quarter-final: Spain 1-0 Paraguay (Villa)

Oscar Cardozo's penalty is saved by Spain's Iker Casillas. Xabi Alonso (above) then scores from the spot but the referee orders a re-take. Alonso misses. Villa's late shot hits the post, rolls along the line and hits the other post before trickling in.

Semi-final: Spain 1-0 Germany (Puyol)

Spain reach their first World Cup final thanks to a bullet header from captain Carles Puyol.

Chris Heal

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