By Mark Gleeson
April 28 (Reuters) - Qualifying for the World Cup finals has enabled Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal to wipe away the major blemish on a successful career and gives him the chance to achieve a long-held ambition.
Van Gaal engineered an almost perfect return in the preliminaries for the Dutch, who were the first European country to qualify - 20 minutes earlier than Italy on Sept. 10 - for the finals with nine wins out of 10 in their group.
That was in marked contrast to the 2002 World Cup qualifiers, Van Gaal's first tenure in charge of the national team. Then the Dutch finished third behind Portugal and the Republic of Ireland and failed to qualify for the finals for the first time since 1986.
He accepted a second stint a decade later to wipe the slate clean and finally take part in a World Cup.
It is more than likely that this will be the 62-year-old's last shot at the finals as he has made no secret of his desire to return to club football next season. He has been strongly linked with the vacant manager's job at Manchester United.
His evident enthusiasm for the tournament did not take long to shine through at a World Cup workshop in Brazil this year despite Van Gaal's best efforts to keep up his belligerent and gruff exterior.
Van Gaal had a journeyman career as a defender, suffering repeated breaks to his nose that now distinguish his face.
He failed to make the grade at his home town club Ajax Amsterdam, but played at Telstar and latterly AZ Alkmaar where he became an assistant coach.
He moved across to the Ajax staff and in 1991 became head coach, beginning a six-year spell in which they won the league three times, the Dutch Cup once, the UEFA Cup in 1992 and the Champions League in 1995.
They reached the final again in 1996 but lost to Juventus. Van Gaal went to Barcelona in 1997, where a young Jose Mourinho was his assistant, and won the league and cup double in his first season and the championship again in 1999.
But Van Gaal had a bad rapport with the media and was under constant fire. When his third season at Barcelona failed to deliver similar success it set off a chain of events that led to his resignation.
An unsuccessful 18-month spell as national coach followed before he returned to a crisis-torn Barcelona, lasting just over six months as the club slumped to 12th in the standings.
In 2005 he went to the more humble surrounds of his old club AZ Alkmaar and broke the traditional domination of Dutch league football by Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV Eindhoven by taking the title in 2009.
He moved to Bayern Munich in 2010 and swept the board in his first season which led Franz Beckenbauer to call him "a strategist, a real football professor".
But Van Gaal was fired in April 2011. When the Dutch slumped at Euro 2012 and were looking for a replacement for Bert van Maarwijk, Van Gaal's availability meant he was the obvious candidate to take charge.
Van Gaal has rebuilt his stock and even though he is now in his seventh decade he is still a sought-after commodity. Tottenham Hotspur have been linked with him for next season but if he does have a career finale in England, Old Trafford could be his favoured destination. (Editing by Michael Hann)