Things really couldn't have gone more swimmingly for Bayern Munich during its winter training camp in Qatar. Long-term absentee Arjen Robben was back on the pitch, moving freely and feeling good. Franck Ribéry, another worry in recent months, was as sharp as he has been since getting injured in Euro 2008. New addition Luiz Gustavo, who will most likely start as a left back, added quality to the squad, and the central midfield pairing of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mark van Bommel was reunited.
Despite all the harmony, Louis van Gaal seemed intent on causing a giant storm in the desert before the flight home. On Friday, out of the blue, he decided that substitute keeper Thomas Kraft, 22, will take over the No.1 spot from veteran Hans-Jörg Butt, 36, immediately. To say that the Bayern hierarchy was shocked by this decision would be a serious understatement.
Sporting director Christian Nerlinger, the Dutchman's closest ally in recent months, was deeply upset by the decision and hastily arranged a couple of face-to-face meetings that were described as "emotional" afterward. The stubborn manager, reporters were briefed, risked "far-reaching consequences" for his actions. Nerlinger went as far as describing the actions as "harmful to the interests of the club".
"Very brave of [van Gaal]," said honorary president Franz Beckenbauer, a tad more diplomatically.
The Bayern manager, predictably, couldn't see what all the fuss was about.
"Part of my duty is to develop young players," he said. Reporters were reminded that he had handed a young Edwin van der Sar (at Ajax) and Barcelona's Victor Valdes their debuts in the past. Kraft, he felt, was simply better than Butt, and thus warranted a chance to stake his claim.
Van Gaal isn't the first to fall for Kraft. Former Bayern manager Jürgen Klinsmann was apparently so impressed with the young keeper that he wanted to make him a regular starter in the summer of 2007. Resistance at the boardroom level changed his mind and he tried out the hapless Michael Rensing instead.
Kraft is yet to play a league match for the southerners but he did play in two Champions League games, away to Rome (2-3) and at home to Basel (3-0). He was quite brilliant, especially in the second match. And that's precisely the problem. Hardcore supporters in the Allianz Arena made him a cause célèbre and insisted that his emergence made a much-vaunted move for Schalke 04 keeper Manuel Neuer unnecessary.
"We don't need Neuer, we have Kraft," read one giant banner.
Kraft's promotion has come at a particularly sensitive time. More heroics from a player seen as one of their own by the fans will make it more difficult for the bosses to sell Neuer to the masses in six months. The 24-year-old international is clearly Germany's best keeper and could easily solve Bayern's problems between the sticks for the next decade and a half.
But Neuer is also seen as a true Schalke disciple, as someone who might potentially lack loyalty to the red and white shirt. Industry insiders are nevertheless certain that a deal between the player and Munich has been secretly agreed upon already, despite Schalke's protestations. All that's left, it is believed, is a meeting in the summer to hammer out the transfer fee. It shouldn't last that long: Neuer's market value is depressed by the fact that his current deal with the Royal Blues expires in 2012.
Van Gaal, a self-declared provocateur, couldn't have chosen a more inopportune moment for his latest showdown with his employers. But, to the great surprise of the local and national media, Tuesday's crisis meeting at Säbener Strasse played out quite cordially.
"We are not irritated or upset at all," CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said. "Managers have always had exclusive authority over the lineup." Pull the other one, dear Kalle.
Somehow van Gaal must have really managed to allay the board's fears. His simple message -- that Kraft was in a better position than Butt to help Bayern fulfill its ambitions -- was heard and understood.
In political terms, it represents a remarkable climb-down by the club. It obviously felt that accommodating van Gaal now was the lesser of two evils; there's simply too much at stake to start the business end of the season with another civil war. Van Gaal, for his part, made sure to help his bosses at least a little bit by praising Neuer in the process.
"He's obviously the best keeper in Germany," the 59-year-old told
You can rest assured that van Gaal won't be forgiven for any high-profile clangers by his young protégé. In sporting terms, the risk is all his.
The wider implications of van Gaal's decision are harder to gauge, though. In Gelsenkirchen, Neuer told reporters that he was unconcerned by the latest developments in Munich. Schalke manager Felix Magath, however, couldn't hide his delight with the news.
"I wouldn't mind Kraft staying on as Bayern's goalie after the season and Neuer staying with us," he said.
It'll be interesting to see which one of the two keepers he cheers for when the two sides meet on April 30.