Louis van Gaal unexpectedly launched a charm offensive on the eve of Holland’s opening World Cup game against Spain, describing his opponents in the rerun of the 2010 final as the best footballers in the world, defending the Dutch approach of four years ago that many viewed as over-physical, and even insisting he was “a nice man” in spite of all the adverse publicity.

Earlier in the day Xavi Hernández and Vicente del Bosque had spoken warmly of the new Manchester United manager, recalling his time as the coach at Barcelona. “I have incredible memories of Van Gaal as a manager,” Xavi said. “He was virtually my first professional coach and I owe him a lot. He was a very direct coach, he was great with me and trusted 100% in what I could do.”

“I always find that if you are nice to others they are usually nice to you in return,” Van Gaal said. “I have excellent memories of my period in Spain, it was one of the best times of my career. Spanish football may well be the best football in the world at the moment, they have the tactics, the technique and the physical workrate to make them number one, and that’s what they are. We will have to play a compact game against them when they have possession, and that won’t be easy.”

Inevitably asked about the last occasion the two sides met in the World Cup, even though he was not involved with the national side at the time, Van Gaal said it was important to remember physical resistance is part of football. “Football can be a physical struggle, the referee is there to point out what the limits are,” he argued. “Personally I do not believe the Dutch crossed the line in 2010. If you have a different opinion then it is a shame.”

Arjen Robben offered his take, too. “I don’t believe in revenge,” he said. “There’s no comparison between a World Cup final and a group match.”

Even more inevitably Van Gaal was asked about whether Manchester United was proving a distraction, and quite cleverly replied that it was, but only in a good way because it gave him something to think about on squad days off.

Famous for being grown up enough to let the players off the leash occasionally, Van Gaal said it was impossible to concentrate on team matters all the time and unwise to even try. “We might be here for five weeks,” he said. “You cannot be focused on football alone for that period of time. So we go to the beach, give the players some time off, and that’s to do with the faith we have in them.

“You have to enjoy what you are doing and we try to cater for that. There is a time and a place to talk about my next job, and here right now, at the World Cup finals, is not it. Clubs don’t take part here, I am fully focused on the national team, but as I say you cannot concentrate on one thing all the time. When I do think of Manchester United, it is a good distraction.”

Perhaps because of the relaxed atmosphere in the camp the Dutch have been voted the second happiest team after Brazil. Van Gaal was surprised to hear it, and even more amused to be asked whether his own personal charisma was responsible.

It is quite possible that the words charisma and Van Gaal have never been used in the same sentence before, but after a pause for the tiniest of smiles the manager found a reply.

“Most Dutch people seem to think I’m strict and direct,” he said. “But if you ask my players they wouldn’t say that. My belief is that we can increase our chances if we all have a good time together. I have talked about targets with my employers and I won’t repeat that conversation here, but I believe we can make the semis or the final. But the same applies to Spain and perhaps a dozen teams. It’s all theory at this stage, we will have to see what happens in practice.”