“Love of beauty is Taste. The creation of beauty is Art.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
It is the most beautiful two minutes of football one could ever wish to see. Sometimes it even brings a tear to my eye. The 1974 World Cup Final kicks-off, the Netherlands have the ball and instantly drop into their familiar passing rhythm. A sporting hypnosis begins.
West Germany are in their thrall, pass after pass after pass after pass. Johan Cruyff pulls the strings, that garish orange shirt so at odds with his elegant subtlety. Suddenly the master changes pace and bursts towards the penalty area; a trip, a whistle, a penalty. Johan Neeskens does not miss and the Dutch lead without the opposition having touched the ball. It was and remains two minutes of unadulterated perfection.
Yet amidst the beauty and soaring elegance is the knowledge of profound tragedy. For the best part of a decade Rinus Michels – first with Ajax and then with the Dutch national side – had thrilled the world with totaalvoetball, geometric expressionism on the football field; but the greatest prize in football would elude this most consciously aesthetic of teams. Ultimately beaten by a West German side that was willing, unlike their opponents, to pursue victory at the cost of style[i], the organised disorder of the Dutch would never have its greatness formally recognised on the biggest stage of them all.
The 1970s may have been the golden years of Total Football, but the system’s foundations had been laid years earlier. While the likes of Jimmy Hogan and Gusztáv Sebes had communicated and employed similar systems elsewhere in Europe in the 1940s and 50s, it was an Englishman by the name of Jack Reynolds who first introduced to Holland the methods that would go on to form the basis of this most famous of systems.
Reynolds first became manager of Ajax Amsterdam in 1915 and stayed for a decade during which he founded the club’s famed academy and began to instil the same footballing principles at all levels of the club. After three years away he returned to the club in 1928 and, barring a brief hiatus during the Second World War, remained at the helm of Holland’s most famous sporting institution until 1947.
During his time at Ajax Reynolds introduced wingers to the team’s system as well as insisting on a game built around possession and keeping the ball on the floor. His ideas rubbed off on a young Rinus Michels, the man who would eventually come to be seen as the genius behind Total Football joining the clubs youth ranks in the early 1940s and reaching the first team during Reynolds’ final season at the club.
A keen student of the game, Michels enjoyed a relatively successful career as a striker with his boyhood club, eventually retiring in 1958 to embark on a career in management. By 1965 the boy who had grown up within sight of the club’s Olympisch Stadion was at the helm of Ajax Amsterdam. A revolution was coming, and football would never be quite the same again.
Using Reynolds’ ideas as a starting point, Michels began encouraging his players – many of whom were drawn from the now prolific academy – to become masters of space. In his opinion, if a team could make the pitch ‘big’ when they attacked and ‘small’ when defending then they were half way down the road to success. Michels also promoted the active interchanging of positions within the team, this constant pressing and movement requiring unprecedented levels of fitness but, when mastered, was absolutely breathtaking to watch.
The system, though revolutionary in Western Europe, was not wholly unique. Valeriy Lobanovskyi was pioneering a similar tactical approach with his Dynamo Kiev side contemporaneously, although it is unlikely that he and Michels became aware of each others’ progress until some time later. That said, it would be Ajax and the Dutch that mastered Total Football to the greatest extent, their comfort with such a delicately balanced and complex system being what set them apart from other teams that attempted to follow suit.
Having communicated his philosophy to his young and vibrant squad, Michels transformed Ajax from relegation candidates to serial champions, three Dutch titles arriving in his first three seasons as Cruyff, Keizer, Hulshoff and co cut a swathe through the competition. After missing out on the 1968/69 Eredivisie title Michels made a handful of new signings, Neeskens arriving at the club in 1970 along with Arie Haan and German sweeper Horst Blankenburg. Ajax, masters of the nominal 4-3-3 formation in which they played, were now ready to conquer Europe.
With the tireless Neeskens providing the relentless pressing from the midfield that the team could be said to have lacked in the early years of Michels’ tenure, Ajax were able to play an extremely high defensive line and squeeze yet further the already limited space that the opposition had at their disposal. The term “Total Football” may not have yet formally come into existence, but by the 1970/71 season the system was very much in place.
Indeed, 1971 was to bring Ajax its first European Cup, Panathinaikos being defeated 2-0 at Wembley in the final in what would be Michels’ last game in charge of the club with which he had been associated since boyhood. The manager’s departure for Barcelona, despite some worrying that Ajax could lose their momentum, actually saw the team go on to reach its peak under the leadership of Stefan Kovacs, a change at the top perhaps being what was needed after Michels had embedded his philosophy.
Indeed, the 1971/72 and 1972/73 campaigns would be the most memorable in Ajax’s history, consecutive league and European Cup doubles arriving as the Dutch masters underlined their greatness. Cruyff’s defining moment came in the 1972 final against Internazionale, his two goals winning the game which is often thought of as the greatest exhibition of Total Football there ever was. A year later it was Juventus who were defeated by the most finely-tuned team in Europe, Jonny Rep (who had arrived at the club in 1971) scoring the only goal of the game as Ajax won its third consecutive European Cup.
A collectivist ethos and community spirit had been one of the defining features of the Ajax method throughout the 1960s and 70s, but by the time Kovacs left in 1973 the edifice was showing signs of crumbling. George Knobel had been installed as the club’s new manager following the ’73 success and had held a vote (much in keeping with the ‘Ajax way’) on who should be club captain. In a narrow decision Cruyff was replaced by Piet Keizer, a development which the great number fourteen took particularly badly.
Angered at his team-mates’ actions, Cruyff promptly left to join Michels at Barcelona, the spirit of Total Football moving with him from Amsterdam to Catalonia. Ajax would continue to flourish domestically, but the club would never again exercise the same continental dominance as it had during the early 1970s. Total Football would live on in the Dutch national team until the end of the decade, defeat to Argentina in the 1978 World Cup final eventually bringing the curtain down on an era of previously unprecedented aesthetic and tactical innovation on the football field.
We may never again see a team as philosophically and mechanically refined as the Ajax of the 1970s, but their influence lives on today in the football of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and, perhaps to a lesser extent, the Spanish national team. To tell the story of Total Football is to tell one of timely innovation and conscious excellence, of fluency and near-mathematical expression. Most of all, however, it is a narrative of beauty and success, a narrative that never quite received the glorious ending its richness deserved.
Love of beauty is Taste. Creation of beauty is Art.
[i] That isn’t, of course, to say that West Germany played a particularly unattractive brand of football.