Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Tactics. Rinus Michels has to be credited with the biggest change in the beginning of the 1970s – he invented the ‘total’ football’. According to him, the idea came from watching rugby one night on television. Michels was impressed by the collective effort of the whole team moving back and forth, from defense to offense, as one unit and covering the whole field. Why not trying the same in football, Michels mused over his beer? Luckily, he had just the players for such experiment: Ajax (Amsterdam) were young, highly skilled, technical players, who really enjoyed playing and also were very fit. The result was magic – Ajax disregarded traditional positions and roles. Everybody was playing the whole field – if the moment caught him in attack, a full back was attacking like a centre-forward; if the left winger was caught somewhere near his own goalkeeper, he acted like sweeper. It was pleasure to watch Ajax, for the team was inspired, highly motivated, dedicated to attacking football, very technical, but also tough and shrewd when necessary. They played speedily, never wasting or killing time, and because of the constant movement, they usually appeared as if they are more than 11 players on the field. No matter where the ball was, Ajax prevailed by numbers, was able quickly to recover the ball and start new attack. Tactically, it was a rich team – they were able to adjust to the opposition’s style, and especially against Italian and Spanish clubs Ajax played tough, physical game, pressuring the opposition everywhere and cynically committing faults. They were surely not above mere intimidation, but they never killed the game and constantly tried to score. No matter what circumstances and what opposition, Ajax never played dull football and having big technical arsenal, if something did not work, they tried another approach. Above everything, it was obvious they liked to play. They played with children’s joy and effectively liberated football from the defensive, careful stigma of the 1960s. So much fun the players had, they had to be restricted occasionally. Stefan Kovacs, who replaced Michels as Ajax’s coach, recalls in his autobiography excess out of place: for instance, in a domestic championship match Hulshoff, nominally the center-defenseman, injured himself trying to score a goal. It was the last minute of the match and Ajax was leading 4-0! The club fined Hulshoff for his joyous irresponsibility. The team was fun and also pointed to a new direction, one very much liked by football fans: attractive, fast, attacking, and highly technical football. Thus, at the beginning of the 1970s there was diversity of styles: the defensive Italian football was not dead yet; Brazil played their attacking samba, based on supreme technical skills and improvisation; England played dynamic and attacking football with long high balls; the Germans added elegance to their traditional physical play. Total football was the most attractive option, yet an option among many, and as a whole, it was interesting to watch games because of the diversity of styles and tactical approaches – the teams did not look alike at all; the struggle between different styles was exciting. And one thing was obvious: attacking football was back, it was going to dominate the decade, and eventually it would have been total football adopted by most teams. The 1970s were starting with a revolution. A liberating revolution, unleashing creativity.
Rinus Michels created ‘total football’, yet there is at least a bit of irony in it: he led Ajax to only one European Champions Cup. The next two were won under the guidance of Stefan Kovacs. Most Ajax players disliked the heavy handed disciplinarian Michels, and although he made them into superstars, they preferred the relaxed and mellow Romanian. As a coach of the Dutch national team, Michels had to wait until 1988 to win a trophy – Holland lost the World Cup final in 1974. None of the great players won anything with the national team – the only player of the 1970s Ajax winning a title with the national team is Arnold Muhren: he was a key part of Michels’ selection winning the European Championship in 1988. Ironically, Arnold Muhren was a reserve in the old Ajax – his elder brother Gerrie Muhren was a titular and a star. Yet, it was Arnold at the end, making his reputation in England (Ipswich Town and Manchester United) and 37 years old in 1988, but not Gerrie, who slowly sunk into obscurity in Spain (Real Betis player in the late 1970s and Seiko Hong Kong ).
Stefan Kovacs, typically with a cigarette or a pipe, was hired to replace Michels, who took over Barcelona. He brought freedom and relaxation to the team and had good relations with the players. And won two European Champions Cup to Michels’ one. According to his own book, he was quickly tested by the ringleaders of the team: when he was explaining to a group of players what to do at training, Piet Keizer savagely kicked the ball towards him. Kovacs immediately sensed that Keizer, then the captain of the team, was testing his authority and the judgment would come from his reaction. Kovacs pretended that nothing strange was happening, casually stopped the ball with his foot and passed it back to Keizer without stopping talking to the group of players. After that he never had any problems with the team and was respected by everyone. But, smiles Kovacs, I had been a professional player in Belgium when I was young and that helped. It was a deadly moment, muses Kovacs, if I hided from the ball, or the ball hit me and I was unable to play it, I would never had any authority – after all, they were already superstars, Cruiff, Neeskens, Krol… and who was I? Some Romanian. After leaving Ajax, Kovacs coached France for three years – not successful years, but he placed the foundations of the later great French selections.
Strangely, Kovacs is entirely forgotten everywhere – in his native Romania (where he was coaching successful Steaua before taking over Ajax, and the national team after 1976), in Ajax, where Michels is remembered fondly (unlike in the real time – Piet Keizer danced on a table from joy when Michels went to Barcelona), in France (where credits are given largely to Kovacs’s successors leading France to World and European Cups), and by the world.