Saturday, November 28, 2009

Without major international tournament, 1973 appears anticlimactic after 1972. This is typical for years between World Cups and European Championships, yet, 1973 was not as plain as many other years ‘in between’. A lot happened: Spain lifted its ban on foreign players – and Cruiff went to Barcelona. Ajax continued its European dominance. Holland finally started to transform, using the innovative strength of her great players. Brazil decided to change her way of playing, feeling inferior to the newest developments in Europe. And qualifications for the 1974 World Cup were well in progress, bringing at least one huge surprise – the elimination of England. And one big scandal – the refusal of USSR to play in Chile. A lot happened in 1973. Yet, from the distance of time, it seems to me that 1973 was mostly characterized by weird struggle between words and deeds.
Total football was the word: recognized as the way to play, the way of the future, and the way to success. Established. But few really played it and the discrepancy was huge: in countless articles the new football was analyzed, its virtues proved, those who did not play it yet – criticized and urged to adopt it. In print, there was no doubt. In print, it was lamented that many a team, a player, and a coach were lagging behind, and if incapable to change, those should go and replaced by progressive youngsters seeing the light. Obvious.
Obvious may had been, but… not really. Old ways were strong. New ways were misunderstood. England was prime example – realizing the need of change, England ‘radically’ introduced new players in the national team. It was urgent, especially after the humiliation from the West Germans. New players, but… the style was the same and no attempt was made to introduce total football. New legs, old ways… England suffers ever since.
Brazil on the other hand went radical – it was felt Brazilian football was no longer match for European football. Curiously, it was not total football to be followed – or if it was, it was a far cry from the model based on artistry as much as on speed and physicality. Brazil attempted to breach the gab by making a new national team playing tough, defensive, physical football. It looked a bit like the football West Germans played after 1976, only slower. There was no beauty in it, technical advantage of Brazilian players was stifled in the name of collective disciplined performance concerned with defense. It worked for awhile – the new Brazil went to Europe to play friendlies at the end of the year, and on cold, rainy grounds extracted minimal wins from the West Germans and the Soviets. The team was tremendously boring, but fit and equal to the European physical strength. Which led to wrong conclusions in the land of samba and disaster in 1974.
As for Italy and Spain – total football seemingly meant exactly nothing there. At the end, total football, the big rave, was practiced by very few teams – others lacked either players or the old established mentality stubbornly refused to change against evidence. Whoever managed to shift gears suddenly became a winner – no matter what, the face of football was changing and at least some elements of total football were very much present.
A moment of the World Cup qualification match between Hungary and Sweden, capturing the difference between total football and any old way of playing: the Hungarian centreforward Bene is marked by Swedish centreforward Edstrom (right). Old Bene and young Edstrom… you will never catch classic striker last in defense. Sweden qualified for the World Cup. But old thinking was reluctant to give up – Bene is about to score here, isn’t he? Doesn’t look like Sweden is going to win, right? This photo beautifully summarizes the problem at the time.