No. 21: Total Football, (Germany, 1974)
Every so often, one team can capture the imagination of the watching world. Typically, they are sides that play in a striking style, with unique ideas and ultimately, sample their fair degree of success.
In 1974, the Dutch national team—competing at their first World Cup in 36 years—did exactly that. With Rinus Michels at the helm, the Oranje pioneered what was known as “Total Football” on the world stage.
The basis of this philosophy was for players to shed the labels that so often shackle them. Michels didn’t believe in the notion of defenders, midfielders and attackers, he sought to create footballers that could play anywhere on the pitch. It gave rise to a system saturated with flexibility and fluidity, with players capable of slotting in for each other all over the field
It allowed players like Johan Cruyff, who was the crown jewell of this Dutch team, to roam about the pitch, hurting the opposition in the way he deemed most appropriate. Those in orange strips would merely shuffle around to compliment him. In turn, they’d do the same for players like Johnny Rep and Johan Neeskens, who’d also float around the playing surface.
Whilst the roots of this philosophy were earlier implemented by Michels’ indomitable Ajax side of the late 60’s and early 70’s, the wonderful Hungarian team of the 50’s and the Ajax team’s from the start of the century, it was the first time many viewers were witness to such an enterprising brand of football.
The Dutch were simply marvelous in 1974. They qualified top of their group in the first round, producing a couple of superb performances against Uruguay (2-0) and Bulgaria (4-1), but they really put their foot down in the second round. They hammered Argentina 4-0, before consecutive 2-0 wins against East Germany and Brazil saw them safely through to the final.
In the final they were to meet West Germany, the tournament hosts. They’d started the tournament poorly, but galvanized by some wonderful showings from Gerd Muller and Franz Beckenbauer in the second round, they made it through to the final.
Whilst the German outfit were obviously well backed at the final in Munich, the watching world were rooting for the vibrant, enterprising Oranje. They couldn’t have started the game any better:
What happened next?
The Dutch scored without the Germans touching the ball. They knocked it round for the opening minute, before Cruyff—the deepest player on the pitch when he picked the ball up—slalomed his way past two defenders and was felled by an unfair challenge from Uli Hoeness upon bursting into the penalty area. Neeskens tucked away the penalty.
But the Germans were resolute and came roaring back into the contest. A penalty of their own from Paul Breitner leveled things up, before the prolific Gerd Muller netted what turned out to be the winner just before half-time.
Despite their loss, the Dutch left a legacy and paved the way for a style that is still coveted in today’s game. In his tenure as Barcelona boss, Cruyff used his experiences with Michels to pave the way for the “tiki-taka” style that saw them eventually flourish under Pep Guardiola.
The Dutch continued to progress after their final defeat, and whilst they would eventually lose their inspirational coach, they also managed to make it through to the 1978 final. But once again, they could only finish as runners up, losing to the hosts Argentina in Buenos Aires.
Perhaps Cruyff had it right when he said that “simple football is the most beautiful. But playing simple football is the hardest thing”, per TheFalse9.com.
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