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What Does The Dream Of Total Football Mean Today?

Yesterday, I looked at the expectations we often place on international football. This got me thinking about the Dutch and their legendary Total Football era in the 70s. What does this mean to us today? Does Cruyff’s legacy still influence world football?

What do we want from our football?

The Spain/South Africa match was on the television at the bar. Villa scored his ridiculous goal: collecting the ball cleanly on his chest, dropping it to his foot and slicing it home as the defenders converged on him. An impossible chance converted through pure athletic instinct.

I turned to the beautiful girl next to me and said, “Did you see that strike??” I think I was praying she’d turn out to be closet football fan. Villa’s goal would give me the opening to ask her to dinner. We’d be talking transfer rumors over antipasti. Yes: this is how my mind works…

She smiled politely. “I don’t really follow sports,” she said, crushing my plans.

“It’s not just a sport,” I offered, clinging to a wisp of romantic hope. “It’s an art form!” She raised her eyebrows with interest. But in the end, despite a spirited description of Villa’s movements as brush strokes on a canvas, I could not sell football to her.

What I needed was a classic Ajax or Holland match from the 70s. What I needed was a Cruyff Turn. What I needed was Total Football.

The dream of beautiful football is an old one. It can push the blood through our circulatory tunnels as much as a last minute winner in a tight cup win. Thirty years ago, Ajax and the Netherlands national team gave the gift of Total Football to the world. Endless improvisation and invention. Outfielders shifting between all the positions. Flowing movement. An open game. Dazzling individual skill married with deep team chemistry. The Dutch gave birth to some of the most exciting football ever.

The teams and the concept were built around Johan Cruyff, often credited with being the greatest player to never have won a World Cup. Cruyff’s boundless inventiveness and liquid style was an inspiration to his teammates as well as generations of footballers since.

The idea of Total Football is still exciting. Any outfielder ready to shift into a different position at any time. Defenders becoming attackers. Strikers defending. Midfielders shifting all over the place. Whatever the situation needs. Like jazz players weaving lines of notes around each other to push the song on its mysterious journey.

The Dutch still love the philosophy of Total Football and, today, it permeates their footballing culture. Barcelona (who enjoyed Cruyff’s talents from 1973 until 1978) show the heritage in their flowing, veritable everybody-attack-but-the-keeper mentality which helped them win the triple last season. We even see glimpses of it in the modern Premier League. Players shifting roles when the moment calls for it. The free-flowing approach Arsene Wenger likes to employ with Arsenal may be the closest thing to Total Football in today’s English game. This harks back to Nick Hornby’s description of Arsenal in 1972 in the chapter entitled “A New Family” in his fine book Fever Pitch:

Over the summer of 1972, things changed. Arsenal, the most British (that is to say, dourest and most aggressive) team you could imagine, went all continental on us, and for half a dozen games at the start of the 72/73 season decided to play Total Football…

Everything about the Wolves game was disorienting – the five goals, the quality of passing (Alan Ball was outstanding), the purr of the crowd, the genuine enthusiasm of a normally hostile press.

By the end of the chapter, Arsenal revert back to their “dourest and most aggressive” nature, but Hornby captures the seductiveness of Total Football. You feel he was taken in, albeit bewildered, by Arsenal’s brief adoption of this football philosophy. Years later, Wenger would build a more “continental” side.

When it works it is beautiful to behold. When it doesn’t the players can be punished for being out of position by piercing counterattacks. Total Football cannot work in its purest state (that of the Cruyff era) in today’s Premier League. No one side has enough players bursting with the wholesale versatility Ajax and Holland were known for in the 70s. Today, in England, it would leave too many gaps for a patient foe to exploit.  But when an English side flirts with Total Football, slides into the mentality in brief moments, the aesthetic rewards for the supporter are enormous. The striker who steams back to help the defense. The centre-back who explodes forth and takes a shot on goal. The attacking full-back who jets down the wing to send in a cross.When the attacks come off right, the beautiful, risky nature of such movement is thrilling. When it comes to goals as well, there’s no better moment in football.

The Dutch Masters of the 70s never won a World Cup or the Euro. Total Football took their national team to the 1974 World Cup final, but they lost to host nation West Germany 2-1. Nevertheless, they went down in that final playing the most beautiful game. The mark that Dutch era left on football and the world of sport is forever indelible.

Total Football lives on here and there. A joy to find when it rears its beautiful head.

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  1. Benny

    June 27, 2009 at 1:53 am

    The Undefeated Arsenal team of 2003/04 was total football. Watch a DVD back of that season. Its mind blowing. Henry, Bergkamp and Pires. Incredible.

  2. brn442

    June 27, 2009 at 12:50 am

    The demands of modern club football make it almost impossible for managers to experiment with any real variation of “total football”. The current game seems to have made the division of labour on the pitch almost absolute, or has it? Whilst I’m always amused when the pundits act as though it’s a different code of football when a centre-half is told to play as an emergency full back during a match, one can argue that e.g. the modern striker is expected to do much more defensive and link up play than his predecessor 20 years ago. Ian Rush probably would have had to do much more than “defend from the front” if he were playing today.
    Managers paradoxically appreciate players’ versatility in desperate times but then frown on it as an unnecessary luxury, expect them to revert and then rigidly adhere to arguably their less favored roles (as per Gerrard & Rooney) when it’s not “needed.” Hopefully, like the 70’s Dutch, someone will be bold enough to try total or as I say ”pure” football – where, as in the sport’s beginning, the collective objective of all eleven men will be to put the ball in the back of the net.

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