Pioneers of Total Football

‘The artistry of Total Football’ was born in the late 1960s at Ajax Amsterdam, although the word ‘totaalvoetbal’ didn’t enter the Dutch language until 1974. Certainly, the style of football appealed to the aesthetes.

“Just as the appeal of Romeo and Juliet lies in its lovers not living happily ever after, so I’m sure my obsession with Dutch football would run less deep were it not for that defeat (1974 World Cup final).” So noted David Winner in his sublime work on Dutch football, Brilliant Orange. It could be argued that the writer spoke for a large group of football fans. Yet, the obsession with Dutch football runs deeper than just one match.

Defeats in the 1978 final and 1998 semis reinforced the charm, in addition to other failures.

However, one can’t say the same about the Netherlands’ 2010 campaign that failed at the last hurdle. The day after the loss to Spain in the final, Daily Telegraph — like Winner — spoke for many fans, “The Netherlands, a nation that gave us the artistry of Total Football, last night resorted to the kind of tactics more usually reserved for cage fighting. This was not football. It was Rollerball.”

‘The artistry of Total Football’ was born in the late 1960s at Ajax Amsterdam, although the word ‘totaalvoetbal’ didn’t enter the Dutch language until 1974. Certainly, the style of football appealed to the aesthetes and defender Ruud Krol’s opinion is worthy of consideration.

“Football is not art — but there is an art to playing good football.”

Upon its return to the World Cup after 36 years in 1974, the Netherlands translated Krol’s words into action as they wowed the world with their preternatural understanding of space. Led by Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff, a once-in-a-generation group of players placed the Netherlands in public memory inextricably. Four years later, Cruyff wasn’t there but the side reached the final again. This time, an extra-time loss to Argentina was suffered in a hostile atmosphere.

It has been argued before that the Dutch’s unique appreciation of space was linked to the country’s geography. The country’s characteristic economical use and reclaiming of land had been probably imported to football tactics and this allowed the side to make the pitch ‘bigger and smaller’ at will.

Dennis Bergkamp further enriched the spatial understanding of the country in the 1990s, in addition to leaving fans breathless with his passing and first touch. The latter attributes were put to memorable use in the 1998 quarter-final against Argentina when he scored one of the greatest goals ever to send the Netherlands to the semis. Keeping with Dutch tradition, a penalty shootout ensured the team failed to progress further. But much changed in 2010. While it’s debatable whether one tournament should influence public opinion greatly, it certainly pained many to watch the Dutch transform into flat-track bullies. The result didn’t change though, as Spain won thanks to an extra-time goal by Andres Iniesta. The Dutch could have easily finished with seven men on the pitch. Only John Heitinga was sent off.

Perhaps, it’s apt to hear Cruyff’s views on the final. “This ugly, vulgar, hard, hermetic, hardly eye-catching, hardly football style, yes it served the Dutch to unsettle Spain. If with this they got satisfaction, fine, but they ended up losing. They were playing anti-football.”

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The Giants And Vincent saw the corn And Einstein the number And Zeppelin the Zeppelin And Johan saw the ball - Toon Hermans

"Pythagoras in boots," remarked David Miller of The Times, when he first watched Johan Cruyff play. It is said that even at the age of 17, when Cruyff first featured for Ajax, he used to instruct the team on the use of space. The playmaker's acute sense of geometry strengthened his credentials as a leader and thinker.

Cruyff's influence on the idea of Dutch football remains wide-sweeping and unmatched. Although he was arguably more obsessed with the performance than the result, another geometry-obsessed aesthete chose the latter.

Dennis Bergkamp was admittedly more focused towards producing the perfect assist than the goal in the later stages of his career, but the end product remained indispensable for him.

"I love good football, nice football but it has to mean something," said the forward in an interview to The Blizzard.

The Dutchman scored six goals at the World Cup but the most important remained the one against Argentina. As Bergkamp said of the goal, "It's like your life has led up to this moment."

Only one player has scored more goals in the World Cup than Bergkamp for the Netherlands - Johnny Rep (seven). Rep was called the Dutch George Best. That says much about his brilliance.