Where is Total Football now?

It is generally agreed that the concept of Total Football was invented by a very young Franz Beckenbauer, when playing for his West German club, Bayern Munich.

Total Football. The new game. The new revelation. The seeming vindication of the concept of that embattled theorist of the game Willy Meisl, journalist brother of Hugo Meisl, father of the Austrian so-called Wunderteam between the wars. In his book `Soccer Revolution', published in 1955, Willy had predicated something that he called The Whirl; a system in which players constantly interchanged positions, in which defenders became attackers and vice versa.

By the early 1970s, it did seem to have happened though Willy, alas, was not there to see it. Both the Dutch and the West Germans, at international level, were practising something which had been nicknamed Total Football, in which versatility, interchangeability, were the keynotes. Defenders indeed were sweeping into attack, while forwards were at the least dropping back into midfield.

It is generally agreed that the concept of Total Football was invented by a very young Franz Beckenbauer, when playing for his West German club, Bayern Munich. He once told me how he had come upon the idea. Watching Inter play, he had noted how the giant left-back, right-footed Giacinto Facchetti constantly burst forward into attack and, as Facchetti once proudly reminded me, scored goals. If a full-back could do it, Franz reasoned, then why not a sweeper or libero, operating from behind the defensive markers?

So it was and so, impressively, it proved. Beckenbauer with Bayern profitably advanced from what might be called his ambush deep in defence, joining in attacks, largely unmarked and uninhibited by the opposition, who would often be taken by surprise. Yet, it would be several years before he was able to fill the role for the West German international team. He was very much the protege of Helmut Schoen, who had taken over as manager from the more pragmatic and less creative Sepp Herberger whose assistant he had been. But when it came to the 1966 World Cup in England, the 21-year-old Beckenbauer was an attacking right-half. And when it came to the Final against England, his assignment to mark Bobby Charlton meant that they largely cancelled each other out. But eventually Franz got his way.

In the meantime, the idea of Total Football had been taken up with enthusiasm by the Dutch, both at club level with Ajax and with the international team. If German football had the inspiration of Franz Beckenbauer, then Holland and Ajax had Johan Cruyff, a centre-forward of supreme versatility and inspiration, scorer and maker alike of goals, just as adept at moving to the flanks and operating as a winger. Three times in a row from 1971, Ajax would win the European Cup to be emulated for the three years after that by Bayern Munich.

How well I remember, the morning after seeing Ajax sweep aside Inter with its cautious `catenaccio' tactics — Armando Picchi was a sweeper who never crossed the halfway line — sitting in the foyer of a Rotterdam hotel with Jacques Ferran, then France's leading football journalist. Smiling, he remarked that whatever might happen in the future, Total Football was the new reality.

There were those who disagreed, among them as sharp an observer as Danny Blanchflower who, as an inspirational right-half, had splendidly captained both Tottenham Hotspur, winner of the first 20th Century Cup and League English double, and the Northern Ireland team which gallantly made its way to the finals of the 1958 World Cup, eliminating mighty Italy, en route. Sitting beside him one Saturday afternoon in the Chelsea Press Box, I heard him say he didn't agree with Total Football as a concept "because people are different."

There could have been ammunition for his view in the shape of the performance of Holland's Wim van Hanegem in the 1974 World Cup Final in Munich against West Germany. Dutch journalists have often quizzed me on my expressed view that Van Hanegem, that day, was the best Dutch player on the field. Not Johan Cruyff, whose amazing, first minute run half the length of the field brought Holland the penalty, with which they went ahead. Not his perfect foil, the dynamic Johan Neeskens, who could and did operate in World Cup final matches as midfielder, centre-back, even as centre-forward, the very embodiment of Total Football.

No! I chose big, strong, relatively slow Van Hanegem, as Feyenoord not an Ajax player, for his supreme left-footed distribution, his sophisticated technique. He was your classical, creative inside-forward and you couldn't imagine him doing any other than he did. Playing for West Germany that day, by contrast, was Paul Breitner, your classical, overlapping left-back, versatile enough to play in a second World Cup Final in Madrid, in 1982, as Germany's captain and chief midfield playmaker. Though the German team that day wasn't playing Total Football any more. Nor, for that matter, was the German team which somehow, almost by default, found its way to the 2002 World Cup Final in Seoul, losing to Brazil.

Total Football has left its positive traces. Full backs are today often attacking wing-backs — yet how do they differ from what were called wing-halves, before Arsenal invented the third-back game in 1925 and brought them into the middle? Yet, your attacking sweeper, in the image of Beckenbauer or Ajax's own German sweeper in Blankenburg, belong to the past. Was Blanchflower right?