November 30, 2022


Life, Death, and Total Football : My Dutch friend Lars taught me to appreciate the most radical team in World Cup history--and how their tactics could be meaningful far beyond the pitch.   (ROSECRANS BALDWIN, November 29, 2022, gQ)

Holland has a unique place in soccer history. In the late 1960s and '70s, the country developed perhaps the most radical brand of football ever played. It was intensely cerebral. It was unconsciously artistic. You read about fans achieving a kind of orgasmic death-rebirth, high on football, just by watching the system work. It was called "total football" and it imbued the Dutch with an outsider identity. A version of it infused Lars's life at an early age. And what he taught me about it, years later, helped me grasp soccer much better. Moreso, three years after his passing, I can honestly say it helps me understand my work better, my relationships better, even death. Maybe call it "total life" instead. 

First of all, total football, totaalvoetbal, Lars told me, was perhaps the most beautiful style of soccer ever played. The system is mainly credited to the Netherlands, defined by crisp passing and churning runs that produced a pressing, frenzied, strobic wheel of aggression that had never been seen on the pitch before the Flying Dutchmen seized the football world's heart in the 1970s and started to squeeze. 

Versions of the system had been played elsewhere prior to that, in minor forms. But the system came to flower in Amsterdam with Ajax, the city's football club and the Netherlands' most successful, after it won the European Cup, among other accomplishments, from 1971 to 1973.

Lars was basically born into the Church of Cruyff--Johan Cruyff, the Dutch superstar and the form's high priest--and the religion that is total football. He and his brother Kees often spent summers in Holland, where Lars learned to read and speak the language; his incapacity for small talk likely derived from growing up around the Netherlanders' distinctive blunt straightforwardness. He also learned to appreciate soccer in the Dutch mode. So much, he said, that when he got back to North Carolina, to soccer programs in town, the game simply paled. 

Here is a total football primer, as Lars might tell it. At the time of its development, Holland's totaalvoetbal stood alone for its onslaught. Before, European soccer had been ruled by the champions of Italian defense: Juventus, Inter Milan, A.C. Milan. Then the Dutch side showed up, everyone on attack. The central idea was to foment an intensely supple flexibility. Basically, in total football, any player could decide to play virtually any role at any time. An attacker could suddenly choose to become a midfielder, or a defender could decide to go on attack. And while they made those transformations, reordering themselves, sprinting into space, a teammate would slide into the player's prior function to cover his spot. 

It was controlled chaos--unpredictable to opponents, thrilling for fans. But it demanded a lot, Lars would explain, for the men at work, with players flying in and out of positions. First of all, everyone on the field needed to be attuned to what everyone else was doing. Also, they needed to be able to play any position at any time, and play it tough. Also, they needed to run and run, just run nonstop.

Basically, it was a version of soccer that seemed, though elegant and clever, ultra aggro. Before total football, players didn't roam the pitch freely, but here came Cruyff, maestro of them all, suddenly making an opponent's defense seem full of holes. Total football, reduced to elementals, was about physics, Lars's father's specialty: It was about finding and claiming space, essentially creating space; when executed perfectly, it was about making space where previously there was none. Players like Cruyff, Johnny Rep, Ruud Krol--later, they'd say the system was subliminal, almost unconscious, partly because they'd played together so long and knew what each other were thinking, and where, any second, they might run next. 

Today, total football is history. It passed away, perhaps, when Holland lost the 1974 World Cup final to West Germany. Or when zonal defense became the norm, when defenders started worrying more about pitch physics than marking a single man. The system did continue somewhat, at least genetically, in Spain, as one strain in the pass-heavy "tiki taka" system, aided by Cruyff's successful tenure, post-playing career, as a Barça manager in the 1990s. But it's mostly gone, an innovation out-innovated, and Cruyff is gone too, dead from cancer in 2016.

Posted by at November 30, 2022 9:24 PM