Total football


Total Football means every player can play in every position except the goal keeper. Total football is a novelty as well as a bone of contention, because not every team can practice it and very few can perfect it. There are no orthodox defenders in total football. Defenders can attack when they get the ball. At that time any other player will come to his position until the defender returns. Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer was an attacking sweeper. Playing total football is very beautiful and entertaining.

          Although total football was most practiced by the Dutch team of the1970s under the manager Rinus Michaels and the captain the legendary Johan Cruyff, total football was invented much earlier. There were others to invent it like the wonder team of Austria, the club river plate of Argentina in 1940, the golden team of Hungary of 1950s, under Ferenc Puscas.

          The success of total football depends on the potential of the players; because they have to switch over to any position. It requires intelligent and technically perfect players. A Dutch defenderKrol has said – Football is not an art.But there is an art in playing football. Indeed, it is true. During the 1970s the Ajax club of Amsterdam of Holland played the finest football in this system.

          The first foundation of total football was laid by Jimmy Hogan, a Burnley native working Austrian coach in the early 1930s. The Austrian team was a wonder team. Hogan’s style influenced and reached beyond the Austrian borders especially Hungary of the 1950s under Ferenc Puscas. The Hungarian National Team was considered as the Golden team. The then president of Hungarian Football association, Sandor Barcs said – Jimmy Hogan taught us everything we know about football. Puskas was an outstanding player, but unfortunate to win the World cup in 1954. Another team who played total football was the club-river plate of Argentina. It was called the machiene. They perfected the false nine style and the constant change attack positions.

          Johan Cruyff, the Dutch, an exponent of total football said –

          “Every trainer talks about movement, about running a lot. I say don’t run so much. Football is a game you play with your brain. You have to be in the right place at the right moment, not too early, not too late.”

          Eric Canotna said –

          “I loved the Dutch in the 1970s, they excited me and Cruyff was the best. He was my childhood hero; I had a poster of him on my bedroom wall. He was a creator. He was at the heart of a revolution with his football. Ajax changed football and he was the leader of it all. If he wanted he could be the best player in any position on the pitch.”

          Another lover of football Simon Kuper said –

An on-field manager, the Dutch team was largely his (Cruyff’s) creation. It was Cruyff, the captain, who told mid fielder Arie Haan that he would play as libero. (Are you crazy?). Haan replied. It proved to be a brilliant idea. It was Cruyff who had groomed Striker Johny Rep as a youngster at Ajax, sometimes screaming at the bench during games, Rep must warm up! It was not Cruyff’s best month, but it was the month that most people saw him and the style he had invented. For many, the Cruyff they know is the Cruyff of his only World Cup (1974) in which Holland did all the playing Germans took the title. He notionally spent the tournament at centre forward, but he was everywhere. He would sprint down the left wing and cross with the outside of his right foot. He would drop into midfield and leave centre backs marking air. He would drop back just to scream instructions. Arsene Wenger tells the story of Cruyff telling two mid-fielders to swap positions and returning 15 minutes later to tell them to swap again. To Wenger, this showed how hard it was to replicate the fluidity of “Total Football” if you did not have Cruyff himself.

          Rinus Michaels became manager of Ajax in 1965. He reworked the theory with his introduction of forward Johan Cruyff, perhaps the most illustrious exponent of total football. Although Cruyff was fielded as centre forward, Michaels instructed him to roam freely around the field to play and implement the concept of total football. Cruyff’s team mates also worked to adapt themselves accordingly regularly switching positions to ensure tactical roles. Austrian coach Ernst Happel also reworked the theory. Happel managed the Dutch national team to a runner up finish in 1978 World cup.

          The use of space is the major work of total football. Cruyff talked about where to run, where to stand, when not to move. Position changing was only made possible due to apt spatial awareness.Winning back the ball was the summum bonum of total football. Michaels and Cruyff achieved unprecedented success in this style. But all beautiful things are fragile. Total football was prone to defeat as found in 1974 World cup final. Total football died there.

          Cruyff said – Although we did not win the World cup; but the whole world saw our unique football.

          Carlos Alberto, the Brazilian captain said – “The only team I have seen that did things differently was Holland at the 1974 World cup in Germany. Since then everything looks more or less the same to me…. Their carousel style of play was amazing to watch and marvelous for the game.”

          Such was total football – a thing of the past. 


(The views expressed are the writer’s own.)

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Radhakanta Seth is an Income tax officer in Sambalpur.  He is a freelance writer and his articles have been published in some Oriya dailies like Sambad, Samaj, Dharitri, and English dailies like The Telegraph and in a sociological journal ‘Folklore’ published from Kolkata.

He can be reached at [email protected]