Farewell to the ‘total maestro’

By Rob Hughes

LONDON: The death of Rinus Michels gave birth to the debate on Total Football on every continent where soccer is played. 

Many obituaries in numerous languages described Michels, who died on Thursday after heart surgery at the age of 77, as the Founder of Total Football.  

But, without quibbling with the award FIFA, the international ruler of soccer gave him in 1999 as the “Manager of the Century,” it would be more accurate to say that he was the father of the Dutch version of so-called “total football.” 

He didn’t invent the genius of Johan Cruyff, the player synonymous with his teams. He didn’t devise a system that required above average soccer intelligence, adaptability and expression from players in all parts of the team. 

It grew on the streets of Amsterdam and Utrecht, and in the traffic-free environment of Surinam in the Dutch East Indies where extraordinarily imaginative players were emerging. 

What Michels, a former centre forward and physical educator did, was to take the quarrelsome, opinionated Dutch, to recognise the intelligence in their heads as well as the talents in their feet, and to give them liberty with order.  

They were subjected to his rigorous training regimen, four times a day, but in return they had freedom to perform for one another in any role that they could cover between them. 

It was the most pleasing soccer that many of us can remember watching, but not as systematic as the archivists suggest, and not always victorious. And also not entirely invented in Holland. 

In the 1930s, the Austrian Wunderteam, under Hugo Meisl, apparently played with such improvisation that opponents could not work it out. It was called “The Whirl.”  

Willy Meisl, the brother of the man who gave Austria such inspiration, wrote a book in 1955 which could have been Michels’ philosophy in print. 

“We must free our soccer youth from the shackles of playing to order, along rails as it were,” wrote the younger Meisl. “We must give them ideas and encourage them to develop their own.”  

Nils Middleboe, a banker and an amateur player with Chelsea between 1913 and 1922, also wrote marvellously about the subject. “To systematise,” he insisted, “is to sterilise.”  

The same theme, the examples of men of free mind in athletic bodies has been played down the ages, from the breathtaking interchanging of the Magical Magyars, the Hungarians led by Ferenc Puskas in the early 1950s, to the wondrously free-wheeling Real Madrid team built around Alfredo di Stefano later in the same decade. 

Marinus Hendrikus Jacobus Michels, was born in February 1928 within sight of the old Olympic Stadium that housed the Ajax club. He matured in the 1950s.  

On his debut for Ajax, he scored five times as an 18 year old, and when he became trainer to the Ajax team he promptly recognised and installed the 17-year-old Cruyff as his playmaker. 

Cruyff, paying tribute to his first mentor, said this week that he never learned so much from one man as he did from Michels. But the trainer did not put the concept of total football, free expression into Cruyff. That was innate.  

It too grew on the very steps of the stadium where Michels played and where Cruyff’s mother was a cleaner. 

This player-coach interdependence is intrinsic to everything that is said and written in the floods of tributes to Michels. The trainer could be strict, tough, taciturn.  

The players did what he said in terms of preparation - up to a point. 

Rebellious ones, such as Piet Keizer had their parties, their late night drinking. Michels knew about them, understood human beings and even encouraged “family days” when at big tournaments wives and girlfriends were allowed in when Michels felt it correct to open the gates. 

This, too, was not unique to the Dutch.  

Ask the Brazilians, accustomed to their long, secluded training camps on the mountain of Teresopolis in the 1950s and 1970s about training encampment and “freedom” days. 

With Michels in charge, with Cruyff exercising the concept on the field, the Dutch bewildered all opponents in the 1974 World Cup - up to the final in Munich which they lost to West Germany. 

Franz Beckenbauer, who under the German coach, Helmut Schoen, enjoyed similar rights to invent as the game evolved, memorably said that the “total football” label used to describe Holland was not all that it seemed. 

“It owed more to the element of surprise than to any magic formula,” he said. “I think the Dutch got away with it for so long because the opposition could not work out what tactics they were facing. 

“It never dawned on them, certainly not until it was too late, that there were no tactics at all,” Beckenbauer said. “Just brilliant players with a ball.”  

Brilliant players, given licence by a coach they called The General. Germany suppressed the Dutch in 1974 but Michels did lead the next generation of Dutchmen to the 1988 European title. 

Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard were the stars.  

The trio was employed by AC Milan whose paymaster Silvio Berlusconi, more than any coach, chose who would represent his club. Berlusconi, with no managerial training in soccer knew what Michels knew: Find the talent, and let it play. The system, if there is one, will follow. 

Michels enjoyed, and deserved, the status of doyen among European coaches.  

And in 1999, after an astonishing Champions League final was turned on its head in the last few minutes when Manchester United beat Bayern Munich, Michels and the UEFA team of coaching experts had to analyse the performance and the styles. 

I happened to walk from the stadium to the hotel with Michels that night.  

“Did you ever, in all your years in soccer, have such a lucky, inexplicable turn of events?” I asked. 

Michels thought then replied: “Ah, yes. In my dreams.”  

Sweet dreams, maestro. – IHT 

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