Total Football: What Ever Happened To the Beautiful Game?

illya mclellan@illya mclellan @illbehaviorNZSenior Analyst IJanuary 7, 2010

Lets take a little jaunt down memory lane to the early 20th century and the management and coaching career of a certain Manchester-born Jack Reynolds. Reynolds was a remarkably forward thinking character and though it would be hard to pin the idea of total football on one person, Jack Reynolds would be one that could take a fair amount of credit for the founding of it.

In 1915, while certain men in Europe were concentrating more on weaponry, troop movements, and politicking, Reynolds was taking over as coach at the now world famous Ajax FC of Amsterdam. In his team at the time there was also a certain Rinus Michels; who is more popularly known as the inventor of total football (Totaalvoetbal in Dutch) and did in fact do much to evolve the ideas of Reynolds.

Reynolds spent almost 30 years at Ajax and during this time he implemented policies that were to become fundamental to the Dutch game and indeed to the world game. The idea of total football is probably what some would call the perfection of the game in its theory and practice.

The principle concept of it is that any player on the field is at one time or another capable of playing in any position depending on where they find themselves in relation to the flow of the game. It enables free-form movement and is invariably a catalyst for beautiful simple football to be demonstrated.

The possibilities of such player capability are mind boggling in terms of the game and how it is played. The type of play that is able to be embarked on and carried out is extremely dynamic because of the lessening of specialized roles. It gives the freedom for players to each be playmakers in their own right, rather than the idea of having one or two playmakers that the rest of the team relies on for moments that turn matches in their favor.

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Since its inception it has been an astonishing thing to witness in action and certainly one of the reasons why people around the world love the game so much.

In some ways, the most popular adherents of the total football philosophy were the Ajax team of the early 1970's who redefined the nature of the European game with football that was simple in its execution and devastatingly effective.

They took Europe by storm with a brand of football that shook the very foundation of footballing philosophy across the world in such a way that many thought football would forever remain the way they saw the Dutch Champions play.

Of course one of the most famous players of all time and someone that many think is the greatest player of all time, Johan Cruijff, was a dedicated total footballer. He was someone who always made sure his sides, whether he played in them or coached them, had players who were capable of playing the game as he and his fellow thinking football theorists imagined it to be best demonstrated.

The most astonishing thing of all is perhaps that in the modern game, total football is not at all as prevalent as it perhaps should be. Why are there so many specialist players out there now, players who cannot do certain things that someone like Cruijff would hold as fundamental to football?

Defensive midfielders who cannot attack, attackers who cannot defend, wingers who are useless when the team does not have the ball, defenders who have no composure when placed under pressure by their opposition and so on. Who is at fault for this regression? Why has footballs development led to the point where such visionary concepts can be so taken for granted and ignored?

Instead in the modern professional game we see players who do not know how to play the game playing the game because of remarkable physical attributes that give them the edge over players that the purists would perhaps prefer. The game has become faster and more physical while the technical ability of players has actually been neglected.

There is not a team on the planet that does not have a player that certain fans would groan about, if that player were presented with a first time shot opportunity from the edge of the area. Because the fans know without a doubt that the player in question does not possess the technical ability to finish such an opportunity.

I will certainly not single particular players out because I have great respect for any player who is able to ply their trade as a professional, the reader will certainly be able to think of examples they have seen though.

This regression has actually been passed on down into the younger generation as players are taught to specialize in positions because it gives them more of an opportunity to make certain teams and to garner a possible professional career.

This is ridiculous and would certainly make men such as Rinus Michels and Jack Reynolds roll in their respective graves if they were to see the state of the game as it is being played around the world.

FIFA themselves need to look at this and implement in their coaching practices methods by which football can return to the path that it has strayed from. Instead of creating an environment where specialization is encouraged and emulated, they should instead focus on turning any player who wishes to lace on boots into an individual who, if called on to do so, can play anywhere on the pitch and preferably also has as close to flawless technique as possible.

Total football is still possible people, but something definitely needs to be done about the implementation of it as the fundamental truth of the modern game. Hopefully in the years to come it will be seen again as the only way that football should be played. This writer certainly hopes so.


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