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Total Football and its emergence as a countercultural movement

Total football,as employed by Michles and Lobanovskyi,is about space and how you control it.

To ascertain the origins of total football to any one manager would be unjust. An idea,of a game that focused more on technique and ball control,first took shape in 1945 when an Englishman,Jack Reynolds,returned to coach Ajax and called for the immediate overhaul of the youth set-up. However,it wasn’t until the late 60’s and the mid 70’s that the idea,which surfaced as a movement,was later enforced as a philosophy in the socialist economies of the Netherlands and USSR.

Total football,as employed by Runben Michles (Ajax) and Valeriy Lobanovskyi (Dynamo Kiev),is essentially about space and how you control it – spread the game and use the width when in possession and close down the opposition thereby narrowing the field of play when dispossessed. The system (philosophy),which demanded peak levels of fitness and discipline and focused on ‘collective play’,was radical in the sense that it challenged the status quo in world football.

Until the early 60’s the Dutch had still not made the transition from the 2-3-5 formation,developed in the late 19th century,to the W-M phase,which had by then blanketed Europe. The Dutch were oblivious to the notion of rigid one-to-one marking and so when Michles arrived in Amsterdam to take over an Ajax side struggling for survival he decided that he “needed to change the team spirit…. change the team tactically.” The country was in the midst of its own cultural upheaval where the creative ‘white campaigns’ of Provos challenged structures and called for an end to pillarisation. Ajax came to be known for its attacking flair and in Johan Cryuff,Michels had with him the icon of the burgeoning Dutch youth movement and the leader of the team. The construction of the system however began in defence,with the signing of the experienced sweeper Velibor Vasović in 1966 to play alongside Hulshoff. The team started of with a 4-2-4 that later became a 4-3-3 or a 3-4-3. The high defensive line not only worked effectively as it caught opponents offside but it would allow Vasović to step up into midfield to give his team the extra man to press and close down.

Figure 1: Total football of the Dutch 1974 World Cup Squad

To press over 90 minutes called for superior levels of fitness and sports nutrition,which sometime meant the use of performance enhancers. In an interview to the magazine Vrij Nederland in 1973,Hulshoff spoke of the match against Real Madrid six years earlier “We took the pills in combination with what we always called chocolate sprinkles,” he said. “What it was I don’t know,but you felt as strong as iron and suffered no breathlessness. One disadvantage was you lost all saliva,so after thirty-five minutes of the game I was retching.” Such was the level of discipline required to maintain this system that when Michles left in 1971 it crumbled three years later; albeit after a trio of European Cups. Kovacs free spirit gave way to ‘total freedom’ as players took to drinking and a culture of unprofessionalism engulfed the club.

In the early 70’s,a similar realisaiton,to the one at Ajax,was taking shape 2,000 kilometers east in the Ukranian town of Kiev. Valeriy Lobanovskyi had just taken over as coach and inherited Victor Maslov’s squad,who according to Johnathan Wilson,the Eastern European football expert,“hunted in packs,closing down opponents.” Lobanovskyi who studied heating engineering at the Kyivan Polytechnic Institute,grew up in the Soviet age of science. Football according to him was about sub-systems,“the efficiency of the subsystem is greater than the sum of the efficiencies of the elements that comprise.” Coalitions and the connections among players took precedence over individual talent. Lobanovskyi,a firm believer in physical preparation and rehabilitation employed Zelentsov,a specialist in bioenergetics,as part of his team at Kiev. For Lobanovskyi,a player’s work ethic was paramount. According to him,“There is no such thing as a striker,midfielder or defender.  There are only footballers and they should be able to do everything on the pitch.”

At the time of Lobanovskyi’s appointment the systematic oppression of pro-Ukrainian intellectuals was carried out and campaigns against ‘Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism’ and ‘western influence’ regularly threatened educational and scientific institutions in Kiev. Ukrainian nationalism was fighting to exist and under Lobanovskyi’s guidance Dynamo established itself as the great football force of the USSR. In his first stint at Dynamo,Lobanovskyi defined soviet football winning: eight Soviet titles,six Soviet Cups,five Ukrainian titles,three Ukrainian Cups and two European Cup- Winners’ Cups. His success (system) was to be the genesis for the Soviet style.

It would be premature to link the advent of total football to the counterculture movements across Europe but impossible to discount the ideological similarities. Total football serves as a paradigm of the prevailing cultural fabric in socialist economies as it questioned an established order,placed an emphasis on the collective good and encouraged artistic freedom. Total football,as a philosophy,is not suited to every side and if you are an amateur Sunday football club on the wrong end of its fitness levels I certainly would not recommend the pressing game. That is unless of course you can manage to get hold of some chocolate sprinkles.

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