Friday, March 04, 2005

RIP Rinus Michels

The greatest football coach of all time passed away yesterday. Rinus Michels was responsible for some of the most exciting and talented football teams of all time - most notably the Ajax team of the late sixties and early seventies, and then the 1974 Dutch World Cup team. Yet he also led the Dutch to their one major trophy - the 1988 European Championships - and is highly regarded for being the creator of "Total Football".

Of course he was lucky to work with such outrageously talented players as Johann Cruyff, Johnny Rep, and Johan Neeskens. But all truly great teams have a core of truly great players; individual skills added up do not make a team of greats. Indeed, there have been some rather average teams who have been able to overachieve due to well-designed tactics, self-belief, and a genuine team ethic, where the sum of the whole was greater than that of the constituent parts. Cliched, but true.

What made the Ajax and Dutch teams of the 70s so special was that they were truly able to combine some of the most talented players ever to grace a football field with a system that allowed them to utilise their talents to the full. I don't always agree with the Guardian, but it was right today when it described players like Cruyff as artists. Total Football was an art form - and in many ways, Rinus Michels was the chief painter.

It is very easy to dismiss sport by reducing it to the absurd. Yes, football is twenty-two men kicking a bit of pigskin about. But if that was all there was to it, then it would have no means through which to captivate millions of people and to be so utterly enthralling. For part of the complexity of football lies in its simplicity. The basics of the game are easily understood, but to beat the best teams you have to display a level of tactical ingenuity of a different kind. All too often this rests with the most defensive sides - for a case in point, look at the continued success of the German national side (although I would argue their football style is much misunderstood).

Michels succeeded because he was able to combine being a disciplinarian with allowing the players their freedom of expression. His ideas were challenged by his sides - being Dutch, they were never going to accept anything without question. Yet Michels had the strength of character to lay down the framework within which the many talents of his team could function. There is something intoxicating about the idea of Total Football which leaves me enthralled despite not being around at the time it was played. Let us hope that will be Rinus Michel's legacy for many years to come.