Total Football: A strategy? An ideology? An over-elaborate myth? Poetry in motion? Out-dated? Unnecessarily complicated? A failure? Revolutionary? The pinnacle of football? No other tactical setup in the history of the game has received as much scrutiny and coverage as Total Football.
In its essence, the system removes boundaries and rigidity and encourages expansive, entertaining football, but is dependent on intelligent, well-rounded and highly-skilled players to execute it. At its worst, the tactic is vague, impractical and unsuccessful. To those who question its merit, Total Football is romanticised by a generation of football supporters who were often somewhat ignorant of its tactical nuances.
Better authors than I have explored the philosophy and attempted to provide clarity on its structure, intricacies and success. Yet, what is broadly agreed upon is that Total Football, while influenced by others, was devised in the early 1970s by Ajax manager Rinus Michels, and expanded through his star man, Johan Cruyff. Under his reign, the Amsterdam club won four league titles between 1966 and 1970, the European Cup in 1971 and were lauded for their breathtaking style of play.
From this great Ajax squad was borne the much-fabled Dutch team of the 1974 and 1978 World Cups and is often credited as being the inspiration behind Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan teams of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Spain’s tiki-taka marvels and Pep Guardiola’s treble-winning Barcelona. Michels, Cruyff, Ajax and Total Football have, justifiably, become intertwined in the history of Dutch and world football. They have become revered to such an extent it now seems almost impossible to imagine how any side could have defeated Ajax during this era.
But they did. And while even the greatest sides can lose one-off cup games, Michel’s unstoppable Ajax band were thwarted – twice – over the course of an entire league season in both 1969 and 1971. Not only did Feyenoord overthrow their great rivals, but they also found a consistent way of counteracting Michel’s tactical set-up. It was a testament to their great Austrian coach Ernst Happel, a man considerably less famous or celebrated than his Amsterdam counterpart.
It was, after all, the Austrian who introduced the famous 4-3-3 shape into Dutch football, instructed his midfielders to look for space between the opposition lines of defence and midfield and encouraged the team’s attacking midfielder and striker to fluidly interchange position. Happel was also renowned for his belief in the need for players to be as physically strong and fit as possible, these traits were necessities for Total Football to succeed.
So it would be wholly wrong to remember that great Feyenoord team as Ajax’s poorer neighbours, especially when you consider the often-overlooked fact that the Netherlands squad at the 1974 World Cup contained more players from Feyenoord than Ajax. It was also erroneous to view Happel as the sole architect of Feyenoord’s acclaimed ‘dream team’: he only arrived at De Kuip after the club had won the 1969 Dutch title with Ben Peeters in the dugout. Peeters had previously been in charge of the club’s youth team before making the step up to the senior side in 1967, a surprise given Feyenoord’s track record of hiring foreign managers.
Yet Peeters took to the role instantaneously and in his first season guided the club to their highest points tally since the introduction of the national Dutch league in 1956. Despite this, Feyenoord still failed to win the title and finished second to an Ajax side who won 27 of their 34 league matches.
Peeters and his staff were not dismayed and rallied again the following season having strengthened with the additions of Theo Laseroms, Willem van Hanegem, and Henk Wery to an already formidable squad. This time around the team amassed 57 points during the 1968-69 campaign, even better than the previous season and good enough to secure the title. Ajax lacked the same ruthless consistency they had shown in the previous campaign and fell three points short of their rivals. Ultimately the Rotterdam club’s victory against Ajax in November proved decisive – a reversal would have seen the championship return to the Dutch capital for a fourth successive year.
Feyenoord also outsmarted their old foes in the third round of the Dutch Cup that season thanks to a double from Swedish striker Ove Kindvall, the scorer of 30 league goals for Feyenoord in that campaign. They went onto beat PSV Eindhoven 2-0 in the replayed final after drawing the first meeting, thus making Feyenoord’s 1969 team just the third side in Dutch history to win the domestic double.
In just two years Peeters had assembled the strongest team in the division, yet his success would ultimately also be his downfall. The club’s qualification for the European Cup meant the higher-ups at Feyenoord felt they needed a more experienced coach and subsequently dismissed their double-winning manager.
Peeters vacated his position with dignity, claiming: “It’s part of our profession. It has happened in pleasant consultation. You just have to see it as a business issue.” He returned to his role as a youth coach and would continue to develop the prestigious young talent the Feyenoord first-team had become so dependent on.
Whether the Rotterdammers had outlined Happel as their first choice is unclear, but after receiving a letter from the Austrian during the 1969 off-season, he became the only man for the job. Happel’s message to the Dutch champions was short and simple. “The future: Feyenoord? Kind regards, yours Ernst Happel,” he wrote. It was no surprise that Happel and Feyenoord gravitated towards each other. Then aged 43, Happel appeared to have taken ADO Den Haag as far as he could. Within three years he had transformed them from typically wrong-end-of-the-table loiterers into a team capable of a third-place finish in the Eredivisie.
In 1968 the former Austrian international guided ADO to a fourth consecutive top-four finish and defeated Ajax in the Dutch Cup final to ensure the trophy returned with him to The Hague. That proved to be Happel’s peak with the Storks. The following year his side dropped to sixth in the table and the club’s much-anticipated debut European run ended in just the second round after they were unceremoniously dumped out by FC Köln.
For Feyenoord, Happel represented the ideal match: a proven strategist who could get the most from his players, while playing exciting, offensive football. It also meant a return to Feyenoord’s policy of hiring foreign managers. Upon first arriving in Rotterdam, the Austrian correctly assessed that his new squad needed only a few subtle upgrades. His biggest addition was compatriot Franz Hasil from Schalke who brought some extra attacking flair to midfield. It would prove to be Happel’s masterstroke and within days of Hasil’s move, he began training the number 10 in how to rhythmically interchange positions with the striker, Kindvall.
While Happel’s preferred system of 4-3-3 was not yet commonplace in the Netherlands and his use of a number 10 was almost unheard of, it proved a constant nuisance for defensive players who faced the dilemma of following the man they were marking and allowing gaps to appear, or holding their position and allow Hasil and Kindvall to find pockets of space all over the pitch.
Feyenoord also added Theo van Duivenbode from Ajax and in doing so he became only the third player to move directly between the great rivals. Michels believed the defender lacked physicality, but Happel thought otherwise and brought him in as a natural replacement for ageing left-back Cor Veldhoen. Van Duivenbode would enjoy a sweet moment in the first De Klassieker of the season when he netted the winner against his former side.
Happel’s final change to the Feyenoord team was to refresh the goalkeeping position and so he dispensed with Eddy Pieters Graafland, who turned 36 that season. In his stead, Eddy Treijtel became the club’s new number one. This was a controversial act given that Graafland had been the club’s first-choice stopper for over a decade and had enjoyed a strong campaign in ’68/69. His replacement, Treijtel, also failed to live up to high standards his predecessor had set and could be flighty and erratic at times. While the young keeper showed promise in his maiden campaign as number one keeper, he lacked the consistency and handling of Graafland.
Despite this issue, Feyenoord began the 1969/70 campaign with a spring in their step. Although the feeling was that the double-winning squad had improved both on and off the pitch during the summer, there was disappointment ahead domestically.
Over the League campaign Feyenoord amassed a points tally of 55, ordinarily enough to win the title but only good enough this time for second place behind a rampant Ajax. The Rotterdammers lost only one game all season, yet it was the eleven draws from their 34 games that ultimately proved punishing for Happel’s men.
Ironically, it was Feyenoord’s irresistible attacking football that proved their undoing. Opponents, fearing a potential onslaught, dropped deeper against the champions and without space to exploit they often struggled to break down the opposition, especially away from home, where Feyenoord won just twice against teams in the top half of the table. Dutch Cup disappointment came with a shock elimination in the second round to Groningen, who were ultimately relegated from the Eredivisie. In truth however, Happel and his charges had set their sights on an altogether bigger prize that season – the European Cup.
The club had played previously in the continent’s elite competition but had only once before managed a sustained run in the tournament, reaching the semi-final stage in 1963. This time their campaign started by blowing away Icelandic side KR Reykjavik 16-2 on aggregate in the first round, to be rewarded with a tie against reigning champions AC Milan, who had so easily disposed of Ajax in the ’69 final just a few months earlier. Since the introduction of the European Cup, Dutch clubs had given the top sides from Spain, Italy, and England tough games, but had rarely triumphed against them over two legs.
Not surprising perhaps, as Dutch football had only turned professional in 1954 and many clubs still retained amateur and part-time players. In fact, Feyenoord themselves still had two part-time players in ’69/70 in Piet Romeijn and Guus Haak. While the Eredivisie had improved the standard of Dutch football, Milan’s 4-1 victory against Ajax had, in many senses, highlighted the gap that still existed between Dutch sides and Europe’s elite. Therefore, it was with trepidation that Feyenoord headed into the clash with Milan, and in reality, few fancied their chances.
After nine minutes at the San Siro prospects looked bleaker still for Happel’s men. Nestor Combin put the hosts ahead as Feyenoord were overrun in the early proceedings. Yet the Rotterdammers regrouped and by closing the space afforded to star man Gianni Rivera, managed to return home with just a single goal deficit.
Feyenoord had been forced to defend for long spells in Italy, but back at De Kuip, it was a different matter and Wim Jansen levelled the tie after just six minutes when Milan goalkeeper Fabio Cudicini misjudged the flight of his arched cross and it looped over his head and into the back of the net. The Rossoneri struggled to play in any cohesive manner, much in part to Feyenoord’s tireless running and chasing.
It took a moment of brilliance from the ever-elusive Coen Moulijn to decide the tie in Feyenoord’s favour. In the 82nd minute he picked up the ball, jinked past an opposition defender and picked out Van Hanegem who duly headed in the game’s winner at the back post. Feyenoord held on and incredibly, the champions were eliminated.
It was the lack of league wins that made the European run so essential when they returned to the competition in the spring. Feyenoord trailed Ajax in the table by a significant margin and after being handed a relatively kind draw in the quarter-finals against East German champions Vorwärts Berlin, some even suggested the club’s best chance of silverware that year came in Europe. This notion was only further strengthened after Feyenoord crashed out of the Dutch Cup in between the first and second leg against Vorwärts.
The quarter-final tie followed a similar pattern to the previous round with Feyenoord turning around a single goal deficit away from home with a 2-0 victory in Rotterdam. On this occasion it was a nervier affair with Happel’s side leaving it until the second half to score through Kindvall and Wery.
Joining Feyenoord in the last four were the formidable British pairing of Don Revie’s Leeds United and Jock Stein’s Celtic. The remaining side was Legia Warsaw who presented a considerably less daunting prospect, and Feyenoord was pleased to draw them. Playing away from home in the first leg once again, this time the Dutch champions returned with a goalless draw from their Poland trip. And it was normal service at De Kuip as the Rotterdammers eased past Legia in the return: Van Hanegem put the Dutch on their way after just three minutes and Hasil’s outrageous long-range volley settled proceedings.
With three weeks between the semi-final and final, Happel was forced to turn his attention back towards the Eredivisie as the second De Klassieker of the campaign approached. While the chances of Feyenoord winning the championship were slim, the game presented the Rotterdammers with the opportunity to reduce the arrears at the top of the league to just three points.
And with 20 minutes remaining at De Meer, Happel’s side led 3-1 and looked set to record a vital win. But two costly errors from Treijtel meant the game finished 3-3 and would be telling for both Feyenoord’s domestic and European campaigns. Title hopes were finished with Ajax five points clear with just six games to play.
The defeat in Amsterdam altered Happel mindset regarding his team selection ahead of the European Cup final in Milan. While the Austrian viewed Treijtel as the future, he worried the young stopper lacked the mental resolve for the biggest games, so took the bold move to drop him for the club’s final league game before the final, and for the European Cup Final itself. He was replaced with the experienced Graafland, who was so aghast initially that he rejected the opportunity and reportedly told his boss: “You have not seen me all season. I will not do it.”
It was Graafland’s wife who persuaded him to play and with the Dutch goalkeeping legend set to retire at the end of the season, this would mark his last professional game. Happel was a stern and ruthless manager who habitually put the needs of the team first, as was evident in Milan. He was was renowned for his coldness towards players too, and, always a man of few words, he reportedly said little to his side ahead of kick-off.
Standing in Feyenoord’s way were Celtic, with the Scottish champions overcoming Leeds in the ‘Battle of Britain’ to make it to the final. Celtic were an experienced European side and had even lifted the cup three years earlier, therefore few rated the Rotterdammers chances. Yet, Happel managed to instill a sense of calm and belief in his charges. “Happel taught us that we did not have to deal with any team,” captain Rinus Israel claimed some years later. “We did not have to be afraid of Celtic, then a superpower, and he could convey that in a good way.”
It has since been claimed Celtic approached the game a little arrogantly and Stein perpetrated this when he claimed before the match that Feyenoord lacked the ‘calibre’ of Leeds. “A quick goal and we should do it,” he said. “The one big danger to us is ourselves.” While assistant Sean Fallon did refer to their opponents as ‘first-rate team’ and stated they had no weaknesses, it appeared Stein’s words that stirred more with the Celtic players, some of whom admit to this day that they underestimated Feyenoord.
If they were confident before the game, their resolve quickly wilted when proceedings kicked off at the San Siro. The Dutchmen dominated possession through midfielders Hasil, Van Hanegem and Wim Jansen, and they were fitter and more organised than their counterparts. However, when the goal did come on an unseasonably wet Italian night in May, it was Celtic who found it, through Tommy Gemmell. The defender, who was also a scorer in the final against Inter Milan three years earlier, drilled past Graafland and gave the Bhoys early hope.
The lead lasted just two minutes, however, and Isreal headed home from a free-kick soon after. Feyenoord continued to dominate the ball in the centre of the park and Celtic’s two central midfielders were run ragged as the game progressed. Happel was a great believer in the training, in a time when many managers overlooked its necessity, but few watching that final could deny Feyenoord’s well-rehearsed and fluid tactics were the difference between the sides.
Hasil and Kindvall proved impossible for Celtic defenders to mark and Wery and Moulijn’s direct dribbling caused problems all evening for the opposition defenders. Off the ball too, Happel had ensured his side were well drilled and Celtic talisman Jimmy Johnstone was given no space or time on all the ball by van Duivenbode, while Moulijn worked doubly hard to ensure the opposition full-back, David Haye, could not supply Johnstone.
But for all their dominance, Feyenoord failed to find that decisive second goal. A string of outstanding stops from Celtic keeper Evan Williams prevented the Rotterdammers, as did the woodwork on two separate occasions, and the game finished 1-1. In extra-time Feyenoord failed to overawe Celtic to the same degree, and the game dwindled in the later periods, destined, it seemed, for penalties.
Yet, just minutes before the game’s climax Kindvall pounced. The Swede latched on to some patchy Celtic defending and slotted past Williams. Soon after the referee’s full-time whistle blew and Feyenoord were crowned as European champions.
It truly was a remarkable achievement. The Dutchmen had been outsiders before the tournament and were unfancied in most of their ties, certainly those against AC Milan and Celtic. In winning the tournament Feyenoord became just the seventh side to become continental champions and the first Dutch side to lift the trophy. In Stein’s eyes, there was only one reason his side had lost. “Celtic has not lost to Feyenoord. I have lost to Happel,” the manager said after the game.
At the heart of this victory and of this team was the attacking combination of Hasil and Kindvall. The Swede was small, quick and a relentlessly consistent scorer, netting an impressive 129 goals in 144 Eredivisie games during his time in Rotterdam. He was also well-regarded in his homeland where he guided the Swedish national team to the 1970 and 1974 World Cups.
Hasil’s pace, quick-thinking and intelligence were also vital components for Happel’s plan, and he had proven himself to be the final piece of the puzzle for the Feyenoord boss. Alongside Hasil, Jansen was superb and offered more defensive protection of the midfield trio. He enjoyed a 15-year career at De Kuip and would go onto manage the club. On the international stage he remains one of just a handful of players to have featured in two separate World Cup finals.
Van Hanegem was the last of Happel’s midfield apostles. He enjoyed a father-son relationship with the coach and would go on to earn 52 Dutch caps, including one in the 1974 World Cup final. Still considered one of the all-time Dutch greats, he earned the nickname of De Kromme for his running style and ability to curl the ball with the outside of his boot. Van Hanegem was a fantastic passer, a hard worker and strong tackler too.
On the wings were Henk Wery, a rapid dribbler and superb crosser, and Coen Moulijn who is rightly considered one of the club’s greatest ever players. Of his great team-mate, Jansen once claimed: “Coen was tremendous. I dare to say that in pure football skills he was as good as Johan Cruyff. Johan was a leader and would impact the whole team, whereas Coen was an individual player, but man oh man, was he good.”
The left winger could float past opposition defenders and was renowned for his ability to feign a pass and cut back inside. Moulijn played for Feyenoord between 1955-1972 and today there is a statue to honour the great man outside De Kuip. He sadly passed away in 2011 and his funeral parade began at the stadium before slowly snaking past thousands of mourners who lined the streets of Rotterdam to pay their respects.
While the Feyenoord ‘dream team’ is remembered for their attacking verve, they were also an organised defensive unit that conceded just 22 league goals that same season. At the heart of it was Israel. Known as ‘Iron Rinus’, he was Dutch Player of the Year in 1970 and club captain. He earned 47 Dutch caps and, like Jansen, would go on to manage the team in the future.
His defensive partner was Theo Laseroms, and while perhaps not as competent technically as Israel, he added extra steel to the backline. The full-backs Romeijn and Van Duivenbode were never considered among the world’s very best at the time, but the pair proved ever-reliable for Feyenoord and rarely was Happel concerned about opposition wingers.
The squad’s strength encouraged Happel in his thinking that there was no need for major additions ahead of the 1970/71 campaign, so his only purchases were Dick Schneider, Matthias Maiwald and Hans Posthumus, who were mainly squad players, along with Jan Boskamp, who had spent the previous season on loan at Holland Sport. Quickly Dutch football had developed from the shadows of other European nations and was now perhaps the best in the world. In 1970/71 the Eredivisie did, after all, contain Feyenoord, the reigning European champions, Ajax who would become the tournament’s new champions that season, PSV Eindhoven, who reached the semi-final of the Cup Winners’ Cup and FC Twente, who made it to the last eight of the Fairs Cup.
Yet, before the league campaign truly got up and running, Feyenoord had to deal with the Intercontinental Cup – a game between the winners of the European Cup and Copa Libertadores that carried much prestige at the time. Happel’s men were considered underdogs for the game against Estudiantes de La Plata who were playing in their third consecutive final.
The first game of the two-legged tie was held in Buenos Ares at La Bombonera. The visitors faced such hostility in Argentina that they were guarded by 200 army officers and no one was allowed to wander off unaccompanied. The Estudiantes players were also far from welcoming and rumours existed at the time of them smuggling sharpened objects on to the pitch. So intimidating was the atmosphere in the first leg, Happel would later refer to Estudiantes as a ‘gangster team’.
The team that started the Intercontinental Cup final was identical to that which defeated Celtic three months earlier, bar Treijtel in goal. And it was the replacement who fumbled again on the big stage and two moments of poor play saw the hosts race into a two-goal lead within 12 minutes. Feyenoord had too many big personalities to be intimidated and pulled one back midway through the first period, then equalised through Kindvall in the second.
If Feyenoord hoped the Argentinians would leave their brutality in South America, they were to ve left disappointed. The second leg played several weeks later was a tighter and nervier affair than the first, and after an hour it remained goalless. Happel responded by taking off Moulijn for the in-form Joop van Daele and the change brought an almost instantaneous reaction when, two minutes later, the winger rifled home past a helpless Oscar Pezzano from outside the area.
There were inevitable consequences however, as straight from kick-off Estudiantes’ Oscar Malbernat snatched Van Daele’s glasses, threw them to Carlos Pachame and he smashed them to pieces. Their justification was that players in Argentina were not permitted to wear spectacles during games and they viewed it as cheating. Regardless, Van Daele was forced to finish the match without them, despite unsuccessful efforts from the sidelines to glue the glasses back together. Thankfully it did not matter, and Feyenoord held on comfortably to earn the title of ‘world champions’, and Van Daele’s broken glasses are still on display in the club museum.
The Rotterdammers had little time to celebrate as they were soon back in continental action. A seemingly gentle opening round defence of their European Cup against the little-known UTA Arad was not the easy passage Feyenoord thought it might be, the Romanians causing a huge upset and eliminating the European champions.
Once the European disappointment had subsided, Feyenoord’s league form was superb and they maintained a three-point gap over Ajax from the start of the season through to mid-November. The title race was to twist and turn throughout the campaign until the penultimate matchday of the season when Feyenoord travelled to Amsterdam with both sides level on 53 points.
It was an encounter that would surely decide the title. The match was the first Eredivisie clash broadcast live in the Netherlands and was switched to a Thursday night because of Ajax’s involvement in the European Cup final. Earlier in the campaign the sides had drawn 1-1 and Ajax had eliminated Feyenoord from the Dutch Cup in April. Both clubs approached this game in tremendous form having won eight straight league games.
Truly a game for the ages, Happel’s Feyenoord against Michels’ Ajax for what it turned out would be the last time. The hosts took an early advantage through Piet Keizer, but it was the second-half comeback from Feyenoord that decided where the title would reside. In a blood-and-thunder tie of yesteryear, Kindvall netted his 24th league goal of the campaign to put the Rotterdammers on level terms before Schneider scored a late brace. Feyenoord wrapped up the title the following week and ensured it was another season to remember for the club’s fabled ‘dream team’.
This would prove, to an extent, to be the end of the road for Happel and his all-conquering side. The Austrian would spend two further years in Rotterdam without lifting another trophy. Happel’s Achilles heel at Feyenoord was ultimately his inability to freshen and rebuild that European Cup-winning side. Kindvall left in 1972 and Laseroms and Moulijn followed suit the next season. Happel himself departed in 1973 and went on to manage Sevilla and then Club Brugge before reuniting with some old friends five years later as manager of the Netherlands.
He led the Oranje to the 1978 World Cup final which they lost to Argentina. Happel was to add another European Cup to his medal haul 12 years later after that special night in Milan, leading another surprise outfit in Hamburg to glory. He remains one of only five coaches to win Europe’s top prize with two different clubs. Under the guidance of Happe’s successor Wiel Coerver, Feyenoord rediscovered the winning habit with a league title and UEFA Cup win in 1974 which proved to be the last hurrah for the remaining band of the ‘dream team’. Feyenoord would win just a single trophy in the next decade.
In large part eclipsed by the enormity of what Ajax achieved around the same era, Feyenoord remains a less distinguished name outside the Netherlands to football fans. However its legacy should never be overlooked. Happel’s revolutionary tactical approach influenced Total Football, Michels and Dutch football as a whole and still provides the basis of popular formations and tactical systems today. It was also in that period when De Klassieker became the institution in the Netherlands it remains today. While the rivalry existed before, the contests between perhaps, only briefly, the two greatest sides in world football only intensified an already ferocious derby.