Football is an art more central to our culture than anything the Arts Council deigns to recognise
Germaine Greer The Independent 28.06.96
Football is not an art, but there is an art to playing good football.
Ruud Krol (Ajax 1968–1980)
If I wanted to make you understand I would have explained it better.
Johann Cruyff (Ajax 1964–1973)
I've pretty much kept football out of Burning Aquarium up until now, but it is, after all, a World Cup year, and I've just read two very interesting books on the game...
Back in November there was a post on Ian Bone's blog that posed some questions about the concept of socialist football.
The Bonemeister settled on the Golden Squad of Hungary in the 1950's as being the likely epitome of this concept.
They were, as every schoolboy knows, managed by Gusztáv Sebes, who advocated what he referred to as socialist football. In the 1920's Sebes had worked as a trade union organiser in both Budapest and later Paris, where he was employed as a fitter for four years with Renault, who , during that decade also employed the exiled Nestor Makhno and Buenaventura Durruti (now, you couldn't make that up...).
As I commented at the time: Strange dressing room dynamics I’m sure- coach Sebes a commited socialist, centre back Lorant a rehabilitated political prisoner and keeper Grosics an SS veteran!
Hungary's succes lay in their fluidity. Other teams still relied on very regimented approaches, and when the Hungarians digressed from this rigid positional play nobody knew what to do about it. A similar phenomenon had been seen in the Dynamo Moscow team that toured Britain in 1945- organised disorder. In the fascinating Inverting The Pyramid-the History of Football Tactics Jonathan Wilson looks at the major tactical innovations that serve as milestones in the history of the game. These broadly involve a move towards more cohesive teamwork as opposed to individual endeavour and the need for greater flexibility and appreciation of the value of space. Wilson writes at length about the great Soviet tacticians Maslov and Lobanovski.
Lobanovski in particular viewed a game of football as a system in which the individual had clearly measurable targets to meet. He applied mathematical principles to the game- he said that a game was a system of 22 elements (the players), two sub systems of eleven elements (the teams) moving within a defined area (the pitch)and subject to a series of restrictions (the rules). If one system were stronger, it would win- simple.
It was Wilson's analysis of the Ajax teams of Michels and Kovacs that led me to read the second book, Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football by David Winner. Winner looks at the ways in which the Dutch game reflects the national psyche. He draws parallels between football, politics, art, architecture and town and country planning. The Ajax teams that dominated Europe in the early 1970's were, he says, close to being workers co operatives . The development of Total Football in The Netherlands is considered in the context of its being a reflection of the cultural revolution (inspired by The Provos) that produced an increasingly liberal and egalitarian society. Dutch society has a strong tradition of co operation, their earliest political systems evolved along these lines, and Winner stats that this is still evident in the society of the modern Netherlands. Similarly these great teams relied on those principles. Teamwork, understanding each others' roles, being able to step into the place of the next man. Indeed, once Rinus Michels had instilled the ideals of his system into the core of players, his successor, Kovacs, seems to have been content to allow them an unparalleled degree of autonomy . There was no place for reliance on dazzling individualism (although several of Ajax's players would have been capable of this) nor for strong but clumsy defenders. The system was everything, and devotion to the system was the player's greatest responsibility. A testament to this can be seen in the fact that under Michels The Netherlands reached the final of the 1974 World Cup with two central defenders who prior to the tournament had never played in those positions at international level.
Interestingly the Netherlands, like Hungary in the 1954, failed to win the World Cup despite their dominance (in fact, twice in a row. Winner also has theories of how Dutch nature is better suited to this ultimate failure rather than success ). When they did finally win their only major title, the UEFA European Championship in 1988 (with Michels as coach) it was at the expense of the Soviet Union, who were coached by Lobanovski.