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From total football to total nightmare

Few footballing powers have fallen as far as the Dutch. NEIL FREDRIK JENSEN asks if there is any way out of the downward spiral

For all the pessimism surrounding English football and the gaping void that exists between its current state and its golden era of global domination in 1966, there are some positives.

The national team has at least qualified for the next World Cup; England is home to a much-admired and widely-followed domestic competition; and its best club sides can usually expect, at least in a good year, to be among the challengers in the Champions League.

For the Dutch, right now, there are no such consolations. The country which gave us Total Football is having a total nightmare.

The national team has just failed in its campaign to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, the second consecutive major tournament that they have missed. At club level, things are not much brighter. The Eredivisie trails the so-called ‘big five’ leagues while Dutch giants like Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV Eindhoven struggle to make a sustained impact in European competitions. For Dutch football, these doldrums are a world away from the distant glory of the 1970s.

Its supporters – and it has many, not just in the Netherlands – can but hope that when a revival in fortunes does come, it is as swift and sudden as the last time the Dutch game burst onto the international scene.

Football in the Netherlands was not long out of its amateur days when it gave warning that a new power was emerging. That warning came on a foggy night Amsterdam in December 1966, with a 5-1 thrashing by Ajax (with a 19-year-old Johan Cruyff in the side) of Liverpool in the European Cup.

Bill Shankly, the Liverpool manager, blamed the conditions (it was very foggy, with visibility down to 50 yards; the match became known as De Mistwedstrijd, ‘the Fog Match’) and remained bullish.

Cruyff and his team mates silenced the Kop in the second leg, drawing 2-2. In his posthumously-published book, Cruyff said: ‘In a technical sense, the English champions were blown away.’

It was here, at Ajax, that the seeds of totaalvoetbal (Total Football) were being sown, cultivated by coach Rinus Michels. Cruyff was absolutely pivotal to this. Fielded as a centre forward, he was encouraged to roam freely around the pitch, using technical ability and intelligence to exploit the weaknesses and create chances. He became the embodiment of the concept, but not its only practitioner. Total Football also relied on similar versatility from teammates – overlapping full backs and players moving around, filling-in wherever they were needed. The system created a set of footballers who were adaptable, telepathic and, above all, intelligent.

Other sides, used to their football being more regimented, struggled to cope with this new approach. Ajax, under Michels, won the Dutch league title four times between 1965-66 and 1970-71. In 1968-69, they reached their first European Cup final. But – in what would become something of a frustrating trait in Dutch football – the team froze on the big occasion and were handed a 4-1 thrashing by AC Milan.

This revolutionary football came at a time of great social change in the Netherlands. This was true of most European countries in the late 1960s, but in Amsterdam the hippy age persisted for longer than in most of the Continent’s major cities (indeed, in some respects, it lingers still). This gave Ajax, along with the club’s alluring name and distinctive kit, a sense of cool that few other sides could claim. Cruyff was the epitome of this. For some, he was as important to the Dutch as John Lennon was to the British.

While Amsterdam might have been the happening city, in footballing terms less fashionable Rotterdam was fast catching up. Indeed, in 1968-69, Feyenoord (taking its name from the Rotterdam district in which it was founded) took Ajax’s Eredivisie crown, and then beat them in the race to become the first Dutch champions of Europe, beating Celtic 2-1, in 1970. Coached by Ernst Happel, an Austrian, the team employed a tougher, less fluent style than Ajax.

The following year, the Amsterdam side confirmed the dawning of a Dutch era, winning the first of three consecutive European Cups (defeating Panathinaikos in 1971, Internazionale in 1972 and Juventus in 1973).

The side’s supremacy had survived the departure of Michels, who had left for Barcelona after the first triumph, to be replaced by Stefan Kovacs, a Czech. But it would not outlast Cruyff’s career in Amsterdam. Just after the 1973 triumph, he was on his way out of Ajax, wounded by his team-mates’ decision to appoint a new captain. A few months later, Ajax were knocked out of the European Cup by CSKA Sofia, the sort of team they would have comfortably beaten at their peak.

Cruyff moved to Barcelona for a huge fee and was in majestic form in the 1974 World Cup, captaining the Michels-led Dutch to the final, a game they lost 2-1 to hosts West Germany. Cruyff would never play in another World Cup finals as he decided Argentina 1978 was not for him, but the team reached another final, losing again to the home nation. Their manager for that tournament was Happel, the more functional, former manager of Feyenoord, and although there were moments of sublime skill, Total Football had effectively had its moment. The Dutch team of 1978 was more function than form.

Deployed to its full extent, the concept of Total Football had really lasted less than a decade and has never been successfully replicated. Not everyone was convinced anyway. For Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer, Cruyff’s arch-rival in 1974, it owed more to the element of surprise than any alchemy. But Total Football’s protagonists were highly sought-after. Cruyff was not the only player who moved on from the Netherlands – Ruud Krol, Johan Neeskens and Johnny Rep were all coveted by other clubs as the Dutch earned a reputation for being the most mobile of footballers.

After 1978, Dutch football went into something of a decline, but a decade later players like Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten, Ronald Koeman and Frank Rijkaard buried the ghost of 1974 by winning the European Championship in the Olympic Stadium in Munich. Michels – ‘the grand old man of the training camp’, according to Van Basten – was back and at last rewarded for his commitment to a dynamic philosophy.

By now, domestic Dutch football was being dominated by PSV Eindhoven, who won the Eredivisie six times between 1985-86 and 1991-92. Backed by the Philips Corporation, PSV won the 1988 European Cup with Guus Hiddink as their coach. Cruyff, meanwhile, returned to Barcelona as coach and in 1992 drove them to their first-ever success in the competition.

Cruyff gave the likes of Pep Guardiola their chance at Barca, but the biggest influence on the club by the Dutch legend was his proposal to club president, Josep Nunez that a youth academy be established at La Mesia, an old Catalan farmhouse. The academy became one of the best production lines for footballing talent in the world. Cruyff is also credited as being the godfather of the famed tiki-taka style that served Spain and Barcelona so well in the period between 2008 and 2015.

Ajax, whom Cruyff managed between 1985 and 1988, had a second wind in the 1990s, winning the UEFA Champions League in 1995, while the national team experienced some success in reaching the 2010 World Cup final with a team that was the antithesis of the 1974 line-up.

The disquieting signs of deep decline were evident at Euro 2012, though, where they lost all three of their group games. They fared better at the 2014 World Cup, especially in a 5-1 defeat of holders Spain, but apart from that game, they never really convinced on their way to third place. The absence of the three-time World Cup finalists from Euro 2016 and now next summer’s World Cup confirms the malaise.

On the club front, Feyenoord’s Eredivisie title win in 2017 was their first since the late 1990s, but their performance so far in the UEFA Champions League suggests they are far from being competitive at that level. Ajax, runners-up to Feyenoord, went out in the qualifying rounds, while PSV and Utrecht exited the Europa League early on, leaving only Vitesse to carry the Dutch flag in the competition. It’s a long way from the days when Dutch clubs showed others how the game should be played.

To grow the game from the grass roots – as the Dutch did the first time around – will be a challenge, since the sport in the Netherlands is not so awash with cash as in other countries. The broadcasting rights arrangement for the Eredivisie, for instance, is modest compared with other big leagues. The current deal is a 12-year agreement of 960 million euros up to 2024-25.

And with football becoming truly global, there is a correlation between the size of an economy and the success potential of a nation’s football. In order for Dutch clubs to become more competitive, they may have to ‘globalise’ their brands in order to grow revenues. As it stands, the financial status of Dutch football makes it difficult to see a genuine revival. By today’s standards, clubs like Stoke City and Leicester City are considered to be ‘bigger’ than Ajax and Feyenoord.

Yet for those with long memories, the Dutch sides remain evocative, mighty names. And the clubs’ best hopes may remain in attracting overseas investors, such as those benefitting English clubs, or others like Paris St-Germain. (An interesting comparison, given the Parisians do not play in the most eye-catching of leagues and have nothing like the illustrious history of Ajax.)

Such distant hopes are a sorry reflection of the current state of the Dutch game. The Netherlands has produced more different European champions than Spain and France, and as many as Germany and Italy, and has become a byword for a style of attractive, attacking football. That’s not bad going for a country of 17 million people. But it will be little comfort when Dutch football fans are watching next summer’s World Cup as neutrals.

Neil Jensen is a freelance business and football writer based in the UK. He writes on football business, culture and history as well as the financial technology industry. He is editor of and CEO of creative agency Isherwood Editorial

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