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Ajax 1973

Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy - British Council
 This article was generously provided to ClubFootball by the British Council, which operates in China as the Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy.


Thirty years after the Dutch invented 'total football' Ben Lyttleton examines the influence of Holland's flat landscape on this groundbreaking new footballing philosophy.
If you ask a Dutchman to draw a horizon, he will draw a straight line. If you ask an Englishman from Yorkshire or an Italian from Tuscany for the same thing, the drawing will have bumps and hills.
Holland's flatness has affected its art (post-modern sculptor Joroen Henneman calls the work of Vermeer "roomy") photography, (snapper Hans van der Meer says "every damned thing is straight") and architecture (Amsterdam's Schipol Airport was one of the first to include everything under one flat roof).
The landscape also determined the way the Ajax side of the 1970s played football.
Space was always a precious commodity for a small country with a population of 15 million, and Ajax defender Barry Hulshoff explained how the team that won the European Cup in 1971, 1972 and 1973 worked it to their advantage. "We discussed space the whole time. Johan Cruyff always talked about where people should run and where they should stand, and when they should not move."
The constant switching of positions that became known as Total Football only came about because of this spatial awareness. "It was about making space, coming into space, and organising space - like architecture on the football pitch," said Hulshoff.
The system developed organically and collaboratively: it was not down to coach Rinus Michels, his successor Stefan Kovacs or Cruyff alone.
And yet it was Cruyff, who was only 17 when he broke into the Ajax side, who oversaw proceedings on the pitch. In his book Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football, David Winner explains that Cruyff saw space in the Dutch way:
"He is admired for his innate understanding of the geometry and order on the pitch." Cruyff, who once criticised a player's technique while looking away from the pitch by claiming that the sound was wrong, has been called 'Pythagoras in boots'.
Cruyff was the first player in that era to think so creatively about the use of space. Henneman the sculptor said: "In the time of Cruyff, suddenly football was not about kicking each other's legs any more. There was something spiritual going on, which was perhaps to do with the sense of beauty that goes with the football in Holland. Cruyff saw football as a total movement of the whole field, not as individual actions in one part of it. Cruyff would have been satisfied with a pitch two kilometres long with beautiful waves of abstract movement going up and down."
Cruyff summed up his philosophy: "Simple football is the most beautiful. But playing simple football is the hardest thing."

By Ben Lyttleton, August 2003

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