The Day Total Football Died: With David Winner, author of Brilliant Orange

You’ve heard the legends about Total Football. But did you know what killed it? We talk to David Winner about the assassination of a football philosophy.The Day Total Football Died: With David Winner, author of Brilliant Orange

Somewhere in the south of Maine and north of 1974, an everyday-dog-day teaching job pushed a bright 26-year-old into alcoholism, like teaching jobs often do. His wife Tabitha picked out a manuscript he was working on from the trash and positively badgered him, like wilful wives do, to send it to the publishers. ‘Carrie’ was published later that spring, and the genre of horror gripped the world anew.

Inflation spiralled out of control reaching 17.2% in the UK, and in response to the global energy crisis, Daylight Saving commenced nearly 4 months in advance in the US. 20,000 died from smallpox in India, and in an ingenious act of policy, the government detonated their first nuclear device to boost morale.

In Germany, Joao Havelange, the man who would forever change the game into a mutant cash-cow, was being elected FIFA president behind the scenes. On the foreground, the 10th World Cup went on, undaunted.

The 1974 World Cup was the tipping point in the history of the tournament, perhaps of all global sport. – David Goldblatt

But, everything was going to be alright. The Netherlands, encapsulating youth and optimism, were going to win the World Cup and set everything right. They had to, didn’t they?

The Netherlands were experiencing a cultural, architectural and social revolution in the 1970s, and at the centre of that was the concept of space, or, more accurately, the lack of it. Inundated by the North Sea, the Netherlands was a nation that grew up in a lack of space. And a dearth of something that’s usually taken for granted inspired a sort of low-key multidimensional reverence in every conceivable facet of Dutch life.

Minimalism and abstractness were at the forefront of everyday thought. The architectural concepts of Michel de Klerk, the precision in depth-perception of Vermeer, and the reductionist nature of Mondrian’s art was unknowingly imbibed by Dutch footballers. While the above-mentioned used canvases and charts, Johan Cruyff and Co. used the fields of De Meer, Amsterdam, as their blueprint for Total Football.

When attacking, the Total Football system sought to expand space on the pitch, while, more tellingly, when defending, it sought to compress it. The tenets of the Total Football system were held up by positional flexibility, where the space the player finds himself in dictates his role and not the number on the back of his shirt. This required a high capacity for spatial understanding, technical ability, chemistry, individual all-round skill, and the gift of timing.

“I received the ball from a short-free kick, I looked up and there were seven Dutch players running at me. It was unnerving.”

– Perfumo, veteran Argentine defender speaking to Hugh McIlvanney, after the 4-0 group match defeat to the Netherlands.

To better understand this organised disorganisation, think of it like a jazz band making free-jam geometry with the ball, if you will. Overlapping, interceding, crests and troughs, forming patterns with movement. Johan Cruyff, aptly named the conductor of this band by coach Rinus Michels, and Pythagoras in Boots by David Miller, saw sheet music behind his eyes.

But Total Football, like Duke Ellington and Jazz, died in 1974. Every dynasty’s downfall is accompanied by a myth. The Netherlands’ began bizarrely with a pool party at a lakeside hotel and an exclusive from German tabloid Bild.

The news of an alleged ‘naked party’ at the Dutch team’s lakeside hotel in Hiltrup-Münster with anonymous German girls and faceless Dutch players appeared in a minor news item in the nation’s most circulated newspaper days before the final. Michels called it waging psychological warfare, undermining morale and worrying their wives. Some called it exaggeration, others in the team called it lies. No one’s account is consistent, and no one by their own admission was a participant. It must have been someone else.

Football Paradise asks David Winner, the author of Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football, one of the best football culture writers of our times, to shed some light on the events that led up to the Day Total Football Died and on the day itself.

So, has he come upon new evidence since the publication of his book in 2000?

“The German edition of Brilliant Orange came out eight years after the first publication – I changed that chapter a bit to reflect new information.

“In 2004, the Dutch journalist Auke Kok published a book with the ironic title 1974: We Were the Best, debunking Dutch myths about that game. He showed, for example, that the swimming pool story was accurate and in fact understated the degree to which the Dutch were living loosely.”

A journalist from Rio complained in El Grafico earlier that month, how the Brazilian team, champions of the world, were being treated like children, locked up in camps away from their women and Cachaça for four months before the World Cup. He wrote praise for Michels and the handling of his players’ as mature adults capable of making their own decisions. According to his despatch, it was a sign that football was finally a grown man’s game. Little did he know.

“They were living like rock stars and there were girls, there was drinking, and Michels (their manager) even popped over to Spain for the Spanish Cup final during the tournament. Things like these, extraordinary things that we didn’t know at the time.”

An assistant coach, for example, according to Hugh McIlvanney, was sent home for hurling wine bottles at the wall behind the bar counter at the Hotel Wald. But why were they so complacent?

Up until the final, the Dutch were politely shrugging their way through the competition, scoring fourteen goals and conceding one (which was, incidentally, an own goal by Ruud Krol, made perhaps to make things a little more interesting).

A bow here – 4-0 against Argentina – a curtsy there – 4-1 vs Bulgaria  – a flourish at the end – 2-0 vs a bruising Brazil. The widespread consensus was that the flourish came a game too early.

“Basically, the Dutch after the final second-round group game that was effectively the semi-final against World Cup holders Brazil, relaxed, and their discipline went – they thought they had already won the final. Having beaten Brazil, they thought that was it, they were the only team they feared.”

Rinus Michels lied about the incident not happening. Embarrassed by the discovery and in an attempt to save face he went on an offensive against the German media (who were, in truth, warm and accommodating), refusing to speak Deutsch at press conferences. The Dutch media, naturally, went along with Michels’s version of things. Embittered, the usually unaffected grace and warmth the Dutch wore like robes slid off their sharp shoulders. They were riled.

On July 7, 1974, under the ratatatatat of patrol helicopters and far inside the outside perimeters of gruffy police rottweilers, referee Jack Taylor blew his whistle for kick-off in the Olympic Stadium.

The team that thrilled neutrals into fairweather fandom with their attacking play, which was both spirited and surgically precise, gave way to disdain.

The West Germans were European Champions. Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Müller and Sepp Maier were hardly the Three Stooges. But that didn’t stop the Germans feeling grossly outclassed in the presence of a truly once-in-a-lifetime team.

Winger Bernd Holzenbein recalled: ‘In the tunnel, we planned to look them in the eye, to show we were as big as they were. They had the feeling they were invincible – you could see it in their eyes. Their attitude to us was, “How many goals do you want to lose by today, boys?” While we waited to go on to the pitch, I tried to look them in the eye, but I couldn’t do it. They made us feel small.’

– An excerpt from Brilliant Orange.

The West German team were starstruck in the tunnel and were dazed to the extent that they didn’t snap out of it until the Netherlands already scored their first goal through a penalty won by Johan Cruyff, tripped up by an all-limbs Uli Hoeness.

The first time West Germany touched the ball was when the goalkeeper, Sepp Maier picked the ball out of his own net. It was Johan Neeskens who put the penalty away.

“My view on the 1974 final hasn’t fundamentally changed, but the details are quite damning. Yeah, the Netherlands were arrogant, they relaxed too soon and then they took the lead in the first minute and they thought, well, this is easy. They started showing off, making fun of the Germans.”

There was a basis for the arrogance, however. A large part of both the teams consisted of Ajax and Bayern Munich players. David Winner explains:

“Because Ajax played Bayern Munich in the European Cup the year before and thrashed them 4-0, they thought the game was over even before it began.”

“We wanted to make fun of the Germans. We may have not consciously thought about it but we did it. We kept passing the ball around, passing the ball around. We forgot to score the second goal.”

– Johnny Rep. An excerpt from Brilliant Orange.

“The West Germans,” adds David Winner, “were quite good themselves.”

“There was also an edition of ‘Hard gras‘ magazine, published in both Dutch and German, titled ‘1974: They Were Better‘, further demolishing Dutch myths and pointing out that the team had prepared badly for the final and the Germans earned the win fairly.”

While some of the Dutch players, notably midfielder Wim van Hanegem, were distracted by thoughts of the Second World War, the European Champions were more focused.

Holed in their regimental, rural training camp of Malente, devoid of drinks or dames, the group plotted singularly and collectively to dismantle the Dutch dream.  

“The Germans prepared much better, they trained methodically – they had Gunter Netzer impersonating Cruyff for practice games where defender Berti Vogts [affectionately called ‘Der Terrier’], perfected his marking of Cruyff – which in the final was quite effective. Which begs the question as to why Germany had a player who was almost as good as Cruyff and could impersonate him stylistically; why didn’t they play him in the final? But that’s a different story.”

The Dutch were ponying around with the ball with an arrogant trot in their motions and a dismissive edge to their passes. The Germans regrouped and fell back on hours of preparation.

Sepp Maier’s interventions were as final as death. Franz Beckenbauer took on the role of the orchestrator and baited Cruyff to come even deeper than he was to retrieve the ball. Up on the opposite end, Gerd Müller assassinated Total Football.

For West Germany, it was a case of repeating old habits. It was the heavenly Hungarians like Nándor Hidegkuti and Ferenc Puskás, in the 1954 World Cup final, who were ambushed by the German talent for the anticlimax. The team of Cruyff, Wim van Hanegem, Neeskens, Krol were about to face a familiar fate.

The Netherlands were 1-0 up in the World Cup final vs rivals Germany – it was supposed to have been the epiphany of the sixties. A coronation of all that is creative, positive and youthful. Instead, they fell to the will of a team who had an even better timing than their own.

Maoist Paul Breitner scored from a penalty in the 25th minute, and Gerd Müller scored an impossible goal – an act of contortion and Houdini-brand of escapology in the Dutch box – in the 43rd minute.

“By the time the Netherlands got their heads back together for the second-half, it was already too late.”

Total football was pronounced fatally wounded.

“It’s still the defining moment – any conversation about Dutch football will eventually get back to 1974. An awful lot of things were refracted through that lens of that game and our view of that changes. Including mine. I still get very unhappy if I happen to see the clip of Gerd Müller making his turn, and scoring, or Hölzenbein going down for the penalty.”

Which wasn’t a penalty?

“Well…It could be. And technically, the foul on Cruyff for the Dutch penalty for the first goal was just outside the box. Auke Kok makes the point that if the referee had perfect vision, covered the angles and had a lot of time to think about it; he could have easily given the two penalty decisions the other way. It’s not an outrage that Jack Taylor gave the penalties. For the German one, the defender goes lunging in, it’s not a good tackle and Holzenbein makes the most of it.

“Arrie Haan leaves the gap and Wim Jansen comes rushing over to cover with a clumsy challenge. And then there’s the third goal of the Germans,  which nobody ever talked about. Muller scored again in the second half and it was wrongly disallowed for offside.  So, it wasn’t a footballing injustice, it was a self-inflicted wound.  But that doesn’t make it any less tragic – in fact, it makes it more so. It’s like you nearly reach the summit and then fall off the mountain. It’s still very upsetting that they did that to themselves.”

A heavy pall of pragmatism fell on the symbolic aspiration and optimism of the nation and the age, an extension of which was the Dutch national team. The show was over. Grown men wept. The final carried with it a cultural significance far beyond the realms of football.  

The final felt like a symbolic re-enactment of history.  In pure football terms, it was as big a shock for the Netherlands as the ‘Maracanazo’ was for Brazil. The difference is that there was no outcry, only susurrations and rumour.

The loss brought to the surface a trauma lurking in the collective Dutch consciousness, of unresolved feelings about the Second World War: like creaking floorboards in a dark, dusty attic, a creature of implied horror out of Stephen King’s worst nightmares/best dreams.


Srijandeep Das

Srijandeep is Football Paradise's number 8. The all-action, box-to-box midfielder of football writers. He's a Sports essayist, Subkultur journalist, Electronic producer, Digital artist, Stand-up comedian. He's also (justifiably) full of himself.