Parking The Coach: Rinus Michels
Very few figures from the history of association football are better remembered for something they created than for something they won. Rarer yet are people like Rinus Michels: remembered for their philosophical and aesthetic contribution despite what they won. Michels won leagues in two countries, cups in three, two European trophies and at the 1988 UEFA European Championship finals, the only major title in the history of the Dutch national side. They were a whisker away from winning the World Cup, too, only to fall flat at the final hurdle. For all this, Rinus Michels’ legacy will forever be as the architect of a system which has become a byword for fluency and excellence, an ideal frequently striven for but seldom achieved: Total Football.
Total Football is frequently misunderstood and often misrepresented. It is not a tactical system in the conventional meaning of the term, instead it is a framework of ideas. There is no shortcut and no quick fix. There is no checkbox to replicate the system on Football Manager or FIFA: no substitute for hard work, discipline and years of meticulous preparation. It is smelly, sweaty and difficult work with a prevailing odour of Deep Heat and industrial strength coffee. In other words, the reality of Total Football is about as detached from the glamour of the World Cup final as it is possible for football to be. Yet when it works, it is as transformative and magical as high art, something that no amount of silverware could ever replace. This is the story of the visionary who created something more enriching than trophies.
Marinus Michels was born in Amsterdam on 9th February 1928. It was Olympic year and Michels would spend his childhood growing up in the Olimpiaweg, a housing development in the shadow of the stadium built for that summer’s sporting programme in the Gemeente area of the city. Michels’ early passion for football was given a boost when in February 1937 he was given a pair of football boots and an Ajax kit for his ninth birthday. By 1940, Michels was a junior member of the Ajax team thanks to Joop Köhler, a family friend who was a commissioner at the club.
However, Michels’ footballing development would be significantly stymied by world events: Germany invaded the Netherlands on 10th May 1940 and the country would remain officially occupied until 5th May 1945, three days before the formal end of hostilities in Europe. In the summer and autumn of 1944, with the Allies having finally made the breakthrough of the D-Day landings in France, the Dutch briefly allowed themselves a dizzy spell of premature celebration known as Mad Tuesday. However, the Allied attempt at the liberation of the low countries, Operation Market Garden, was an unmitigated disaster. British and American paratroopers were unable to capture the bridge at Nijmegen and much of the north of the country would remain in Axis hands until the Rhine crossings the following spring. With the Netherlands in turmoil, a freakishly harsh winter led to a famine that saw 30,000 Dutch citizens die of starvation. It was hardly the best preparation for a 16-year old trainee footballer to make his mark on the game.
Nevertheless, Michels’ performances were sufficient to alert French club Lille OSC to make a bid for his services in the immediate aftermath of the conflict but again, circumstances looked to have gotten in the way: by now Michels was in the midst of his national service with the Dutch army, who would not allow their conscripts to travel abroad independently. Michels would instead have to wait until the summer of 1946 to make his professional debut, as a centre forward for Ajax against ADO den Haag at De Meer. Ajax would emerge 8-3 winners on the day, with Michels scoring five goals.
As a player, Michels could not have been further from the kind of player with which his style of football would forever be associated. He was not especially skilful or quick, but he was disciplined, intelligent, bullishly strong and good in the air. Until a back injury ended his playing career in 1958, Michels would play 264 league games for Ajax and score 122 goals. Most importantly, his Ajax career had begun under the stewardship of the club’s pioneering English manager, Jack Reynolds. It would prove to be the most formative period for Michels’ thinking about football.
Reynolds is now remembered as the father of football in Amsterdam. He played for Grimsby Town, Sheffield Wednesday and Watford having been cast aside by Manchester City as a young player, before making the move into coaching. Reynolds arrived at Ajax in 1915 and would spend twenty-five of the next thirty-two years associated with the club in some way, including three spells as its manager. Reynolds was an avowed disciplinarian and a firm believer in the primacy of technique: Ajax under Reynolds would be encouraged to train with the ball at their feet, wherever possible. It was under Reynolds, too, that the now legendary Ajax youth system would be established, the Englishman insisting that every player contracted to the club received the same training, the same coaching and the same instruction. After Reynolds, every side Ajax put out – from the first team to the pre-schoolers – would play the same style of football, with an emphasis on ball control, short passing and attack as the best form of defence.
A back injury curtailed Michels’ playing career in 1958. Aged thirty, he would become a PE teacher, dovetailing this new career with five years of coaching at two Amsterdam amateur sides: JOS Watergraafsmeer and AFC DWS. The irony of this situation was that as Michels learnt his managerial stripes away from the club, Ajax would appoint another English coach who would have as profound an impact on their philosophy as both Jack Reynolds had before him and Rinus Michels would have afterwards, Vic Buckingham. Buckingham was an eccentric character – idealistic, abrasive and notoriously foul-mouthed – he would come to work attired as an English country gent. As dismissive of the traditional English approach to football as Jack Reynolds had been before him, Buckingham’s philosophy insisted that a good footballing education and skill on the ball would, in almost every scenario, prove superior to any alternative strategy. Ajax under Buckingham would play a game based on short passing and fluid ball retention, with the central tenet that if you are in possession of the ball, the other team cannot score. They went on to win the 1959/60 Eredivisie title.
Buckingham had been pleasantly surprised by what he had found in the Netherlands. Dutch football had been one of the European game’s poor relations for much of the first half of the 20th Century, a predominantly amateur game that had been comprehensively left behind by its professional rivals. Although the Dutch had qualified for the 1934 and 1938 World Cup finals, they had served merely as tournament whipping boys. Tactical innovation stubbornly refused to percolate down to the Dutch game and as late as the 1950s, teams in the Netherlands would line up in a 2-3-5 formation long after even their English counterparts had all embraced the third back game of the W-M. However, Buckingham discovered that none of this was down to a lack of technique. In fact, Dutch players were particularly good on the ball and with just a little extra encouragement, Buckingham found that they could easily keep hold of it. The standards and practices brought to the club by Jack Reynolds’ regime had begun to bear fruit: Ajax players were so accustomed to one another’s games and so naturally comfortable on the ball that they had plenty of mental facility spare to receive additional instruction. Buckingham termed this almost innate understanding and adeptness “Habit Football”. It would prove to be the advent of the Total game, with its finest practitioner – one Hendrik Johannes Cruyff – having been unearthed in the youth team by Buckingham shortly after his arrival as coach.
Buckingham left Ajax shortly after their success in 1960 to manage Sheffield Wednesday, but dogged by accusations of match-fixing, he would return to Amsterdam in the summer of 1964. Ajax were unable to replicate their previous success and in January 1965, despite the presence of the precocious seventeen year old Cruyff in the first team, the club sat in the relegation zone. Buckingham was sacked and Michels brought in as his replacement. Michels had left the club as a popular and laid- back member of a successful team but his return saw him transformed into a hardened disciplinarian in the Jack Reynolds mould. Michels first task was to avoid the drop, which he did by instituting a rigorous new training regime with renewed focus on ball skills. Ajax would eventually avoid relegation comfortably, three points clear of Sittard and the only club outside the league’s top four positions to have a positive goal difference.
The next change that Michels would bring about was far more seismic: an assault on the culture of semi-professionalism in the Dutch game which he believed was holding the country’s progress back. By the end of his second season in charge at the club, every member of the Ajax playing staff would be a full time professional player and Ajax would be the league champions. The club hierarchy were resistant to Michels’ reforming zeal but they could not argue with the results. Nor could they take any issue with the style of play with which their team had started to achieve them.
Michels initial success at Ajax was based around the Danubian-influenced 4-2-4 formation. However, he quickly realised that the key to success in football was fluidity and the 4-2-4 gave way to the 4-3-3 shape that still dominates the Dutch game to this day. But the biggest step forward was the institution of professionalism, allowing Michels to work with his players full time. Professionalism allowed Michels to introduce intensive training sessions, often four times a day. Michels’ would later embrace the Italian concept of the Ritiro, where the whole team would be billeted away from every non-footballing distraction. There, Michels could micromanage his players diets, activities and lifestyles.
With professionalism, too, came fitness. This was the foundation of Total Football. With fitness came the ability to press the ball and Michels wanted his players to press relentlessly. Ajax looked to retain possession wherever possible, but in essence their game was based on the central defensive principle of getting the ball back. Michels’ side looked to harry, hastle and chase their opponents at every opportunity, to close down passing lanes and make the space in which the opposition had to play as compact as possible. Pressing was a relatively new development in football tactics, but Michels’ Ajax were doing their chasing and ball winning higher up the pitch than had ever been seen before. Ajax would often have every player bar their goalkeeper camped out in the opposition half. It is a fundamentally risky strategy and one which requires every player to be aerobically fit, physically strong, intelligent, well-drilled and positionally versatile. Total footballers.
The hub of this system was Cruyff. Perhaps the most gifted European footballer of all time, Johan Cruyff is unquestionably its most influential. Cruyff would be Michels’ eyes and ears on the field, spotting trends and adapting his game to suit developments. His teammates would be encouraged to establish their own positional bearings based on where Cruyff was playing. The Ajax number fourteen was, nominally at least, his team’s centre forward but he would often drop deeper. From there, an increasing number of young Dutch superstars would orbit around him in a ceaseless ballet: Piet Keizer and Sjaak Swart attacked cutting inside from the flanks and the team’s most advanced player would often be its relentless midfielder Johan Neeskens, so keen to get on the ball that he would follow it everywhere. At the back, the team’s brilliant Yugoslav sweeper Velibor Vasovic would frequently step into midfield to make Ajax a 3-4-3. It was football the like of which had never been seen before.
Rinus Michels’ Ajax team quickly became a reflection of a wider renaissance in Dutch society. After the war and the German occupation of the 1940s, much of the country lay in ruins. So denuded had the country been by the conflict that in the post-war period, the Dutch government offered incentives for its citizens to emigrate. Half a million Dutch people took them up on the deal, roughly one-twentieth of the country’s entire population at the time. Come the 1960s, however, the nation’s approach would become far more ambitious and creative with the reclamation of large tracts of land from the North Sea to create new spaces to live, work and play in Zeeland and Holland. The Dutch called this new mindset Maakbaarheid, a concept which saw a new determination to take control over their available space and what happened within it.
In addition to the new geographical reality, Dutch society too had begun to take giant steps forward. Ontzuiling – or depillarisation – saw the start of the breakdown of the politico-denominational strata that had segregated Dutch life for centuries. Dutch Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Atheists and Social Democrats, for so long closed groups with their own distinct cultures, societies and organisations, had begun to break bread with one another. Ajax mirrored this broadening of cultural horizons with one of Michels’ more startling innovations: position switching. Football teams before Michels had experimented with swapping players along lines of latitude, but Ajax players would ghost around all over the field. Longitudinal position switching in football was almost completely unheard of up to this point and what was even more remarkable is that Michels players were seemingly able to do it without concious thought or conflict of interest.
The revolution at Ajax first made itself known to the wider world on a foggy December night at De Meer in 1966, where Liverpool were the visitors in the Second Round of the European Cup. Before the game, Bill Shankly was bullish, predicting his team would show the Dutch side just how far football in the Netherlands still had to go. Ajax took the lead after 3 minutes through Cees de Wolf. Cruyff doubled the lead a quarter of an hour later and by half time, two further goals from Klaas Nuninga had given Ajax a 4-0 lead. They would eventually emerge 5-1 winners on the night, Liverpool’s consolation goal, scored by Chris Lawler, coming in the 89th minute. No matter: Shankly predicted that the Reds would win 6-0 in the return at Anfield. Instead, a brace from Johan Cruyff saw the Dutch side secure a 2-2 draw and their place in the next round. By 1969, Ajax – winners of three Dutch league championships in Michels’ four seasons in charge – had reached their first European Cup final. They would lose that game 1-0 to AC Milan, but it would prove to be the start of the golden era of Dutch football in Europe.
However, before Michels and his side could reach their promised land, there was some more pain to absorb. Ajax’s run to the 1969 European Cup final had come at the expense of their league form and they lost out to their bitter rivals Feyenoord in the Eredivisie. Worse was yet to come: although Ajax would regain their Dutch title in 1970, Ernst Happel’s brilliant Feyenoord side – captained by Rinus Israel and inspired by Wim Jansen and Willem van Hanegem – would beat Celtic 2-1 after extra time in Milan to become the Netherlands’ first ever European Champions. It would prove to be the first of four consecutive Dutch triumphs in European football’s top club competition. Ajax’s time was nigh.
Twelve months on from Feyenoord’s triumph, it was Ajax’s turn. The bare statistics of the 1971 European Cup final between Ajax and Panathinaikos at Wembley show that Ajax won the match 2-0, with an early goal by Dick van Dijk added to late on by a strike from Arie Haan. In truth, though, the score could have been anything. With Johan Cruyff playing in a role so withdrawn that he was almost a midfielder, Ajax barely gave the ball up all night. It was an ultimate justification of Michels’ philosophy, a whirling dervish of interchangable personnel playing with extraordinary fluidity, grace and power. Ajax were irresistible that night, a point duly emphasised by the fact that they would not give up their title as European Champions until 1974.
Ajax would complete this hat-trick of European titles without Michels, however, lured away by Barcelona in the summer of 1971. The Dutch champions replaced him with Stefan Kovacs, an easygoing Romanian who Jonathan Wilson argues perhaps oversaw the apogee of Ajax’s Total Football. With the team Michels built now freed from his iron discipline, Ajax began to play football so expressive and free that its eventual demise was inevitable. By 1973’s defeat of Juventus in Belgrade, the team had begun to pull itself apart, broken up by factions and disagreements that would never have been allowed to develop on Michels’ watch. Kovacs’ laissez faire attitude eventually spelt the end of Ajax’s most golden era. Those who had witnessed it in full flight, however, had no real grounds for complaint.
As Ajax’s Total Football experiment was ending, Barcelona’s had just begun. Michels arrived in 1971, charged with arresting the sense of terminal decline in Catalonia. Real Madrid were the team of Franco, of the King, of the entire Spanish establishment: Barcelona were the representative of an upstart region that the Generalissimo sought to put in its place. The Blaugrana had last won a league title eleven years previously, in 1959/60 under another visionary coach, Helenio Herrera. Rinus Michels had taken on one of the most notable challenges in European league football.
He was not immediately popular, nor was he instantly successful. Barcelona’s supporters did not take to his rather dour personality, apparent humourlessness or Protestant ethic, nicknaming him El Señor Marmol, the man of marble. Far more of a concern to Michels was that he wasn’t initially able to convince the playing staff, either. While he was appreciative of the opportunity afforded to him to work with players whose professional status was far more ingrained in their culture, he found that they were more set in their ways than their Dutch counterparts had been; far less receptive to his disciplinary structure and much more sensitive to criticism. Both of these things had to change and it was never going to be pretty: on one occasion Michels found seven of his senior players engaged in a card school in the hotel lobby after a painful cup defeat. The Dutch coach lost his temper, throwing several bottles of Cava in their direction. Michels later admitted that this had been an overreaction, but it is some indication as to the pressure of expectation he felt from the outside, as well as the demands he put on himself.
Things began to change in 1973. That summer, the Spanish league changed its rules, lifting a moratorium on clubs signing foreign players which had been instituted at the behest of Franco, keen to boost the national team’s fortunes. Michels and Barcelona would reap its benefit, signing Johan Cruyff for a world record fee of £922,000. (The previous record, set five years before by Pietro Anastasi’s move to Juventus, had been £500,000). Vic Buckingham, Michels’ predecessor at the Nou Camp, had tried to sign Cruyff in 1970 only to have been scuppered by red tape. Now the supporters would get to see what they had been missing. There is no such thing as an instant fix for any problem in football, but Johan Cruyff is as close as there has ever been to one: Cruyff instantly became the team’s hub, its engine and its creative brain. He also instantly became the darling of the crowd, revealing before he had even kicked a ball that he had chosen Barcelona out of his revulsion for the Franco regime.
The 1973/74 Spanish league season was a giddy fever dream for Catalans. Franco was not far away from his deathbed, his oppressive regime was crumbling and social change in the air. With his representative on the field, Michels’ team, too, were transformed. Barcelona walloped Granada in Cruyff’s first game for the club before going on to comprehensively change their fortunes. When the title came, it was at the Santiago Bernabeu and an epoch-making 5-0 defeat of Real Madrid. It is impossible to underestimate the importance of Cruyff to Michels’ legacy or the legacy of Total Football. He embodied the entire idea, acting as both its on-field emissary and its spokesman in the dressing room. Blessed with the ability to play brilliant football without conscious thought, Cruyff became completely unstoppable when he applied his prodigious intellect to his talent on the ball. He is perhaps the game’s most influential ever player.
No-one knew it yet, but Michels and Barcelona’s 1973/74 La Liga title would his last hurrah in club management. Michels and Barcelona would win the Copa del Rey in 1978, but never again would he win a major league title, even after Barcelona added Johan Neeskens to their squad for the defence of their crown. From the point of their famous day in Madrid onwards, the emphasis of Michels’ career would shift towards the Dutch national team. Still, his legacy at Barcelona can be found in every passing triangle and in every starting line up ever since. If Barcelona are known for a particular style of play, it is because Rinus Michels instituted one.
Michels was no stranger to international duty. As a player, he won five caps for the Netherlands, beginning with his debut in a 4-1 defeat against Sweden in 1950 and picking up his last in a 3-1 defeat to Switzerland in 1954. Indeed, the three appearances in-between would also see the Oranje succumb to heavy defeats. It was par for the course for the Dutch game at the time. However, in the intervening years Michels had been at the vanguard of a revolution and the Dutch FA, the KNVB, were growing increasingly keen that their clubs’ domination of the European game should be echoed at international level. The Netherlands had been absent from the World Cup finals since the 1938 edition, where they had held Czechoslovakia to a 0-0 draw in 90 minutes in the first round, only to concede three times in extra time and be eliminated. After the Dutch failed to qualify for the 1970 World Cup – finishing third in a four team group behind Bulgaria and Poland – the KNVB appointed the Czech Frantisek Fadrhonc to the manager’s job. Fadrhonc rode his luck in 1972, his team failing to qualify for the four-team European Championship finals after defeats by Yugoslavia and East Germany. Reaching West Germany in 1974 was beginning to take on mythical proportions.
Drawn in UEFA Qualifying Group Three alongside Belgium, Norway and Iceland, the Dutch got off to a flying start in Rotterdam, routing Norway 9-0. This was followed by a 0-0 draw in Antwerp, before a 5-0 win over Iceland in Amsterdam and an 8-1 win in the reverse fixture a week later in Deventer. A rather tighter affair followed against Norway in Oslo, the Dutch emerging 2-1 winners. The stage was set for a showdown with Belgium in Amsterdam: although the Dutch had a significantly better goal difference, both sides had an identical record. In the end, the Dutch held on for another goalless draw which saw them scrape home for their third World Cup finals appearance. It could – should – have been worse, Belgium having had a last minute winner chalked off for offside. Replays indicate that the goal should have stood.
It is a reasonably common belief that the Dutch success in 1974 was built on Rinus Michels and his work with Ajax. In fact, Michels had been away in Barcelona for the previous three years and only came to the Netherlands job in early 1974. A nervy KNVB sacked Fadrhonc, keen to avoid any more mishaps with the whole world watching, and Michels’ first game in the national role did not come until a 1-1 friendly draw with Austria on 27th March. The team Michels built was far from just a rehashed Ajax, either: the final 22-man squad, rakishly numbered in alphabetical order with the exception of Johan Cruyff, featured as more players from Feyenoord as it did from Michels Alma Mater.
Michels completely rebuilt the Dutch side, re-conceptualising it. FC Twente’s goalkeeper Piet Schrijvers was replaced in the starting lineup by Jan Jongbloed. Jongbloed was thirty-four years of age and hadn’t won an international cap in twelve years. However, the FC Amsterdam man received the nod from Michels because he had superior skill on the ball, vital for his role as a sweeper-keeper. The defence was similarly reimagined: for much of the tournament in West Germany, the Dutch centre halves would be Arie Haan and Wim Rijsbergen although neither man played as a central defender for their club: Rijsbergen was Feyenoord’s right back, but was possessed of the rapidity and mobility that Michels’ system demanded. Haan, meanwhile, was converted from a central midfielder, chosen for his comfort on the ball, ability to spot a pass and willingness to step out of defence to start attacks. He would be the team’s new sweeper. Only Rob Rensenbrink, the prodigiously skilful Anderlecht winger, escaped with his role untouched. Rensenbrink, it was said, didn’t particularly care for tactics but nevertheless retained his place thanks to his form throughout the friendly games.
The Dutch team were then taken away to a training camp, where for weeks on end they would train four of five times a day. Insouciance, swagger and prodigious ball skill were no use to anyone if they were not allied to fitness and strict discipline. Michels took on the role of schoolmaster, tutoring twenty-two of the finest players in the world how to play HIS football. If any member of the squad turned up for training late, the entire squad would be forced to restart their programme from the beginning.
If this makes Michels sound like the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket, however, it is worth considering another particularly instructive tale. The night before the team’s opening group game, each player was called in one by one to meet with the coach, so that he might assess their fitness and mental readiness for the task at hand. Wim Van Hanegem, Feyenoord’s masterful playmaker, turned up for his meeting holding a tennis racket, ready to go off and play a few sets. Michels was not impressed, but did not try to stop Van Hanegem from going through with his plan. In the end, it was Van Hanegem himself who independently realised that tennis was perhaps not the best idea, in line with his professional responsibilities and his role as an ambassador for his country. Michels treated his charges as adults on the understanding that they would have the intelligence to behave as such and make the correct decisions.
The Dutch, with van Hanegem, won their opening game with Uruguay. The final score was 2-0 but it was not at all a reflection of the standard of play Michels’ side produced that day. The Netherlands spent much of the game in the Uruguayan final third, a constantly rotating whirl of orange-shirted players squeezing the life out of their opponent, who scarcely managed to touch the ball in the Dutch half. Suddenly, every other team who had qualified for the 1974 tournament looked a step behind. Those who had not made it, England amongst them, received a sobering object lesson as to exactly why that might be.
Their second game was a tame 0-0 draw with Sweden in Dortmund, the match that gave the world the Cruyff Turn if little else, before a 4-1 rout of Bulgaria with two penalties from Johan Neeskens and goals from Johnny Rep and Theo de Jong in their final group game. This saw the Netherlands progress to the second group phase, which saw them drawn alongside Argentina and reigning champions Brazil.
Both their performances against the South American giants were memorable. Their game with Brazil, a de facto semi-final, took place at a streaming wet Westfalenstadion and saw the Dutch team emerge battered and bruised but, crucially, 2-0 winners against a Brazilian side who, now without Pelé, had increasingly turned to thuggery after the artistry of the 1970 tournament. Two second half goals in a notably bad-tempered match were enough for the Netherlands, with Johan Cruyff scoring the second after a dazzling Dutch breakaway. However, the most plaudits must go to their display against Argentina in Gelsenkirchen on 26th June, one of the finest and most complete performances ever seen on the world stage: a swirling, imaginative masterclass of ball retention, creativity and control of space. Argentina were beaten 4-1, although the Netherlands might easily have scored twenty.
Of course, and alas, it was not to be. The 1974 World Cup final was one of those days, like the Miracle of Bern twenty years earlier, when West Germany prevailed at the expense of a true footballing phenomenon, simultaneously damning them to failure and crystallising their legend. The German defeat of Hungary in 1954, however, is perhaps not the fairest comparison with the match in Munich. The Dutch side were a masterpiece, but their West German opponents were not actually all that far behind in terms of technique or their conceptualisation of the game. Furthermore, they boasted the world’s most deadly finisher and, in Franz Beckenbauer, its most complete defensive player.
What happened? Well, many members of the Dutch team think that they got so wrapped up in trying to humiliate the Germans that they forgot to win. I rather think it was slightly less one-sided than that, but there is little question as to which was the better team. The Netherlands took the lead after a minute through a Johan Neeskens penalty and the first time a West German player touched the ball was when Sepp Meier picked it up out of his net. The move that led to the penalty is instructive in itself: its passing, fluidity of movement and its sudden changes pace were pure Total Football. Cruyff, who won the spot kick after being felled by Hoeneß, picked up the ball in the centre circle before beginning a driving run into the penalty area. When Cruyff received the initial pass, the only Dutch player behind him on the field was Jongbloed.
West Germany, however, as West Germany were wont to do, rallied. Paul Breitner converted a penalty of their own on 25 minutes following a clumsy challenge on Holzenbein. Then, two minutes before the break, Gerd Müller poked a second goal home from five yards out. Try as they might in the second half, the Dutch were simply unable to break the hosts down. They would encounter a similar disappointment four years later in the final in Buenos Aires, although the Dutch side that day were without Cruyff, and managed by Ernst Happel.
Michels stood down from his role at the KNVB after the 1974 World Cup, returning to his duties with Barcelona where he would stay, apart from a season at Ajax in 1975/76, until both he and Cruyff moved to America and the Los Angeles Aztecs. Like Cruyff, Michels would later return to Europe, although in Michels’ case it would be to West Germany and three seasons in charge of 1. FC Köln, with whom he would win the DFB Pokal in 1983. In fact, Michels would return to the Bundesliga again after his victorious campaign at Euro 88, for a single season in charge at UEFA Cup holders Bayer Leverkusen.
It speaks volumes for the standards that his 1974 side set that it is reasonable to claim that the Netherlands’ win at the 1988 European Championship – again held in in West Germany – was still not Rinus Michels’ finest hour. However, it remains his, and the Dutch team’s, most successful one. Once again, it came about off the back of some howling disappointments. The Dutch side missed out on the 1982 World Cup: despite an expanded 24 team tournament making it easier to qualify, the Netherlands finished 4th in their group behind Belgium, France and the Republic of Ireland. Only Cyprus, who scored no points and conceded 29 times in 8 games, finished below them. This was a galling end for a generation of players who had played in the previous two World Cup finals. Four years later, a play-off defeat to eventual semi-finalists Belgium meant that they would also fail to make the cut for Mexico 86.
Michels had briefly managed the national side in the build-up to their World Cup qualifiers the previous year before ill health required him to undergo a heart bypass. But after the disappointment of 1986, Michels returned on a full-time basis. His charges were another recalcitrant golden generation of players, whose levels of brilliance on the field was matched only by their utter determination to not get along with one another. Michels made this conflict his friend, pitching the squad into a series of intra-team friendlies in order to establish a firm pecking order and, in so doing, creating the Dutch equivalent of Fight Club. All the black eyes and bruised egos were not in vain, however, and this new crop of prodigiously talented players steamrollered their way to qualification for their first ever European Championship finals, a full five points clear of their closest rivals.
This time, Michels eschewed his favoured 4-3-3 formation for a more modern 4-4-2, although it played more like a 4-4-1-1, with Ruud Gullit drifting into the space between the midfield and Marco Van Basten, the team’s egregiously gifted poacher. In defence, Ronald Koeman and Frank Rijkaard served as the side’s sweeper and centre half respectively, both men more than willing and able to step up and become an additional midfielder alongside Arnold Muhren and Jan Wouters. Yet again, the Dutch were irresistible.
However, no-one told the Soviet Union. Managed by Valeriy Lobanovskiy, who had himself independently created a style of Total Football with Dynamo Kiev throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the USSR’s gifted side absorbed the Dutch pressure in the opening game before springing forward to hit them on the break. One-nil: a loss to England in the next group game and the Dutch would be out. Michels did not panic, instead recalling Marco Van Basten to the starting line up having demurred on his selection for the opening match due to a lingering injury problem. Van Basten put the plodding English defence to the sword, scoring a hat-trick that Tony Adams would later cite in his autobiography as one of the primary causes of his descent into alcoholism. Not even Bryan Robson’s bobbling, improbable equaliser at the beginning of the second half could offer any real respite for the English, who had been comprehensively outclassed. A desperately narrow 1-0 win in the final group match against a spirited Irish side – unlucky not to open the scoring themselves with a Paul McGrath header – saw Michels’ side into a semi-final with the hosts.
It was starting to feel like a hoodoo. The Dutch desire for success looked doomed to be continually derailed by their larger neighbour, however talented a team they could offer in opposition. The game, in Hamburg, was a tense affair, made all the more special by the sea of Dutch supporters making the journey across the border. West Germany opened the scoring on fifty-five minutes, a penalty won by a flailing Jurgen Klinsmann, coolly and inevitably dispatched by Lothar Matthäus. However, this time there was to be no sign of a mental block, and Michels’ side came back stronger yet. A poor challenge on Van Basten saw Ronald Koeman equalise from the penalty spot with 16 minutes left to play, before Jan Wouters slid Van Basten in to win the game in the 88th minute.
Nothing could go wrong now, and for the first time in recorded history, it didn’t. The Soviet Union were the Netherlands’ opponents in the final. In their opening group game, the Dutch had done everything but score but on this occasion there would be no such omission. The Netherlands led at half time thanks to Ruud Gullit’s bullet header, resulting from a corner that Gullit had himself won with a narrowly diverted direct free kick. In the second half, Van Basten doubled the lead, volleying in Erwin Koeman’s centre with Pythagorean venom. It remains perhaps the most brilliant individual goal ever scored in a major international football final.
Nothing could deny the Netherlands this time, not even their most dreaded historical enemy: themselves. Late on, the Soviet Union won a penalty kick after a poorly timed interception by Hans Van Breukelen in the Dutch goal. However, Van Breukelen got up to deny Igor Belanov from the spot. It was the cherry on the cake for Rinus Michels’ tenure with the national side, no less than he or any of his players deserved, even if it had perhaps come fourteen years late. Michels would return once more to the stewardship of The Oranje, leading the team to a semi-final at Euro 92 before his Dennis Bergkamp-inspired side were undone on penalties by the improbably energetic Danes.
It would prove to be Michels’ final game in football management. By now, the rigours of his method and the trials of his career had left him looking rather older than his sixty-four years. He settled down into a more sedate retirement than many of his peers, although he was to once again make the sporting headlines when, in 1999, FIFA named him as their Coach of the Century. Rinus Michels died six years later at the age of seventy-seven, at a hospital in Aalst, Belgium on 3rd March 2005, after complications from a heart surgery he had undergone in Spain. Upon his passing, Johan Cruyff remarked, “Both as a player and as a trainer there is nobody who taught me as much as him. I will miss Rinus Michels. I always greatly admired his leadership.” There can be no more fitting epitaph, both from and for a man who forever changed the way football could be played.