Total Soccer could be a Dutch treat

Rinus Michels brought his own concept of "voetbal" to L.A. If the Aztecs can master it, credit him with a miracle
April 29, 1979

His tan is Californian and recent, but Rinus Michels' apple-rosy cheeks are pure North Sea, Dutch as a dike, like his uptilted nose and the serious view he takes of the world. He yells at the sweat-drenched L.A. Aztecs of the North American Soccer League with the vocabulary of a sociologist and the guttural harshness of a drill sergeant: "You must look for the solution of situations! You were not concentrating and so the possibilities escaped you! Arrgh!" Maybe it's the first time anybody has pronounced that last word outside of a comic-strip balloon.

At Brookside Park in Pasadena, Calif., where years ago the Chicago White Sox went for spring training, it was pushing 80°, and the Aztecs had been working out for nearly two hours. All morning, without pause, Rinus Michels (pronounced REE-nus MIKE-els) had been driving them. But from the team there was no sound or gesture of complaint.

"He gets it from us because he has our respect," says the Aztecs' captain, Bob Sibbald. Bobby Rigby, the fine American goalie who came to L.A. from the Cosmos, says, "We dragged our tails last season. He makes us feel strong. You're going to hear us loud."

It is not surprising that the 51-year-old Michels should have the respect of his players. He is probably the finest soccer coach in the world. You could argue about that, but you'd be scratching. And now, somewhat mysteriously, in his prime and laden with honors, he arrived in Pasadena in March to take charge of a team that had a 9-21 record last season and finished last in the Western Division. At the Rose Bowl, the most famous college football stadium in America, he is attempting another miracle with his special brand of voetbal.

Voetbal is merely the Dutch word for soccer. You pronounce it, near enough, "football" and, what's more, 10 years ago nobody outside Holland could have cared less what the Dutch called it or, indeed, that they played the game at all in that little country. That was before Michels came along, took an obscure, tail-dragging club from Amsterdam called Ajax and won the European Cup; also before he coached the arrogantly confident orange-shirted National Team of Holland to the final of the 1974 World Cup, which it lost in Munich to West Germany by a single goal. Before, that is to say, Michels developed the concept of Total Soccer, the Dutch Whirl, the Clockwork Orange—call it what you like—and created a revolution in the sport so great that even without its star, Johan Cruyff, the aging rump of the Dutch team he created reached the World Cup Final again in 1978, principally on the momentum he had given it.

By then Michels was no longer with Holland. For a reported salary of $250,000 a year he had gone to coach Barcelona in the Spanish League, another set of tail-draggers whom he took to the League Championship and the National Cup. Last spring, if you had suggested that in a year's time he would be in Pasadena with the Aztecs, you would have gotten only prolonged guffaws from soccer pundits. Pelè, Beckenbauer, Trevor Francis—their arrival in the U.S. was nothing like as great a shock. Players go where the money is. Coaches too, of course, but Michels could scarcely have improved his Barcelona pay, and coaches, even more than players, need to be center stage. And Pasadena, in soccer terms, is far from center stage.

Before last summer Michels had never been in the U.S. Then, after the World Cup in Argentina in June, he and his wife Wilhelmina (they are childless) decided to vacation at Newport Beach on the way home. Wilhelmina loved California, Rinus hated the soccer. He saw a couple of Aztec games, saw Dallas, Fort Lauderdale and the Cosmos, talked to Dallas' Lamar Hunt in the West and Phil Woosnam, the NASL commissioner, in New York.

But, said Michels, "I decided it was not time to come to America. It was an amateur, not a professional, game. I mean it was professional in its marketing but the standard of play was primitive, not sophisticated. Maybe it was a bad time to come, straight after the World Cup, but I found the fundamentals, the pace of the game missing in what I saw. I forgot it."

One who didn't forget, however, was Larry Friend, president of the Aztecs. Last October he called Michels in Amsterdam and visited him at home. "He talked very well," Michels recalls. "He talked for three days." The Dutchman still had serious doubts, but in the end, and with Wilhelmina's prompting, he agreed to try it for a season. "California is a magic word in Holland," he sighs.

Michels was certainly an unsettled man by then. Last April there had been trouble in Barcelona. Spanish soccer clubs periodically hold elections for president and board of directors. Campaigns are waged in public, in the press, sometimes hysterically. The president elected in Barcelona last spring had come in on a sort of reform ticket. He was for firing the team, coach, everybody, and had been quoted as saying some hard things about Michels. Once in office, he changed his mind and wanted Michels to stay. But the coach had had enough. He decided to take several months off before deciding where to go—probably to the Bundesliga, the powerful West German league. But he ran into difficulties with his work permit there. Larry Friend's call came at precisely the right moment.

Michels is still bewildered by much that he has found in U.S. soccer. "The job is the same all over the world," he says, "but those dancing girls? Do they really need those? And the fans, eating and drinking all the way through the games? Maybe because they are used to sports that stop and start, not continuous like soccer. I'm sorry. For me the game is too serious for all this."

One thing is certain. When the news came of Michels' hiring by the Aztecs, the assumption was that he would be bringing some of the stars who had gone from Ajax to Barcelona with him, world-class players like Cruyff and Johan Neeskens. "Maybe there were some romantic notions of this kind," Michels says now. "but on this club, stars are impossible on the budget they have. Stars only come for money, not for me."

There was a good possibility for a while, though, that he would sign at least one of his great Dutch squad, Willem Van Haneghem, who simply showed up one day at Aztec headquarters. "I offered him a contract, but Chicago was willing to double it," says Michels, "so he took the money. I could have used him. But it would have meant saying goodby to some players who had worked so hard with me this preseason, raising the money for him. I don't like to do that."

So Michels was forced to buy more modestly, though several of his picks may prove shrewd enough: young Dutch players like Thomas Rongen from Amsterdam and Hubert Smeets from Maastricht, and Walter Wagner, a West German forward.

Always, with Michels, the talk comes back eventually to Total Soccer, a phrase he insists the press invented but which nevertheless he works hard to define. It is as simple as a pair of wooden clogs just to say that in Total Soccer each player is both a defender and an attacker, and that it involves quick transition from attack to defense and vice versa.

"Quick transition was the secret of the Dutch team. To go, to be aggressive," Michels says. "In Total Soccer, every player is attacking and defending. Easy? No. Very difficult. It is not difficult to coach a defender to attack. He loves it. It is also easy to say that when he does, an attacker falls back to take his place. But Total Soccer is the end, not the beginning. It is the finished product. At the heart of it you need superlative players, three or four of them who can visualize the whole pattern, even in the heat of the game, not just play a single role. The natural leaders. That was the great quality of Cruyff. You have to be lucky to find the players I did in '74, Rudi Krol, Van Haneghem, Cruyff."

So, as he did with Ajax and Barcelona, Michels is starting from scratch again. He would dearly love an open checkbook. Whom would he pick? Strikers and an organization man like Cruyff in midfield. "Liam Brady," he adds, mentioning the star of Arsenal and Ireland with a touch of longing. "Trevor Francis. I could do the job with Kevin Keegan or Klaus Fischer." He gives a short, rare laugh.

He has none of them at Brookside Park this hot Pasadena morning as he prepares for a game against the California Surf of Anaheim. What he has, though, is enormous enthusiasm. That is obvious. In their orange shirts and white shorts, so similar to those of the Dutch team, the Aztecs give one an uncanny feeling of dèjà vu. And, like the Dutch, they are willing to work their hearts out for him.

"Always go to the ball," Michels shouts. "Always to the man with the ball." He stops play dead. There is total silence. The players freeze. "Always you are waiting for the ball," he says. "Why? You are too relaxed. Go to the ball!" It is the harsh, physical philosophy behind Total Soccer. Almost mechanically, belatedly, he says, as if someone has taught him to say it, "Keep smiling." He doesn't smile himself.

And his smile might have been a little forced as he stood out in the middle of Anaheim Stadium two Saturday nights ago, the California Girl Cheerleaders and the Santa Ana Winds Marching Band in attendance. Too much razz for him, maybe, and not enough people in the stands. Rumors and counterrumors about the NASL players' strike had cut the crowd to 11,261. The Aztecs were at full strength, but the Surf was missing its goalie and four other first-team players. It looked like a perfect evening for the Aztecs to practice what Michels had preached. "That's the Dutch team in the orange, right?" a sardonic Surf fan yelled.

They might take a little time to achieve Total Soccer, but the Aztecs seemed to have taken the first steps toward it: a firm commitment to going for the ball, forcing the pace, none more so than Rongen, all wild blond hair, now in the right fullback position, now threatening down the right wing, cutting into the penalty area.

But the final pass in front of the goal was inaccurate, until 18 minutes into the game, when Wagner put the Aztecs ahead with a sweetly taken shot hooked in with his left foot. It was the only score in the half. The game settled down into a hard, often physical struggle. Two yellow cards in the first half, 28 fouls.

The second half was rougher, even more desultory in terms of good soccer. Rigby had to make a flying acrobatic twist to make a save on one hard Surf shot, but, as it turned out, that was the only significant moment in the half, and the game ended 1-0 Los Angeles. Last Saturday, the Aztecs lost to the Seattle Sounders to make their record 2-1.

After the Anaheim game, Michels, uncharacteristically, was inclined to make excuses. "You lead 1-0 and you begin to get a little cautious. The others started to take more risks in the second half. But we are better than they are. We played well for a road game...Monday I talk to them again."

He might well have a short chat with young Smeets, who committed 11 fouls out of the Aztecs' 28. Or maybe not. In Michels' day, the Dutch team was about as tough as you can get in soccer. "In Smeets' position he is taking a lot, so he must give, too," said this most pragmatic of coaches. "They would destroy him otherwise.

"We are progressing," were his last words.

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