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Farewell to the General

Last week the international football world was shocked by the death of Rinus Michels. Complications after a heart operation proved fatal for the 77-year old whose name will forever be linked with the term 'Total Football'.

Michels was a striker for Ajax in the post-war years, played five games in the Dutch team and lost all of them.

At the start of the sixties he became a sports teacher and trained a couple of amateur teams in his hometown Amsterdam. When asked by Ajax in January 1965 Michels seized on the opportunity to start a professional career as a football coach at his old club.

A daring move as they were only three points away from the relegation places and going through their worst season in decades. His debut on the bench resulted in a 9-3 win over MVV Maastricht, but only two victories were added until the summer which was just enough to stay in the topflight.

At that point in time Dutch topfootball was mainly semi-professionalism. All players kept a job and hurried to the evening training, three or four times a week.

DWS Amsterdam was the first to introduce full professionalism and Rinus Michels knew this was the only way up. Training sessions were scheduled during the day and he started an army-like discipline among his ranks.

Helped by the abundance of talent emerging at the club three titles and a cup were taken in the next three seasons. His first assurance that he was on the right track came in the European Champions Cup within just two years after he started. On a December night in a foggy Olympic Stadium, Ajax hammered Liverpool sensationally 5-1 and almost beat them at Anfield as well.

After the quarter-final against Dukla Prague, Michels also showed that he was not afraid of harsh decisions if he found them necessary after central defender Frits Soetekouw choked in extra-time.

His unlucky own-goal proved decisive and meant the end of his days at the club.

In the following years Michels axed several other stalwarts of the sixties from the Ajax team, like Theo van Duivenbode, Ruud Suurendonk and Klaas Nuninga as they all, in Michels' eyes, could not stand the pressure and the pace of European football.

Although kind-hearted in his spare time, in his job he meant business. He regarded a player as a number. It was professionalism in the extreme, which was quite rare in those days. Piet Keizer could not coop with this coldness and did not talk to his coach for several years. It is said he danced on the table at the news of Michels departure to Barcelona in 1971.

On the other hand when the job was done, the coach sang pieces of opera at festivities and he did not mind fielding keeper Heinz Stuy as a striker against Go Ahead Eagles, having kept a clean sheet at Wembley against Panathinaikos, as a joke. Ajax lost 4-1.

Rinus Michels had an excellent eye to spot talent that would fit in his vision of football. Bringing in Velibor Vasovic from Partizan Belgrado in the winter of 1967 was one of his best moves. The Yugoslav had played in the European Cup Final against Real Madrid the season before and became the embodiement of Michels on the pitch. Just the leader he needed to teach youngsters like Johan Cruyff the trade.

Yet Michels could find his needs even in the lower divisions. Like 18-year old Johan Neeskens, who came from RCH Heemstede, where he had played only one full season, fighting against relegation to the second division.

Rinus Michels: Guided Netherlands to victory at the Euro '88
Rinus Michels: Guided Netherlands to victory at the Euro '88

And even more amazing, the cover for Vasovic, who was to leave in the summe of 71, was found in the German Regionalliga Süd.

Only a couple of months after losing in Ingolstadt and Kassel with TSV München 1860, defender Horst Blankenburg faced Celtic in the quarter-final of the European Cup and would play in all finals with Ajax.

Both fitted in excellently, which says as much about themselves as about the man who spotted them. Keeper Heinz Stuy was another one, who would have remained an anonymous shotstopper if Michels had not picked him.

The Ajax style was all about pressing down the opposition in their own half, backed by an off-side trap. In possession the movement of players was vital to create space.

Passing moves and individual opportunism were mixed with long balls to surprise the opponents who felt steamrolled most of the time. A hack called it 'Total Football', but Michels claimed the system was just puzzled together by watching other great teams, especially at several World Cup tournaments.

Without the total dedication of his players to commit to his football vision, he would have probably won nothing. That is probably why he was so tough on discipline and fitness. The ones who failed, had to go. Those who stayed reaped the fruits. After his departure at Ajax he would never find such a dedicated club squad again.

His claim to world fame was his involvement with the Dutch national team in 1974. Although there were already two national coaches in Cor van der Hart and Frantisec Fadrhonc, Michels was brought in as a 'supervisor' and took over the minute he arrived from Barcelona in May.

Again, Michels made a couple of stunning selections, like Jan Jongbloed from mid-table FC Amsterdam in goal, who had been in the squad around 1962 and played some European games with DWS.

The coach was looking for a footballing goalie who could deal with the long balls that opponents would use to beat the offside trap. Jongbloed was his man.

In the tournament Arie Haan and Wim Rijsbergen started in central defence against Uruguay although they had only played forty-five minutes together before and Haan was a midfielder at his club.

Michels had the foreseeing eye that it would work and so it did, well into the first minutes of the final. At one goal up however, complacency crept into the team. The Germans went ahead and won.

Johan Neeskens: Plucked from obscurity to become one of the greats.
Johan Neeskens: Plucked from obscurity to become one of the greats.

His return as coach of the Dutch team added to the legend. He managed to bring a fighting spirit and some luck to an already overtalented squad at Euro 88.

As a technical director at the World Cup in Italy he somehow succeeded in making a terrible mess of it all. It started when he refused to take Johan Cruyff with him as coach.

The top players turned against him and his choice, Leo Beenhakker. He made his last coaching appearance at Euro 92 in Sweden where he could not avoid the same mistake as in 1974.

Having convincingly beaten Germany in the group, with Michels acclaiming this match as the best performance ever by the Dutch, the team was already looking ahead to a repeat in the final, forgetting that they first had to overcome Denmark in the semi.

When Peter Schmeichel caught Marco van Basten's spotkick in the shoot-outs it was not only the end of the striker's international career but that of Michels one as well.

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