Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Feyenoord 1970: A Total Football family affair

50 year on, Feyenoord's all-conquering team remembered

Many years ago, in that most British of traditions, I found myself acting as an adviser and confidant to a man in a pub.

He was faced with a perplexing dilemma. Widowed for several years, he was starting to become aware of Old Father Time and his uncanny habit of taking people without warning and leaving messy family matters unresolved.

In his case, there was the small matter that his two children were unaware that he had been married for a short time before he had met their mother.

I confess I was somewhat surprised to have this delicate problem presented to me as I couldn't say I knew the man well, certainly didn't consider him a friend and neither particularly respected nor liked him. Nevertheless, it was easy for me to advise him to reveal the truth because family secrets, casually discovered, can have a devastating effect. I knew this from personal experience.

Of course, the word, “family”, is thrown around in football rather too often. FIFA and UEFA delight in telling fans that they are all valued members of the “Football Family” and on no account should they feel that they are only important according to their ability to contribute financially to a massive corporate machine.

As for me, I was a very junior member of what many people still like to call the “Celtic family” in
Jock Stein Panini sticker
1978, when I discovered our own dark secret.

Jock Stein had left the club and, while paying tribute to his many successes, a former player noted that he had “won one European Cup and been pipped once in the final”. A sickening chill ran through me, almost as if I had discovered a hitherto-unknown deceased stepmother.

What did he mean by that? I knew all about Celtic's great European Cup victory in Lisbon, against Inter Milan in 1967. I could never tire of reading about it. But “lost a European Cup final”? 

“Oh, we thought you knew,” came the unsatisfactorily dismissive answer from relatives.

Being a budding historian, I referred to my football books and was dismayed to discover the meaning of the words, “runners-up”.

1970 – European Cup runners-up.

The culprits, I found – who had no respect for Celtic's right to monopolise romantic victories –  were Feyenoord of Rotterdam. Their win over Celtic, ironically in the San Siro stadium in Milan, had many parallels to that 1967 Celtic glory.

Half a century later, many appear to have almost forgotten what would be one of the most significant victories in European football history.

For, while their Amsterdam rivals, Ajax, became one of the most admired and successful clubs in the world game, it was Feyenoord who were the first Dutch team to secure a major international trophy, opening the door for what would be the first great era of Dutch football and establishing the Netherlands as a football powerhouse that continues to this day.

And they did it using “Total Football”.

To many, the words are synonymous with the Ajax coached by Rinus Michels, with legendary players such as Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens, Piet Keizer, Rudi Krol, Johnny Rep, Gerrie Mühren and more who won three consecutive European Cups from 1971-74.

In fact, as Jonathan Wilson points out in Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics, “The term ‘totaalvoetbal’ itself appeared only in response to performances of the national side in the 1974 World Cup finals in West Germany.

Before that, Wilson notes, “Totaal” was applied as a prefix to a wide range of disciplines (in a way perhaps similar to the application of “Eco” today). When something was described as “Totaal”, it was thought to demonstrate inter-relationships between all of its elements – much as the great Dutch teams could seemingly connect and interchange as the situation required and as opportunities arose.

But, while Ajax and the Dutch national team became synonymous with the term amongst football fans, many of its principles preceded the 1970s by several decades.

Because, just as families pass on wisdom, values and traditions through the generations, so in
Johann Cruyff with Pep Guardiola
football, ideas and methods have always been passed on from coaches to players who become coaches themselves. As Cruyff learned from Michels and added his own innovation to Barcelona, so Pep Guardiola has become arguably the most influential coach of the past decade or more.

But listening to his words about his mentor can sound very reminiscent of a father-son relationship.

“He was unique, totally unique. Without him I wouldn’t be here. I know for sure this is why I am, right now, the manager of Manchester City and before that Bayern Munich and Barcelona.”

“Before he came we didn’t have a cathedral of football, this beautiful church, at Barcelona. We needed something new. And now it is something that has lasted. It was built by one man, by Johan Cruyff, stone by stone. That’s why he was special.

“I would not be able to do what he did. You hear all these people saying: ‘Oh Pep, what a good manager he is.’ Forget about it. Cruyff was the best, by far. Creating something new is the difficult part. To make it and build it and get everyone to follow? Amazing. That’s why, when I was Barcelona manager, I went to see Johan many times. I made especially sure I went a lot in my first year when we won everything, absolutely everything.”

“I always went that season to see Johan to try to make him feel how grateful I was to him. Of course I wanted to talk to him about new ideas, but the main feeling I always had when I said goodbye was that he might feel how pleased I am and see how deep my gratitude goes.”

Equally, it could be argued that the football that Feyenoord played had a direct lineage through an Austrian, a coach who would now be considered Czech, and an Englishman of Irish roots, all the way back to Scotland in a football heritage as real as any blood ties.

The Scottish Style

In the past, I have faced quite reasonable incredulity when trying to persuade Brazilian friends that the type of football for which their country became so loved in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, had its roots in what was once known as the “Scottish style”.

In fairness, that is not a term that is even Scots apply to modern football in Scotland – at least not in a complimentary way.

Nonetheless, as early as 1872, when Scotland and England played the first international match, it was noted by observers that the teams' approaches to the game were quite different. While the English focussed on strength and running with the ball until dispossessed, the Scots preferred to use the space afforded by the West of Scotland Cricket Ground, which hosted the match, with intricate passing patterns combined with dribbling.

This was the first great cultural divide in football, with English teams largely preferring to persist with their method, which Wilson believes was developed partly because many of their players learned the game playing in tight yards in the country's elite schools, while the Scots had enjoyed wide spaces and grass fields.
Queens Park 1874

In particular, Queen's Park – the most powerful Scottish team in the amateur era – were specialists in the Scottish style.

The Scots, though, spread the word of passing football – sometimes known as “combination football” – with a missionary zeal, firstly through a group known as the “Scottish professors”, some of whom were academics who were employed by English schools and universities, and who taught their brand of football in their spare time. (The name was first given to a group of Scottish players who had joined Preston North End, when the club was a major power in the English game.) Others were tempted by the ability to make a living in football when the game in Scotland was still officially amateur.

Over the years, a number of notable Scots taught their style of football in Brazil, where Archie McLean brought the style to Sao Paolo while working as a machine engineer for JP Coats (who made thread) and Argentina, where Glasgow-born Alexander Watson Hutton emigrated to teach at Saint Andrew’s Scotch School and later established the Buenos Aires English High School.

(Johnny Madden would coach first in England before coming to Prague to coach Slavia for 25 years.)

By the early 20th century, the Scottish style was being taken to continental Europe, with the greatest advocate of the game being an Englishman, Jimmy Hogan.

Jimmy Hogan leads a training session
Born in Lancashire, in the North of England, to Irish parents, Hogan was the most influential coach of his time and would become known as the father of Hungarian, German and Austrian football, though his first coaching role was with Dutch club, FC Dordrecht, before taking charge of the Dutch national team for one match – a victory against Germany. He also coached in Switzerland and France.

He is probably best-known for laying the foundations of football in Hungary that would lead to that country's greatest-ever era of football with the “Golden Team” or “Mighty Magyars” as late as the 1950s still being said to owe a great deal to the methods he introduced almost 30 years previously.

In 1953, when Hungary visited Wembley, the English generally assumed that they were the greatest football nation on earth. They were soundly thrashed, 6-3, by the Magyars who had 35 shots to England's five, prompting Geoffrey Green in The Times to say, "Here, indeed, did we attend, all 100,000 of us, the twilight of the gods," under the headline: “A new conception of football”.

Jackie Sewell, one of the England players that day, said: “Their movement was incredible. They just passed around us all day long. They played little triangles, the give-and-go ones you see everyone trying to do now. But no-one did it back then - no-one I'd seen anyway.”

But when Sandor Barcs, president of the Hungarian FA, was asked for the secret of his country's success, he stated simply: “Jimmy Hogan taught us everything we know about football.” Coach Gustav Sebes later added: “We played football as Jimmy Hogan taught us. When our football history is told, his name should be written in gold letters."

But more directly relevant to this story is Hogan's influence in Austria and, in particular, on another legendary coach, Hugo Meisl. Though considered an Austrian, at the time, Meisl was born in Malešov, so the Czech Republic can justifiably claim him as its own son.

Meisl, who had played football at little more than a recreational level – and refereed in the 1912 Olympics – might only have been known as an administrator (he became General Secretary of the Austrian FA) had he not benefited from the input of Hogan, who helped him to devise a system of playing that emphasised keeping the ball on the ground.

This Austrian-Czechoslovak coached what would be known as the “Wunderteam”, still Austria's greatest national team and one that some would say has cast a shadow that the country has never escaped from.

The Wunderteam would not only be known for its success – reaching the World Cup semi-finals in 1934, only to lose to an extremely physical Italian team on its home territory. (Those same Italians won the final with Czechoslovakia being runners-up.) 

The team – which included Pepi Bican from 1933-36 before he represented Czechoslovakia – were also recognised as stylish advocates of the passing game.

As Brian Glanville, the English football writer, described Meisl’s style: “Soccer became almost an exhibition, a sort of competitive ballet, in which scoring goals was no more than the excuse for the weaving of a hundred intricate patterns.”

This has often been described as an early example of Total Football.

Widely recognised as one of the great teams in the world, the Viennese-born Feyenoord coach of 1970, Ernst Happel was eight years old when Austria attained their 4th-place finish in 1934. He
Ernst Happel
started playing youth football for Rapid Wien at the age of 12 and won the first of his 51 Austrian international caps in 1947, just ten years after Meisl stopped coaching the national  team (he died the same year).

Happel would go on to surpass even Meisl with a brand of football that was rooted in the Wunderteam's technique and use of the ball but adapted the beautiful, “balletic” team of the 30s with the addition of a pragmatism and strength that would eventually shock the football world.

Compared to their Ajax contemporaries, the Feyenoord team from 1970 have fewer immortal names, known to those outside Rotterdam: Eddy Pieters Graafland, Piet Romeijn, Theo Laseroms, Rinus Israël, Theo van Duivenbode, Wim Jansen [who would later manage Celtic], Franz Hasil, Willem van Hanegem, Henk Wery, Ove Kindvall, Coen Moulijn and substitute, Guus Haak.

Happel, has given his name to the home of his nation's major stadium, in Vienna, ensuring that he will continue to be mentioned amongst the greatest managers Europe has produced with a record that fully justifies that accolade. Happel won both leagues and domestic cups in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Austria as well as winning the European Cup with two clubs – Feyenoord in 1970, and Hamburg in 1983, the first coach to achieve such a double.

But the story of his 1970 team, which would also be recognised as de-facto World Club champions with an Inter-Continental Cup victory over Argentina's Estudiantes, is both remarkable and one deeply rooted in the history of football in Europe.

It is worth noting that Feyenoord's ability – or that of the Dutch in general – should not have come as a great shock to Celtic. Ajax had themselves been runners-up to AC Milan in the European Cup final of 1969 and Feyenoord had eliminated the champions en route to the final in the Italian club's home city.

But most of Britain felt confident that Celtic would win their second European Cup in four years, not least because they had eliminated Leeds United – then considered by many British fans and journalists to be the finest club side in the world.

The fact that Celtic had won both legs of that tie was generally taken as an emphatic statement of the Glasgow club's exceptional quality. It may also have prompted Celtic to underestimate Feyenoord, just as Inter Milan had been punished for doing to Celtic in Lisbon.

And while there have been many other possible reasons given for Celtic under-performing – including bonus disputes between the players and the board – it is widely recognised that Celtic were comprehensively dismantled by a team that was, on the night, superior in every department and which was far better than anyone associated with Celtic had been prepared for.

Celtic, including seven of the “Lisbon Lions” from their victorious 1967 final, actually took the lead against the run of play on 30 minutes, with a fierce Tommy Gemmell effort, but could only retain the advantage for two minutes before Rinus Israël equalised.

Somehow, Celtic held out until extra time before what seemed the inevitable winner from Ove Kindvall.

Scottish and English journalists were in no doubt as to the superior side. The Glasgow Evening Times reported: 

“The team that has lost only 14 goats in the Dutch season were certainly justifying their record.

“The man who did most to beat Celtic was the tall Van Hanegem. The inside left's ball control was tremendous. He would take on one Celt as a rehearsal before beating two or three more. He slowed the game to a walking-pace with the full realisation that Celtic wanted to go full- steam ahead.

“And all around him he had team-mates of equal subtlety who co-operated with him. I've never seen a Celtic team chase its tail so much.

“Whenever they lost possession they were bang in trouble. For Feyenoord passed and inter-passed, teased and tantalised when it was their turn, ...”

The same Geoffrey Green of The Times who had been so mesmerised by Hungary in the 1950s wrote: 

“Meanwhile, the scenes here tonight at the finish were memorable – certainly for the Dutch. With only four minutes left to a replay on Friday, a long free kick from the half-way line was misjudged by McNeill. Indeed, in his effort to recover his mistake inside the Celtic penalty area he appeared to have tried to punch the ball. But the alert Kindvall, who will be playing centre forward in the Swedish World Cup side, was too quick. He was round his man in a flash to lob the ball over Williams and Feyenoord were home.

“In those last moments Kindvall the hero was chaired back to the centre of the field by his colleagues.

“Yet if there bad been one hero even beyond this sharp moving cultivated centre forward, it was Hasil the Austrian. With Jansen and van Hanegem he formed a trio that completely dominated the centre of the field. That was where Celtic were beaten last night.

“The Dutch played beautiful football as they stroked the ball around in tight little circles, teasing and at times humbling their foe. On this form no wonder they had earlier beaten the former champions, AC. Milan, on whose home pastures this night they tasted their joy and their victory.”

In August of the same year, Feyenoord drew 2-2 with Estudiantes in Buenos Aires, with goals from van Hanegem and Kindvall cancelling out the hosts' early lead through Juan Echecopar and Juan Ramón Verón. That set up the second leg in Rotterdam, which Feyenoord won 1-0 thanks to a goal from Joop van Daele.

The Inter-Continental Cup was then a decider between the European and Latin American champions
Rinus Israel & Theo Laseroms with the Inter-Continental Cup
to with the winners recognised as the best club side in the world.

It seemed that Happel had taken the best elements of the football for which the Wunderteam had been known but added a vital element of “steel” that allowed him to turn creative, passing football into silver.

That is certainly the view of Rotterdam-based journalist, Robert van Brandwijk, who along with fellow Dutch journalist, Ellen Mannens, is preparing a book to mark the 50th anniversary of Feyenoord's most glorious year.

“Yes, it is accurate to say that, although Feyenoord had some of the most intelligent players in the game at that time. Israël was not only steel, but had a beautiful way of kicking the ball and could read the game. Furthermore Van Hanegem and Jansen were regarded – according to Happel – as to be among the best midfield players he ever saw. Tactically speaking they were on the highest level. You could say it was Total Football with character, team spirit and genius.

Mr van Brandwijk is also adamant that that Feyenoord win – and Happel himself – were crucial factors in the ascendancy of Dutch football at both club and international levels.

“Feyenoord was the first Dutch team to win a major competition. It gave a huge boost of confidence to football in our country. And also paved the way for a more professional attitude in the national team. Happel was critical about the gap between Ajax and Feyenoord on side and the Orange team on the other.

Michels would go on to lead the Dutch to a 1974 World Cup final defeat to West Germany in Munich while Happel would led the country to another final defeat against Argentina – again the hosts – in 1978.

But Mr van Brandwijk is keen to emphasise that people should remember Feyenoord: “Because of Ajax's three wins in the following years Feyenoord’s win is sometimes considered to be a lucky shot. It was not. Feyenoord was the first team that successfully played Total Football. During the tournament they completely dismantled the catenaccio of Milan and the aggressive attacking of British football (Celtic).

“Some people in Dutch football like to put Ajax on a pedestal, but Feyenoord has to be credited for tactical genius, character and team spirit. Unfortunately, as Happel said, you can only be a European Top Club if your success continues.

“In 1970 they were top teams, with Ajax being the more artistic and Feyenoord the more tactical side with more character.

“Happel made an everlasting impact on Dutch football. His tactical genius was uncompaired. The key to the 1970 Cup was: not just adjust to the opponent’s tactical plan, but always be sure that they have to follow your plan. So, analyse, adjust and dominate. A perfect example is the final against Celtic, a team that only had their opponent’s goal in mind. Happel surprised them completely by temporizing the speed of the game in midfield.”

One example of a player, often known for his physical toughness but who Mr van Brandwijk and Ms
Theo Laseroms
Mannens both agree should also be appreciated for his ball skills, was Theo Laseroms, who played in the Milan final as well as both legs of the Inter-Continental Cup.

Born in Roosendaal in the province of North Brabant, in 1940, Laseroms turned professional at 17 and spent much of his early career playing as a right-winger. Having played for his local club, NAC Roosendaall, followed by moves to NAC Breda and Sparta Rotterdam, he then tried his luck in the United States, with Pittsburgh Phantoms, in 1970, sparking an international dispute.

By now playing as a full-back, Sparta alleged incitement and pursued court cases in both the Netherlands and the United States with a Dutch court ordering that Laseroms should pay Sparta the equivalent of what would today be around 275,000 CZK per match, amounting to 10% of his annual contract per game he played for the phantoms. (The final fee was settled out of court.)

When he returned in 1968, it was to Feyenoord, where he would earn legendary status, mostly in the centre of defence, though the move was not universally welcomed at first.

“Theo was very important to the team,” Mr van Brandwijk explains but adds, “When he first came to the club, there was a lot of scepticism. Fans considered him to be an overweight ‘butcher’, unworthy of the Feyenoord jersey. But soon he became one of the most popular team members because of his attitude and fearless tackles.... His sliding tackles - some from 20 metres - left tracks in the pitches. No fear. Never.” This earned him the nickname, Theo de Tank.

But in many ways, Laseroms could be seen to have epitomised that shrewd judgement that allowed Happel such success with Feyenoord in conditions very different to those enjoyed by professionals today.

Mr van Brandwijk says, “Together with Israël he was the backbone of the team, it was hard to beat those two. In the 69-70 season Theo was pivotal in the matches against Berlin and Legia, played on pitches unworthy of European football.

“Theo always played on the edge. After the first Milan match Feyenoord got a letter from UEFA saying they should keep an eye on Theo. Furthermore Theo with his mentality, stories and jokes was a beloved team member.”

While the name, Theo Laseroms, may not be readily-recalled by many non-Dutch supporters, one member of his own family will be more familiar to Czech football fans.

His grandson, Slavia's Mick Van Buren, is the son of Laseroms's daughter, Astrid. Sadly, Laseroms died of a heart attack the year before Mick was born but Van Buren is understandably proud of his most famous relative (his father and uncle were also both professional footballers at Excelsior where Van Buren started out), though it was not an ever-present factor in his early days.

Mick Van Buren
“I don't think I was so much aware of it – like what he did. Because I never knew him. I heard he won the European Cup, he won the World Club Championship, but at that time, when I was young, I was not aware that it was so big.

“Of course when I started to be, like 15/16/17, when I started to be a professional player, myself, then you know how big it is to achieve those things because it's huge. It's like winning the Champions League; it's like winning the World Cup for Clubs – he was in the best teams in the world.

“Then you start to know that he was one of the best players.”

Naturally, over time, that awareness grew: “Yeah, many times I've heard stories or I've seen some interviews with him when he was a coach in Bahrain, for example. Yeah, you hear many stories about how he was as a player and it's always nice to hear. And many journalists ask about it – or know about it and tell you something, so I've always been hearing about it.”

“At Feyenoord Stadium [De Kuip], there's a big picture of him outside the stadium, inside the stadium as well, in the museum. Of course, that's a big inspiration, right?” There is also a cul-de-sac, Theo Laseromsstraat, in Rotterdam named after him.

“He was also a hard-working player. He was a defender, though, so that's maybe a different type of player than me, but the hard-working part – and the never giving up part – I think that's something that I also have. So, for sure he gives me inspiration.”

Despite having such strong footballing ties on both his maternal and paternal sides, Mick believes that his own footballing career owes more to as supportive environment than being truly “in the blood”.

“No, it's not like something in the genes … the talent and the hard work took me where I am now.”

“Yeah, in situations, [my father] would help and also my [he] was kind of the same position – he was maybe more of a midfielder than me – more like a number 10 striker, but in situations he would help me, we were talking about football, about situations in the games, from when I was 18 or 19.

“They never pushed me or anything but when you are in a football family, of course football is on all the time, your father is playing football with you all the time. My grandfather, I never knew, but my other grandfather also loved football. So, then you kind of grow up with football so it goes automatically.”

When I spoke to Theo's daughter, Astrid, she was keen to emphasise a side that people close to her
father saw, “He was the opposite of what people thought of him. They always said that he was very tough and very rough and we don't seem him like that at all.”

“At home he was very quiet and we, as his daughters, meant the world to him. He could be very funny but also very kind.”

“My father had a lot of respect for Ernst Happel. He always said things about him and, when he was a coach himself, he always referred to him.”

Robert van Brandwijk, however, is clear where Laseroms's footballing place should be: 

“Theo should be remembered as one of the icons of Feyenoord’s golden days. Happel considered him to be a world class player as a centre back.”

Ms Mannens, who hadn't been born when Laseroms played for Feyenoord says, “I have to admit that I also only knew about Theo's nickname, 'Theo de Tank', but now that I'm writing about season 69-70, I have to say he's my favourite player of that time.”

With their upcoming book, Ms Mannens and Mr van Brandwijk hope to remind the world of a story that is very personal to them: “Historically Feyenoord should be remembered as - with Ajax – as a club responsible for the rise of Dutch football,” Mr van Brandwijk says. 

“Today I think Feyenoord is still one of Europe’s biggest 'volksclubs', a club for the people. The everlasting magic of 1970 lies also in the fact that all those players were normal, ordinary guys the fans could relate to. Israël, Laseroms, Jansen, Moulijn, Van Hanegem, Kindvall, they were us.”

Almost like a Total Football Family.