July 3, 1974: crowds the Westfalenstadion in a match between two immensely talented sides. A match whose victor would face the host nation in a quest to etch their names into the history books indelibly; to hold and cradle the newly-commissioned, fresh-from-the-workshop five kilo golden baby that was the World Cup.
A few minutes into the second half, and with a free kick swiftly taken, a wavy-haired and wiry youngster speeds off with the ball, relaying on to his team-mate who sends it back in his path from the right wing. For a second, he does not believe he will reach it – it’s played in front of him and there is a defender challenging him. As pathetically poetic as it sounds, he has never been one to flinch away from an insurmountable task; never one to give up the chase. So he slides. Stretching his foot as far as he can, the contact he hopes for is achieved. One strong touch is all it takes for the ball to rise up, beyond the goalkeeper and in a perfectly-panned trajectory, and drop in to the goal.
The scorer of that lob was, of course, Johan Neeskens.
It’s extremely instinctive of 11 out of 10 people you meet on the street to associate Total Football and the Dutch Golden Seventies with Johan Cruyff. He won accolades with his teams as well as individually, and according to many people singlehandedly revolutionised the sport forever. His level of artistry and skill combined with on-pitch omnipresence and efficiency was largely unprecedented in football and the world stood mesmerised upon the arrival of this footballing Messiah.
Yet, Total Football as Rinus Michels envisioned it and his teams executed it, was not just all flash and feints. As yet another manifestation of duality is found in nature, there was another side to the astounding creativity with the ball in Michels’ philosophy, and that was the almost-maniacal, ruthless pressing and harassing when not in possession. To put it into lesser words, if Cruyff was the yin that exemplified the former, Neeskens was the yang that exemplified the latter.
Neeskens was not a product of the famed Ajax youth system; he was a rough diamond extracted from Racing Club Heemstede in 1970, an addition who would complete the jigsaw as Michels tried to achieve European glory, having already been pipped to the honour of being the first Dutch club to do so by Ernst Happel’s Feyenoord the year before.
The 19-year-old right-back was a revelation for the team and the manager, as his tenacity and ferocity in duel fitted in perfectly with the vision of sweeper Velibor Vasović as well as Michels’ attempt at forming a functional offside trap.
An indefatigable runner, Neeskens was then pushed higher up the field by Michels, who recognised that Neeskens’ instinctive harrying of opponents could be a trigger for the entire team to move up field with him and capitalising on a key Dutch concept in space; by making themselves more compact, the team made the pitch smaller, reducing the opponents’ variety of options and limiting their mobility. Sjaak Swart once quipped that Neeskens could “play for two in midfield”.
Generally tasked with being more of a destroyer at Ajax, even the great Eusébio faded into the background as this “kamikaze pilot” – as Bobby Haarms described him – rose in influence and intimidated legends into anonymity. However, that was not the end of Neeskens’ ability and work on field. In the aforementioned match versus Brazil, Neeskens played in a midfield trio with two Feyenoorders in Wim Jansen and Wim van Hanegem and was given the task of pushing the Brazilian back line – who were not prepared for a collective tactical challenge – as far back as possible. In fact, Neeskens was almost playing up top by himself, as he was frequently found to be furthest forward, keeping the Brazilian defenders occupied, such that there were acres of space left in midfield for the roaming Cruyff and van Hanegem to weave their magic in.
There was a certain uniqueness about the way Neeskens went about his game. He had an aggressive yet committed swagger about him; it was a gladiatorial aplomb. It perhaps comes as no surprise that in Spain this quality is perfectly captured in a picture of Neeskens standing over the rolling and writhing Paul Breitner in El Clásico circa 1975. It is almost entirely reminiscent of a predatory bull prodding and pawing the ground, snorting down at its suffering prey. Indeed, it comes as no surprise that Neeskens was nicknamed ‘El Toro’ in Spain by the Barcelona faithful.
The Nees had a never-say-die attitude on the field which resonated as loud as a siren in his play. His style of play was all-out, high-octane and with little care for his own safety (or the opponents’) in a bid to make his team win. He was advised by every coach he ever had – Michels included – to tweak his game such that it was not so demanding and he could reduce the chances any lasting damage or injury. But the man did not flinch, later saying he lived his life the same way:
“When I walk onto the field, I always want to win and get the ball – I am not concerned about myself.”
This is perhaps what stood out most about the man from Heemstede on pitch. Forget tactics, forget footballing ideologies, forget systems; if you watched him knowing zilch about his team or the man himself, you too – as millions did – fell in love with the way he seemed to be a fan in a player’s body, with unparalleled commitment to the cause and irrepressible energy in fighting to win the ball.
Consequently, Neeskens enjoyed a cult status amongst the fans wherever he went and was revered at every club he played for. Girls adored him for his rock star looks and long, wavy, dirty-blond/light brown hair, and olive-coloured eyes. But people of all backgrounds, genders, occupations were unanimously enamoured by his charming and infectious passion on field, how he seemed to be an embodiment of unwavering spirit and could give as good as he got.
Many modern-day fans seem to look upon Total Football as an innovation of Cruyff’s, whereby he invented the entire idea and made it happen along with Rinus Michels. While he did effectively orchestrate a large part of it and made things happen on pitch, in all honesty, none of it would have been possible to the extent it has been if he had not had such players around him – every single one of whom embodied the crux of the Total Football ideology.
A consequence of the God-like reverence Cruyff receives as being the ‘Total Footballer’ is the fact that many geniuses in the Ajax and Dutch teams in the early ’70s have gone criminally underrated and unheralded. There is still a sizeable number of people in the Netherlands who believe Wim van Hanegem was just as good as Cruyff, but much better defensively, making him more complete than the Dutch legend.
Hence, Johan Segon (Johan the Second, as Barcelona fans called him; Johan the First’s identity is rather obvious) was not merely a cold-blooded, ruthless destroyer. He was also one of the most complete midfielders football has ever seen. He is, perhaps, the first real proponent of what we have now become accustomed to as the box-to-box midfielder role.
Every player in those teams was a ‘Total Footballer’ in his own right and Neeskens was certainly one of the most all-rounded; he could be fluid and operate in any part of the pitch while retaining key elements of his game as well as his fundamental technical abilities of extraordinary ball control as well as heading. Neeskens also held an extremely respectable goal tally for club and country, renowned for his powerful shot. His passing was by no means sub-par and he set the bar high for future midfield generals with his ability to dictate the tempo of games.
However, for the larger part of Neeskens’ career, he remained perpetually in Cruyff’s shadows. El Salvador only came into his absolute peak as Neeskens started operating directly behind him. Neeskens followed him into the Dutch national team, and was prized at the personal request of both Cruyff and Michels to sign for Barcelona. They realised that The Nees was absolutely vital to Cruyff’s success; they needed Neeskens to strong-arm opponents and create space.
Neeskens was the part of Total Football that was irreplaceable and entirely essential to its success – the hard defending, the ferocious tackling – but also the part that tends to be overlooked as it was less appealing and less favourable on the eye. Neeskens was the George Harrison to Cruyff’s John Lennon.
He followed his more illustrious colleague across the Atlantic too, but he signed for New York Cosmos while Johan the First signed for the Aztecs. Sadly for Neeskens, he was unable to find substantial success in the States. The Heemstede-born man with rock star looks started to fall to rock star ways in America, with addictions to alcohol, cocaine and gambling plaguing his life for a significant period.
In 1981, Neeskens – not even 30 yet at the time – was desperately trying to keep his head above the waters of River Lethe. He had missed a team flight to a conference final in Los Angeles and had consequently been indefinitely suspended by coach Hennes Weisweiler. Meanwhile, Dutch qualification for the 1982 World Cup was on the rocks and they needed a spark – any spark. Then Head Coach Kees Rijvers decided to travel to New York to see how Neeskens was doing and Rijvers said he would give Neeskens a start versus little neighbours Belgium if he could keep his fitness in shape.
As a result, there was a lanky figure of a man running up and steps in the stadium every afternoon, trying to improve his stamina. He needed no training for the tackles; they were second nature.
Indeed, in late 1981, The Nees was due for his return in the vibrant orange of his nation. Tickets sold out, and fans travelled from thousands of miles just to get a glance of their beloved star again. The Dutch team soon burst out of the tunnel at Feyenoord’s legendary De Kuip stadium to a rousing cheer by the fans but it quickly subsided as their eyes scanned for the unmistakable light-brown hair and olive eyes. “Where is Johan?” Confusion took over as emotions conglomerated in a turmoil of disappointment, betrayal, anger and denial. Where was the man of the evening?
A few minutes later, they got their answer as sprinting onto field was the wiry man with the light brown hair and olive eyes. The concrete in the stadium was shaken as the thousands inside screamed out their voices to a hoarse whisper. “Johan! Johan!” In that precise moment, it was perhaps not at all hard to believe that the Johan there was of the Neeskens type and not Cruyff.
Yin and yang are often seen as dichotomous entities but more often than not they are complementary. Cruyff’s yang of beauty and skill required Neeskens’ yin of tackling and creating space, and Neeskens’ yin needed Cruyff’s yang to be fully aware and capitalise on the space he created, such that the team benefits. Dichotomy here is false. Yin and yang are entirely complementary and in fact, work in tandem to create a system where the whole is larger than the sum of its parts; the very essence of Total Football.
By Priya Ramesh. Follow @Priya8Ramesh