How society and politics gave us Catenaccio and Total Football

How society and politics gave us Catenaccio and Total Football

BENEDIKT TASCHEN’S BOOK ON 1970s FOOTBALL PHOTOGRAPHY is titled The Age of Innocence. An apt title, perhaps – it was the final time when footballers were still at some level “our lads”, clubs were focused on the community, tickets were cheap and, as Ed Vulliamy wrote, “there was an innocence, not least in the presumption by thousands of teenagers from Merseyside that one could saunter down to London and watch a cup final by bunking in.”

In Europe, it was also the time of the emergence of Total Football as the dominant football philosophy, replacing the older Catenaccio. The latter was viewed as cynical, negative and reactive, and the former, artistic, positive and pro-active. The dialectics between the two styles would change the sport forever.

Responding to larger societal issues, the two styles in a sense also bear testament to the remarkable contribution of the left to the sport.  Where David Winner related Total Football to the anarchist counter-culture movements of 1960s Amsterdam, philosopher of the far left and AC Milan fan Antonio Negri once described Catenaccio as “class war”. 


The ghost of Machiavelli


Not long before aristocrats started playing calcio fiorentino on the Piazza Santa Croce in 16th-century Florence, a Florentine named Niccolo Machiavelli wrote a treatise that would make him one of the founders of modern political science.

While most consider The Prince to comprise of “evil recommendations to tyrants to help them maintain their power”, Enlightenment-era philosophers like Rousseau and Diderot maintained that Machiavelli was always a republican, even when writing his infamous work. 

At a time when Italy was divided between city-states and the Catholic Church, perpetually at conflict with foreign invaders and each other, Machiavelli calls for a prince who would unite the masses. Machiavelli’s prince is naturally opposed to the Pope and the aristocratic families vying for power. Moreover, he insists that the prince will come from among the masses and not the aristocracy. 

As a theory of realpolitik, free from any moral or spiritual humbug, The Prince discusses how to gain power and keep it – relevant for the Jacobins of 1790s France and, in Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s opinion, today’s revolutionary socialist party.

What makes Machiavelli different from utopian thinkers like Thomas More and Plato is that his project is rooted in the prevailing socio-political conditions of his times. Negri, while discussing the general Italian trend of tactically approaching football, relates it to what he describes as the “Machiavellianism” of the Italian people – “making do with what you have at your disposal”.


“Fight or play? Fight and play!” – the nature of Catenaccio


Post-war Italian teams played with a style that would be called Catenaccio. With a sweeper sitting behind a line of defenders, they would lull the opposition into a seductive embrace before thrusting in the dagger in a quick, precise counter-attack.

Among the pioneers of this system was Helenio Herrera, or Il Mago, a manager with a reputation of building teams that were cynical and ruthless. Ambitious and a perfectionist, his teams were designed to do one thing and one thing only – win.

Read  |  The incomparable legacy of Helenio Herrera

The son of an exiled anarchist from Andalusia, Herrera was born in Buenos Aires and grew up in Casablanca and Paris. Besides playing football, he also worked other jobs to get by. Acutely aware of his footballing limitations, he developed an extraordinary tactical mind.

Herrera enjoyed his first success as manager at Atlético Madrid, winning two league titles in four years. He was among the first managers to emphasise on training camps. Alfonso Aparicio, an Atlético player, once said: “He used to make us train like crazy for up to three hours every day. But it meant that when Sunday came we could demolish anyone.” 

After Real Madrid, reputed to be the Franco dictatorship’s favoured team, signed Alfredo Di Stéfano, Barcelona – symbol of Catalonian identity and republicanism – appointed Herrera manager in a bid to shift the balance of power. 

In The Dark Matter of Violence, the foreword to Sophie Wahnich’s In Defence of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution, Marxist philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek argues that although liberal consensus is that the militarism of Spartan society was inhuman, it was this very nature that enabled it to resist the superior might of the Persian Empire. 

Žižek also argues that Fight Club was primarily about the idea that freedom has its price – pain. Freedom had to be attained through an iron discipline and will. Žižek, of course, is discussing politics. However, looking at society through the prism of football, we get a vestige of this Spartan discipline in catenaccio.

According to Sid Lowe, at Barcelona, Herrera started with three rigorous training sessions per day. After the first, the players threw up. By the end of his tenure, he had won two La Liga titles including one in his first season itself. Herrera’s demand for discipline and hard work was modelled on his own life – he ate moderately, never drank or smoked, and did yoga daily. “He who doesn’t give it all, gives nothing,” he would say.

Herrera moved to Internazionale in 1960 and stamped his sense of discipline on every aspect of the club. No individualistic quality was permitted at the cost of the system and anyone who challenged his protocols immediately lost his place. Soon the likes of Facchetti, Picchi, Mazzola, Guarneri and Burgnich were terrorising opposition teams.

Herrera’s catenaccio comprised four defenders and a free libero (sweeper). While the defenders were trained to diligently man-mark opposition attackers, the role of the libero was to act as an additional defender, pick up any loose ball and effect an immediate transition to attack. The midfielders and forwards would then deliver the killer counter-punch.

While Herrera claimed to be the founder of this system, the true proponent of this idea was probably his rival Nereo Rocco, who was inspired by Karl Rappan’s ideas. In an interview with Liberation, Antonio Negri said that catenaccio had the tough character of the Italian peasantry: “It was the class struggle: one is weak and one has to defend oneself.”

Born in the small city of Trieste, Rocco played for Triestina – an inconspicuous club – during the depression years post-World War One. He made his managerial debut with Triestina in the 1947-48 season and helped the club finish second. It was here that he started developing his strictly defensive approach.

Read  |  Nereo Rocco: the mad king of catenaccio

In 1954, Rocco moved to Serie B outfit Padova. He diligently went about building a disciplined side with a defensive, counter-attacking approach and saved Padova from relegation that season. Soon Padova was promoted and in the 1957-58 season finished third in Serie A.

Where Rocco preferred a 1-3-3-3 formation (which he sometimes switched to 1-4-4-1 and 1-4-3-2), Herrera modified it into 5-3-2 – known as the verrou (door bolt) – ensuring an extra man in defence and also greater flexibility and width while going on the counter. 

In 1961, Rocco earned his first big break with AC Milan. Applying the same defensive philosophy, he won Milan the title in his first season in charge. The likes of Dino Sani, Altafini, Cesare Maldini and Gianni Rivera took Milan to the final of the European Cup in 1963 to face the mighty Benfica.

Catenaccio was thus born, thanks to the genius of Nereo Rocco, in Venetia – a land whose people were obliged to leave in the post-World War II years to survive. In Negri’s words: “It was the great migration of the masons and brick layers and ice cream vendors to Belgium, Switzerland. Catenaccio corresponds to the nature of these […] strong immigrants – tough, fierce, because they were hungry.”

The victories of catenaccio are generally not described as beautiful. Herrera’s successful defence of Inter’s European Cup in 1965 was described as “not a win for the purists”. The 1963 Wembley final was dubbed as a duel between the cynical pragmatism of Rocco’s AC Milan and the adventurous buccaneers of Benfica. Milan prevailed and became the first club to bring the European Cup to Italy.

Unlike Herrera, Rocco, while emphasising on the need for discipline on the pitch, could often be found in bars and restaurants discussing contemporary issues with writers and journalists. Amongst his closest friends was the editor of Gazzetta dello Sport, Gianni Brera.

A member of the anti-fascist Italian Resistance during World War Two, Brera also wrote for socialist and leftist publications like Il Giorno and Il Repubblica. He invented his own language of football and broke the then-intrinsic link between fascist lexicon and the sport in Italy, changing calcio writing forever. It was also he who recognised a specific style of play adopted by Rocco and Herrera and according to Negri, “theorised it”.


Red scare


As the defensive aspect of football transitioned to relentless man-marking, attacking styles had to adapt. The first to respond were the coaches of the Soviet bloc.

Boris Arkadyev, manager of Dynamo Moscow in the early 1940s, came up with what Jonathan Wilson in his book Inverting the Pyramid calls “organised disorder”. It became logical to have the midfielders and attackers adopt roaming roles and the defence to switch to a mobile system.

Read  |  The methodical, scientific wisdom of Valeriy Lobanovskyi

Mikhail Yaushin, Arkadyev’s successor, once said: “The principle of collective play is the guiding one in Soviet football. A player must not only be good in general; he must be good for the particular team.”

With this ethic of collectivity, Gusztáv Sebes’ Hungary of the early 1950s – a team that went unbeaten for five years – played what they called “socialist football”. Unlike other national sides, Sebes didn’t pick the best player for each position – he picked the best possible team. Additionally, with regards to tactics, his thinking was simple: the more fluid a team is while attacking, the harder it is for the opposition defence to maintain its structure.

In the 1960s, Valeriy Lobanovskyi – who would later bring the Cup Winners’ Cup to Kyiv – together with statistician Anatoliy Zelentsov came up with his own theory of the game. In The Methodological Basis of the Development of Training Models, which they co-authored, they wrote: “It’s necessary to force the opponent into the condition you want them to be in. One of the most important means of doing that is to vary the size of the playing area.”

Their theory of space would be perfected by two Dutchmen – Rinus Michels and his disciple Johan Cruyff.


The rebels of Total Football


A gifted centre-forward playing for Ajax of Amsterdam in the post-war years, Rinus Michels received his football education from Jack Reynolds and Vic Buckingham. In 1965, he was appointed manager of Ajax.

A good footballer has always been one who arrives at the right place in the right time. Michels, like his Soviet counterparts, realised this consciously and set about evolving a philosophy that would be called Total Football.

With most of the land of the Netherlands located below sea-level, space is a tremendously precious commodity for the Dutch. For centuries, the Dutch have been developing doctrines for land use planning. A popular adage in the Netherlands goes: “God created the world. The Dutch created Holland.” Through a network of canals, dams, and embankments the Dutch have squeezed out and reclaimed land from the sea. They call this maakbaarheid (malleability), or the ability and will to mould and control an entire physical environment and everything within it.

Michels drew on this quintessentially Dutch economics of space – although the size of the football field is fixed, the effective playing area can be altered to suit a team’s needs. In Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football, David Winner writes: “In possession, Ajax – and later the Dutch national team – aimed to make the pitch as large as possible…seeing every run and movement as a way to increase and exploit the available space. When they lost the ball, the same thinking and techniques were used to destroy the space of their opponents.”

Where for the Soviet coaches fluidity and interchangeability of positions occurred horizontally, Michels – a proponent of radical dynamism – applied it in all directions. In his system, each footballer could play in all possible positions – the ‘total’ footballer was born. 

Read  |  Rinus Michels and the Total Football rebellion

If one of the midfielders made a driving run forward, one of the forwards would drop back and take his place, thus preserving the team’s formation. This move would also confuse the opposition defenders. If a forward dropped back, was the defender marking him supposed to go with him or was he to hold his ground and check the attack of the charging midfielder? Or was he to try and cut off the left-back, who was sprinting down the wing to assist? 

On 7 December 1966, on a foggy night in Amsterdam, little-known Ajax decimated Bill Shankly’s Liverpool 5-1 in the second round of the European Cup. Liverpool were the tournament favourites and Shankly declared that they “will smash in at least seven goals” in the second leg at Anfield. It was drawn 2-2. The Dutch had arrived.

The 1960s was also a time when Dutch society itself was being changed by counter-culture movements in Amsterdam – a city which had once been described by philosopher, French Resistance member and amateur goalkeeper, Albert Camus in The Fall as so boring that “for centuries, pipe-smokers have been watching the same rain falling on the same canal”.

What started as an anti-tobacco campaign grew into an anarchist counter-culture movement against consumerism, stifling conservatism, fascism and the Vietnam War. In 1966, anarchist students and communist workers took to the streets and violent clashes with the police followed. In Message to the Rat King, Harry Mulish wrote: “While their parents, seated on refrigerators and washing machines, watched TV with their left eyes, and their cars with their right eyes, a mixer in one hand and the Telegraaf in the other, the kids left Saturday evening for the Spui square.”

While Dutch society was slowly being changed by these events, Ajax was breaking away from established conventions and mesmerising the world with their fast, slick passing, and fluid movements. Ajax would win the Eredivisie title four times from 1966 to 1970 and the European Cup thrice between 1971 and 1973.

Similar to the counter-culture movement which aspired for a world held in commons, Michels’ philosophy, like that of the Soviet coaches, stressed on the importance of collective play rather than individual action. This is not to say that he discouraged individuality. Unlike Catenaccio, Total Football encouraged individual skill and intelligence – Johan Cruyff, after all, has been described as an “artist” and “Pythagoras in boots” – but it was always secondary to the good of the team.

Cruyff and other Dutch footballers were also fighting for professionalising the sport. When he found that officials of the football governing body, the KNVB, were insured on foreign trips but players were not, Cruyff used his significant clout to force a change. Just before the 1974 World Cup, Cruyff, then captain of the national team, threatened that his team would go on strike if they did not get bonuses on par with players of other European teams.

Describing 1960s Amsterdam, David Winner wrote: “The old corps were secretive, conservative and reactionary; the new unions were leftist, open and alternative.”Ajax became an icon of the counter-culture movement and with his long hair and outspoken straight-talking ways, Cruyff, its face. 

In 1971, Rinus Michels moved to Barcelona. Michels realised that the players of Barcelona did not lack technical ability but were too easily discouraged by criticism. What they lacked was a winning mentality, and he set about building it.

Johan Cruyff fell out with the Ajax management and some of his team-mates in 1973. While the board wanted to sell him to Real Madrid, he forced through a transfer to Barcelona, famously declaring that he would never play for a team associated with Franco. For Barcelona, this was more than a marquee signing, it meant that the best player in the world understood what they represented.

Read  |  The in-depth history of Ajax and Barcelona’s unique relationship

As Franco supported Madrid from his sickbed, Cruyff led a Barcelona side that brushed them aside 5-0 at their own home ground. In Barcelona, thousands poured out into the streets to celebrate. A journalist of the New York Times wrote that Cruyff had done more for Catalonia in 90 minutes than politicians had managed to do in decades. From second-last in the league table just before Cruyff joined, Barcelona went on a 17-game unbeaten run and lifted the La Liga trophy.

Michels and Cruyff brought flexibility, speed, and, in historian Jimmy Burns’ words, gave Barcelona a “sense of themselves”.


Thesis x Anti-thesis = Synthesis


In 1969, at the Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid, Michels’ Ajax met Rocco’s AC Milan in the European Cup final. It was a duel between pragmatism and artistry, reaction and pro-action, and in some senses attack and defence.

Cruyff’s reputation prompted many to call for Rocco to change his style just for this match. But El Paròn held firm. Where Michels depended on his team to find space, Rocco was determined not to give it to them. He famously told his defenders to mark the opposition “from the dressing room to the toilet”. Milan dominated the game and Cruyff was reduced to a bystander. The Italians won 4-1 and Catenaccio had won the first round.

Michels was quick to respond. The very next season, he signed Johan Neeskens. If Cruyff was a ballet dancer who “brought the grace of Rudolf Nureyev to the football pitch”, Neeskens was the one you would want by your side during a fight.

Ajax had failed to find space in the final against AC Milan – Neeskens’ job was to create that space. An intelligent footballer blessed with strong legs, he served as a box-to-box midfielder, breaking up opposition build-ups and assisting when his team attacked. In 1971, Ajax beat Panathinaikos and lifted the European Cup for the first time. 

In 1972, Total Football met Catenaccio once again in the European Cup final – Ajax would play Inter at De Kuip in Rotterdam. Although the managers of both teams had changed – Stefan Kovacs replaced Michels and Giovanni Invernizzi replaced Herrera – both teams were largely the same and played in the same style.

This time however was different. Ajax dominated proceedings from kick-off. Cruyff struck twice to win Ajax the European Cup for the second time. The match went down as Total Football’s greatest moment.

Throughout the 1970s, Total Football would be the dominant philosophy in football. The Dutch national side, with the likes of Suurbier, Hulshoff, Krol, Swart, Rensenbrink, and the two Johans would earn the nickname Naranja Mechanica, or Clockwork Orange, and would emerge as a footballing powerhouse, reaching the World Cup final twice in 1974 and 1978.

The relationship between the two styles is perhaps best expressed in the Chinese yin-yang – opposite and contradictory, yet interconnected and interdependent, each feeding off the other.

Read  |  Louis van Gaal: a divisive success story

Where people generally view Total Football as only an attacking philosophy, it is also very defensive – it depends on a high defensive line which frequently used the offside trap. When Michels took charge, the first thing he bolstered was Ajax’s defence. In a talk show, Cruyff, while explaining his philosophy, once said: “I am much more defensive than people make me out to be.”

Antonio Negri relates Catenaccio’s defensive nature to the Italian struggling to survive in the post-war years. The Dutch use of space to defend also has its origins in history. As David Winner points out, in the 16th century, when the Dutch rebelled against Spain and declared themselves a republic, they resisted the might of the Spanish forces by flooding the areas between cities which ensured that while they had to defend a lesser area, the Spanish armies were bogged down and could not manoeuver quickly.   

Faced with the constant fear of the sea reclaiming the land, it was only natural for the ethic of teamwork and cooperation to be developed in the Netherlands, just like it was natural for the clubs in the communist bloc to come up with, for lack of a better description, a socialist way of playing football. 

Like Rocco and Herrera, Michels commanded absolute discipline from his team and held training camps with intensive sessions. Like Gerry Hitchens who, after leaving Inter, said it was like “coming out of the bloody army”, Piet Kiezer described Michels’ training methods as the “hardest physical preparation I ever had. We sometimes had four sessions a day.”

And like Michels, both Herrera and Rocco believed that the individual should at all times serve the team – the whole was always greater than the sum of its parts. According to Herrera: “He who plays for himself plays for the opposition. He who plays for the team, plays for himself.”

Catenaccio has been perceived to be more defensive than it actually is. Herrera while explaining his style said: “A small number of short, very quick passes to get to the opposition’s goal in as little time as possible. There is almost no place for dribbling. It’s a tool, not a system. The ball always moves further, and more quickly, when there isn’t a player behind it.”

This is strikingly similar to Total Football’s approach of getting the ball into the opposition half as quickly as possible. Herrera’s dictum, “Think quickly, act quickly, play quickly”, would no doubt resonate with Michels and later Louis van Gaal.

Rocco’s meticulous planning for every potential situation was also similar to that of Michels. Herrera studied opposition players thoroughly – their actions, reactions, stamina, pace, which foot they preferred, what they would likely do in a given situation. A few decades later, Johan Cruyff would say: “Before I make a mistake, I don’t make that mistake.”

Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad celebrated Ajax’s 1972 victory over Inter as “the death of defensive football”. However, Catenaccio powered Italy to a World Cup in 1982. A decade later, Cruyff with his Dream Team at Barcelona and van Gaal’s Ajax brought back Total Football.

Both Catenaccio and Total Football resulted from developments in football tactics as well as societal changes. The dialectics between the two philosophies shape football to this day – perhaps best expressed in the baroque expressionism of Cruyff’s disciple Pep Guardiola and the pragmatic Cholismo of Diego Simeone.

By Shirsho Dasgupta  @ShirshoD

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