The decline of Dutch ball-playing centre-backs

The decline of Dutch ball-playing centre-backs

BARRY HULSHOFF – beard unkempt, socks rolled down and a mullet with a life of its own – was something of a prototype. Looking something like the love child of Rod Stewart and Mick Quinn, his untidy and ample demeanour was deceptive. On aesthetic value alone, Hulshoff didn’t quite suit a football kit, let alone one as distinctively stylish as Ajax’s. Yet with a football in close proximity, Hulshoff would transform.

Fluidity would arrive in slow motion. In possession of the football, Hulshoff’s shoulders would drop. There would be a hint of a change in speed, and his hulking frame would seamlessly come together with the ball. Head, chest, thighs, both feet, his laissez-faire demeanour was his first touch. Upon immediate cushioning of the ball, Hulshoff was excellent in decision-making. Playing delicately through the midfield, dropping a shoulder and attacking the space with a mazy dribble, were all perfectly suited to the needs of each moment. Hulshoff also wasn’t afraid of hoofing the ball far, far away when he needed to. John Stones may wish to take note.

Much about the Netherlands lends itself to the stereotype of pragmatism and doing what needs to be done. For a small yet significant nation, space comes at a premium. With the intermittent exception of Andy van der Meyde, everyone has their role. Every square metre has a purpose, and every moment is one to be utilised. Over time, these principles have led to reclaiming land from the sea, creation of picturesque city canals, those mesmerising bruin cafe sink and faucet systems with the beer glass brushes built in, and Total Football.

As much a psychological disposition as a tactical model, Total Football encompasses a near neurotic obsession with space. Its founding fathers – Jimmy Hogan, Vic Buckingham, Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff – gave significant value to players’ propensity to switch positions. The entwined ability to anticipate several passes into the near future, and move to create space where there was none, required players to change positions, and was essentially the aim of Total Football. This spatial intelligence enabled players to simultaneously nullify and dominate the opposition. It was coached to the point of obsession.

As something of a by-product, the ball-playing centre-back was born.

Cradled into the position have been some of the best footballers the world has ever seen. While many footballing nations can list an accomplished ball-playing centre-back or two, the Netherlands enjoys a special history with the role. Some migrated there in their later years, while others made it their career’s calling card, but there’s a generation gap at play. With Dutch football currently enduring something of an identity crisis, have they produced their last true footballing centre-back?

Prior to Total Football and its obsession with movement and space, Dutch defenders were much like any other defender: big, strong and unforgivably physical. The swinging sixties, decade of the Total Football boom, lent many of them the physical appearance of a lost lumberjack. Across Europe, wild and hairy men in short shorts kicked attackers, growled angrily, and hoofed the ball as far away as they could whenever danger or possession threatened.

Barry Hulshoff went a long way to changing that. In doing so he began a Dutch tradition that unearthed some of the world’s most intelligent and technically gifted footballers.

Appropriately for themes of footballing purity, Hulshoff received his Ajax debut in the European Cup at Anfield. It was 1966 and Rinus Michels was 12 months into building arguably the greatest Ajax team. Soon after that cold December evening on Merseyside, Hulshoff went on to win three successive European Cups with ‘Gouden Ajax’ and deceive some of the continent’s best attackers.

Coached by Michels, Ștefan Kovács, and George Knobel, and placed alongside other great Ajax defenders such as; Velibor Vasović, Horst Blankenburg and Tonnie Pronk, Hulshoff was a quick learner. Despite winning just 14 international caps, the prototype soon became a polished product. His six international goals are a testament to his dead ball expertise and attacking awareness.

The Netherlands is a small country and while the inner theories of Total Football remained in Amsterdam, safely locked inside the brains of a select few, it wasn’t long before the ball-playing centre-back became a replicated concept.

In mirroring Hulshoff’s application and comfort on the ball, Rinus Israël was Feyenoord’s cool head at the back in Rotterdam. With the audacity to wear thick-rimmed hipster glasses for Feyenoord’s 1970 photo-call, he too was highly distinctive. He was also highly successful.


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With Feyenoord he won three Eredivisie championships, a KNVB Cup, a UEFA Cup and, in arguably his finest moment, a European Cup in 1970. Winner of 47 international caps over the course of a decade, Israël wasn’t as prolific as Hulshoff, but he was consistent and had a knack of netting important goals, as he did against Celtic in the 1970 European Cup final.

His nickname IJzeren Rinus (Iron Rinus) tells much about his defensive ability, but he is held in higher esteem than that. Israël is lauded for his understanding of the game and his application of Total Football principles. High praise for a player who was never privy to any Ajax training sessions.

This early surge of Total Football, and with it the first generation of Dutch ball-playing centre-backs, had their date with destiny at the 1974 World Cup. With Israël approaching the tail-end of his career and struggling with injury, his Feyenoord teammate, Wim Rijsbergen, would line up alongside Arie Haan in the Dutch defence. Rijsbergen, naturally, was another technically gifted