This story goes back to the days when players were not able to play due to the ongoing World Wars in the first half of the 20th century. With Michels progressing as a young footballer in the Netherlands, it was in 1940 that his career was halted because of his duties to serve his country at war. At this time he was being pursued by French club Lille, as well as being tracked by his beloved Ajax.
After serving his country Michels was eventually signed by Ajax where he would spend his entire playing career. Michels was never the most gifted technically, but his strength and ability in the air were the attributes that made him a forced to be reckoned with in the Dutch National Championship – the ‘Eredivsie’ in modern day speak. His impressive goalscoring record of 122 goals in 246 matches even propelled Michels to the Dutch national team, although he only managed five caps.
A natural progression for a player like Michels, methodical and particular in his preparation, was the ‘step up’ to the realms of the management game. After a five year spell with local amateur sides based in his hometown of Amsterdam, Ajax finally plucked up the courage to appoint Michels as their manager. The year was 1965, and the history of Ajax was about to change forever under the guidance of Rinus Michels.
Although Jack Reynolds – an Englishman in charge of Ajax at the start of the 20th century – is the first known ‘father’ of ‘total football’, it was Michels who pioneered the concept of interchanging positions into the professional era of football. The four Eredivisie titles in five years was just the beginning of the legendary Michels era at Ajax. Ajax’s domestic domination during the late 1960’s was about to extend to the European stage, which would be the first international recognition of the innovation of ‘total football’.
Despite being outclassed by a classy AC Milan side in the 1969 European cup final, Ajax would dominate the at the beginning of the 1970’s with some deaf defying performances that struck a chord with football lovers, finally the game was being played how people imagined it in their heads, ‘total football’ was not born at this time, it was very much alive.
The uniqueness of the Michels story is that he won’t be solely remembered just for the trophies he won for the clubs he managed, but his incredible and innovative management style that eventually brought high accolades from managers all over the world. Despite this worldwide recognition, it was a player closer to home that was always full of praise for Michels. One of the main beneficiaries of ‘total football’ was the great Johann Cryuff who had these kind words to say about his manager, coach and friend, “both as a player and as a trainer there is nobody who taught me as much as him”.
Michels also had successful and not so succesful spells away from Ajax. Barcelona were lucky to have Michels at their disposal, as it seemed he would never leave Ajax, the club that allowed him to experiment with the concept of ‘total football’. Michels also had brief spells at Los Angeles Aztecs, and later on in his career, Bayer Leverkusen. Both of these spells for Michels proved to him and the rest of the world that ‘total football’ could not be implemented on just any team. “Not just any team”. This phrase would be extremely relevant to Michels legacy, not just in club management, but as the manager of his country of birth, Netherlands.
The 1974 World Cup, for some reason, is always remembered for the team that was beaten in the final, and what was that reason? Their new brand of football. By dispatching of footballing giants like Brazil and Argentina on their way to the final, the Netherlands were unlikely favourites against the West Germans although despite taking a 1-0 lead early on the Netherlands were eventually pegged back by their European neighbours. West Germany were the champions of the world however, the Netherlands were the champions of the beautiful game, and there was one man that was responsible for this stlye of play, Rinus Michels. A second spell with the Netherlands, in the 1980’s, lead to Michels, again delivering on the international stage, this time winning the European Championships in 1988 with ‘that’ Marco Van Basten goal.
Nicknamed the general because of his disciplinarian attitude towards footballers, he was similar to the Jose Mourinho persona of the modern era as well as having the determination to win trophies in the latter part of his career.
Rinus Michels will not only leave an impresive trophy cabinet behind, but also a leagcy has been left behind that has rebranded football into truly being known as the beautiful game.