Ajax, Barcelona and Coaching occupy special places in Johan Neeskens’ heart. He made a mark as a teenager with the famous Dutch club known for grooming young football talents, built a reputation as a versatile attacking midfielder with the La Liga team, then pursued a passion for football post-retirement by getting into coaching and is currently mentoring coaches. The two-time FIFA World Cup finalist with The Netherlands, in Mumbai for a World Coaches programme launched by KNVB (Royal Dutch Football Association), swung between the present and the past in an interaction at the Cooperage stadium.
Neeskens belonged to the Total Football era masterminded by the great Johann Cruyff (Ajax FC, FC Barcelona and The Netherlands), sparking energy into world football with a mix of versatility and verve. Fans lapped up this exciting new way involving the interchange of positions among players dealing with the ball in defensive and offensive parts of the pitch. World football nowadays, especially at clubs in certain leagues, is a reflection of the Cruyff way. Famous coaches realised that attack is the best form of defence, box-to-box midfielders run the show, and goalkeepers operate like sweeper-backs.
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The 70-year-old strongly disagrees, explaining what he sees now is a far cry from Total Football. “I don’t see Total Football the way we did at Ajax, defenders playing up and all that. Not by everybody.
“Nowadays, we see calculating football. Teams play five defenders, three midfielders and two strikers, or 3-5-2 (five midfielders). For example, France won the World Cup (2018) by not really playing attacking football. They had fantastic players in (Antoine) Griezmann, (Oliver) Giroud, (Kylan) Mbappe, and fantastic midfielders (Paul Pogba, N’golo Konte) but these players dropped back and focussed more on the counter-attacks. I understand the coach decides what is best for his team, Total Football I do not see too much (being played).”
Neeskens, who converted a penalty-kick two minutes after kick-off in a World Cup final (The Netherlands vs Germany 1974 final at Munich), points out coaches’ decision formation and style. “It all depends on the coach, based on the quality of players in his squad.”
Asked about football stars with big-match reputations missing penalty kicks (for example Mbappe in Euro 2020 against Switzerland, Lionel Messi for Argentina v Iceland in 2018 World Cup), the Dutch ace observed, “Goalkeepers do a lot of research on penalty-takers they are going to face in tie-breaker. This is possible due to technology and is a key factor.”
“There are players who score all the time in penalty kicks practice, then miss maybe once in a match. It is about that moment in the match, it is about the goalkeeper under the bar, many factors play a part,” he added.
Referring to the 1974 World Cup penalty kick, beating German goalkeeper Sepp Maier, Neeskens recalled, “Pressure is always there, dealing with it is individualistic. I faced pressure, the penalty decision came very early into the game and with 80,000 German fans around. You have to step up and be confident. I was thinking about two successful kicks against Bulgaria earlier. You also need a bit of luck. There is no one way to prepare.”
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FC Barcelona and Ajax AFC are close to Neeskens’ heart (joined in 1974 and 1970 respectively). Both clubs are also in the news for different reasons. For example, FCB convinced former playmaker/captain Xavi Hernandez to take charge as chief coach in a desperate move to regain former glory. Neeskens, who followed Cruyff to the La Liga club and came back as assistant manager to work alongside coach Frank Rijkaard (2006), said: “Xavi was busy last year but could not win a title. He has to deal with players coming in, others going out and also the style he wants the team to follow. Even if you are an ex-player and a star, building a team is not easy.”
Major club managers are chasing Ajax talents, examples being Dutch sensations Frenkie de Jong (FCB), and Matthijs de Ligt (Juventus to Bayern Munich). Man United’s new coach from Ajax, Erik ten Haag, is trying to attract former trainees like Antony. Explaining the Ajax way, Neeskens said, “It is due to the youth system, the way they work with players on all aspects after getting them into the club at a young age. The kids are expected to do well in school, brain and football development happens together. Every season, one or two youth players are promoted to the second team. If they have quality, play for the first team. It does not matter if he is 17 or 19, it is the coach’s call.”
The emergence of exciting Ajax players, adapting to different systems in top leagues under various managers, is a boost to the Dutch way of winning over fans and matches. The 70-year-old is proud of the legacy, designed by Rinus Michels at Ajax and orchestrated by Cruyff and subsequent generations. “It is the philosophy we had as Dutch players. From my era at Ajax, our coach Rinus Michels worked for four-five years in a certain way he wanted his players and team to play. From 1970 when I was with Ajax, everything fell into place and we played attractive, attacking football. We put pressure up high, surprised other teams.”
“That is how we play in Holland, we can be proud of our results over the years. Ours is a small country, we have done well in the organisation of working with children, if you look at the participation of our teams in tournaments, playing with the intention of winning,” Neekens added.
The focus on making kids develop an awareness of space on the pitch was evident in training sessions with local coaches, as part of the KNVB World Coaches project’s Mumbai week, and part of the Dutch federation’s partnerships in different countries (India’s partner is Acosta Infrastructure Services).
Cruyff’s partner in attack started off as a brand ambassador and later got involved in a deeper way as Instructor, travelling to train coaches in football skills and life skills, so that a coach is able to make a difference in the community.
Neeskens travelled before as a professional coach to Australia in 2005 (alongside Guus Hiddink), Turkey’s Galatasaray club in 2009 (alongside Rijkaard), and South African club Mamelodi Sundowns in 2011. Instructors Bert Zuurman, Sjaak Tersteeg (both UEFA A coaches) are others involved.
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