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In Paris, the '70s Live Again

By Alex Johnson Columnist
Monday, July 13, 1998

In the confused jumble of joyous French players lining up to receive the World Cup on Sunday, FIFA's outgoing president, Joao Havelange, clutched one last winner's medal. For a moment, it appeared that there was one too many. To whom did this leftover medal belong?

To Stephane Guivarc'h, perhaps? Who could have blamed him for being too embarrassed to accept the honor for his undetectable contribution to France's 3-0 victory over Brazil? But no; there was Guivarc'h, clutching his winner's medal, a chastened, impotent striker with more stray apostrophes than goals to his name.

Perhaps it was Zinedine Zidane's. Certainly, no one would begrudge Zidane an extra medal; his stunning two-goal performance in the French midfield, which announced to the world his emergence as one of the game's greatest stars, easily could have misled Havelange into thinking there were two of him Sunday.

Was it for Marcel Desailly, the rocklike defender whose takeout of Cafu 20 minutes from time inevitably led to his being sent off? There was some confusion, after all, as to whether an ejected player could appear with his team for the ceremony. But there was Desailly, medal draped around his neck, honored despite his foul, which was committed coolly and with complete calculation, so much so that he started walking off the field even before the referee could flourish his red card – a thoroughly professional foul but no less disreputable for it.

Eventually, the medal's owner was found. Too bad. It should have been packed up and shipped off to the hospital in Amsterdam where a man named Rinus Michels is recovering from a heart attack. In conception if not in fact, this World Cup was his.

Michels was the Dutch national team coach of the 1970s who popularized a modern theory of soccer called Total Football, which he and Johan Cruyff, the on-the-field extension of his thinking, unleashed on the world in the 1974 World Cup. Total Football did not win that World Cup. That would take 24 years.

Total Football's proponents preached that slotting players into prescribed – and circumscribed – roles was too limiting. In theory, every player on the field should be able to play any role at any time. Michels preached that the best teams featured players who could win the ball, push it forward, make the defense-splitting pass and then score the goal with the return ball. Anyone should be able to win the game in defense, in midfield or in attack, depending on the situation.

To an extent, that style of play has been discredited in the last quarter-century. Partly that is because people recognized that Total Football as Michels envisioned it required a team of 11 Johan Cruyffs. But Total Football also lost a philosophical duel with Italian-inspired theorists who set out to close down the game. In this way of thinking, winning, not entertaining, is all-important, and it's a lot harder to lose a game in which the other team does not score. Indeed, Helenio Herrera, the godfather of catenaccio, the ultimate Italian expression of this style, once said that the perfect game was one that ended 0-0.

In the pressure-filled atmosphere of the World Cup, Anti Football looked to have utterly squashed Total Football. Until Sunday, every goal in the championship game had been scored from the penalty spot since 1986. That's 12 years without a real goal scored from open play.

Who would have thought, then, that a team without a single credible striker could score three goals in the World Cup final while shutting out the most powerful attacking team in the world? That's what happened Sunday.

And that's what has been happening with France ever since the second round began. France scored six goals in the second round, the quarterfinals, the semifinals and the final. Not one – none – was scored by a man who lined up as a striker. Three of them came from defenders. Two others – the knockout blows Sunday – came from Zidane, a midfielder in name only who was not just allowed but was required to roam the entire field as he saw fit. By the time the final whistle blew Sunday, Zidane must have stepped on every blade of grass inside the Stade de France. Officially they lined up as defenders, but Lilian Thuram, Christian Karembeu and Bixente Lizarazu spent almost as much time in the opposition penalty areas as they did in their own.

France's world championship is a rebuke to the dominant tactical trend of the last few years. It takes a World Cup for such trends to crystallize; only when the world's top teams gather in one place for a month can you see clearly how different coaches and different teams have been moving toward playing the same way. In this World Cup, it became clear, the preferred strategy was to pack more and more players more and more busily in midfield; eventually, an opening on goal should break out as too much pressure builds up on the weakest point.

The five-man midfield is now the norm; indeed, it seemed, "3-5-2" was the password you had to recite to be admitted to the club of credible soccer coaches and analysts this summer. There was so much attention lavished on knife-edge differences in official formations that it seemed as though the players were secondary. The frantic hyperintellectualizing of the coaches and the analysts made the World Cup seem like a Princeton graduate seminar, not a soccer tournament.

You can prove anything you like with this sort of painstaking analysis. If you look long enough at how France played and how the United States played, you recognize with a sudden, sharp shock that, in tactics and strategy, at least, they were mirror images. U.S. coach Steve Sampson's much-hyped 3-6-1 formation was neither as novel nor as unbalanced as his harshest critics would have you believe. France officially lined up in a 4-5-1 formation, but in truth the two teams were indistinguishable — one of the four nominal French defenders was always rampaging forward to create the equivalent of a six-man midfield. What Sampson and French coach Aime Jacquet called it was unimportant; they played the same game.

But so what? France won the tournament not because of three-decimal-place calculations of whether five or six midfielders was better, an activity that Sampson reveled in; France won because its best attackers found the best positions to score goals and its best defenders found the best positions to stop them. It just turned out that those attackers and defenders were the same players.

Before the tournament, most analysts — and I was one of them — concluded that France's strikers were too weak for the hosts to make it past the quarterfinals. But that was beside the point; Jacquet figured out long before the rest of us that it doesn't matter who scores a goal, only that it is scored. A goal by Lilian Thuram counts just as much as a goal by a striker. And a good thing, too, because the French strikers were comical. His family can rest easy in the knowledge that Stephane Guivarc'h will never commit suicide; if he tried to kick the bucket, he'd miss it.

The instructions Jacquet gave his players were very simple: As long as you take care of your business at home, you are free to attack at will. Anyone else in the side can be trusted to cover for you if necessary. That is the working definition of Total Football.

For a while, at least, we will be beset by a flurry of teams trying to duplicate France's approach. They shouldn't. Total Football stalled for so long because it can be achieved only by a team of exceptionally athletic and exceptionally intelligent players. Only France has Zinedine Zidane, who effortlessly changed his entire game to fill the gaps left by Desailly's dismissal. If you hadn't seen the red card yourself, you never would have known that France played the last quarter of the game — and extended its lead — with only 10 men.

For that matter, only France has Desailly and Emmanuel Petit and Lilian Thuram and Bixente Lizarazu and Christian Karembeu and Laurent Blanc. And that's why France's version of Total Football will not revolutionize the game, just as Holland's did not 24 years ago. Some copycats will run out of ideas. The rest will run out of gas. But for one month, at least, France proved the essential truth at the heart of Rinus Michels's philosophy: that with the right players, playing with the right attitude, Total Football can sweep away any team laid before it. Even Brazil.

For a quarter-century, Total Football has been admired but not accepted. It was always seen as a glorious failure. We now know that, in the proper circumstances, it is simply glorious.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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