This European Championships will be the first to take place after the untimely death of football’s great philosopher-king, Johan Cruyff. While sadly Johan himself will not be present, Cruyff’s legacy will very much be felt at Euro 2016.
Cruyff is regarded as the pioneer of ‘Total Football’, a way of playing football in which players were free to respond to the demands of the game without traditional positional constraints. Players rotated, swapped positions and moved around the field; it is remarkable and sometimes disorienting to watch. The system relied on a strong understanding between players, effective on-pitch communication and a willingness to sacrifice individual self for the sake of the team’s collective success.
The ever-shifting patterns of play created by Total Football’s player movement are the precursors to the modern tiki-taka style. Tiki-taka has seen FC Barcelona – and to some extent Bayern Munich – rise to the top of club football in Europe. At this year’s Euros, this fast-paced, intricate passing style will almost certainly be in evidence.
Cruyff never won either the World Cup or the Euros as a player – though he came bitterly close in Munich 1974. In one sense however he is a winner. As the co-creator of Total Football it can be argued that he was the grand architect of Spain’s win in 2010 – as well as their two Euro wins either side of that triumph, and maybe even Germany’s victory two years ago. Cruyff’s disciples – Rijkaard, Koeman, Guardiola, and others – have successfully continued his work.
But Total Football wasn’t a total free-for-all; there was still a set of laws to govern the game: you couldn’t have 15 players, or three goalkeepers. Total Football also recognised that there were preferred positions, to which each player was best suited, and for which they had trained. When play broke down, or whenever the opportunity arose – at corners, throw-ins, and lengthy stoppages – players would return to their initial position.
Like Total Football, the Church depends on its members working in unison to achieve an outcome that no one individual could muster alone. Each member has a role – a preferred position, if you will – and where we are able we should fulfil the role given to us (1 Corinthians 12:18). You can move around to fill the needs of your context, and sometimes you’ll feel out of position, but if your teammates (‘fellow workers’ to use a biblical term) are on the same wavelength, then you’ll be covered (Galations 6:2).
Cruyff’s disciples wholly bought into his way of playing and thinking about football. Ronald Koeman (Southampton FC manager) said, after Cruyff death: “Johan walks through my life.”
You’re a disciple of Christ? To what extent does Jesus Christ “walk through your life”? How is his presence felt in the way you perceive the role(s) you’ve been asked to play?
You don’t get to rewrite the rules of Christian discipleship, you’ve not be asked to move the goalposts, and you’ve definitely been given a position to play. But you do get to do everything in your power to play that position as intelligently and selflessly as you can. These are the tactics that have been given to us by our very own Philosopher-King.
Sport: what’s the point: join the threads team, Christians In Sport, CVM and SPCK publishers in London on 29 June for a discussion on faith, society and sport. Get your tickets here.