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Rinus Michels

Dutch coach who invented 'total football'

Rinus Michels will be remembered as the Dutchman who gave the world "total football" - a tactical vision which raised the game to the level of great art.

Marinus Hendrikus Jacobus Michels, footballer and football coach: born Amsterdam 9 February 1928; died Aalst, Belgium 3 March 2005.

Rinus Michels will be remembered as the Dutchman who gave the world "total football" - a tactical vision which raised the game to the level of great art.

Until Michels wrought his revolution, Holland was on a par with neighbouring Luxembourg as a European footballing power, and the country's clubs were also-rans in Europe. Under his coaching, Ajax of Amsterdam became European champions in 1971, and the national side reached the World Cup Final in 1974. The fulfilment of Michels' working life, and the vindication of his methods, came in 1988, when a fresh crop of extravagantly gifted Dutch players won the European Championships. It remains Holland's only major tournament triumph.

Marinus Michels was born in 1928, in Amsterdam. As a teenager he signed for Ajax, and played 269 times for the club, scoring 121 times. He won the national title twice as a player, in 1947 and 1957, and won five caps for the national team. But it was as a coach that he was destined to achieve greatness.

After serving his apprenticeship with amateur clubs, he was hired to coach Ajax in 1965, where he began to put into practice his footballing philosophy.

"Total football", as Michels' system came to be known, made an enemy of rigidity. Until his sides showed the world another way, football teams had largely relied on strict formations, with lines of players strung across the field like the wooden figures in a bar-football game. Michels' players were given licence to swap positions at will, with defenders allowed, and encouraged, to join the attack. Every player was expected to be supremely comfortable in possession of the football, and able to adapt to any role. Under his wise tutelage world-class players such as Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens, Rob Rensenbrink and Ruud Krol emerged and raised Holland to the status of a footballing superpower.

Michels inspired Ajax to the Dutch title in 1966, 1967, 1968 and 1970. They also won the Dutch Cup in 1967, 1970 and 1971. He also enjoyed success on the continental stage. Ajax lost 4-1 to AC Milan in the 1969 European Cup Final in Madrid - but they were back in the final two years later, beating Panathinaikos of Greece 2-0 at Wembley in Michels' last match as Ajax coach. He then took over FC Barcelona, who won the Spanish league title in 1974. Later that year he answered the call to lead Holland to the World Cup finals in West Germany.

Playing some of the finest football seen since, perhaps, Brazil won the World Cup in 1958, Holland reached the final, where they faced their age-old regional rivals, West Germany. Despite taking the lead within a minute after the English referee Jack Taylor awarded them a penalty, Holland were worn down by the relentless German side, and lost 2-1. Not for the first - or last - time the best team in the world failed to win the World Cup (Hungary in 1954 and Brazil in 1982 spring to mind).

Although Holland slunk away from Munich beaten, they left the world marvelling at their skill and resourcefulness. But for Michels the experience had been bruising. The respect of his players was often grudging: dealings between coach and star players did not always run smooth. His relations with Cruyff, especially, were those of strict father and gifted but wayward child, and there were frequent disputes - Michels was not a man to yield. His manner was stern, and his nickname - "The General" - summed up his no-nonsense, military manner. Holland might have emerged as a top-class football team, but when it came to back biting and dressing-room intrigue, they were undisputed world champs.

Michels returned briefly to Ajax in 1975 before heading once more for Barcelona, where he won the Spanish Cup. In the late 1970s he accepted a lucrative offer to coach Los Angeles Aztecs in the cash-rich North American Soccer League, but he returned to Europe in 1980 to coach Cologne in the German Bundesliga. He went back to his homeland in 1984 as technical director of the Dutch FA.

By now Michels was the revered elder statesman of Dutch football, and there was some criticism when the veteran was offered a second chance to lead the national team in 1986. But Michels drew the best out of a fresh group of brilliant players at the European Championships of 1988. A team including artists such as Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard beat the Soviet Union 2-0 in a final played in the same Munich Olympic Stadium where they had lost the World Cup 14 years earlier. It was the highpoint of Michels' career.

He took one last job in club football, with Bayer Leverkusen in the late 1980s, before risking one more come-back as Holland coach. In 1992 he took them to the European Championships in Sweden, where they were knocked out in the semi-finals on penalties by Denmark.

In retirement Michels continued to be fiercely passionate about football and as keen a student of the game as he had ever been. His unrivalled reputation was confirmed in 1999 when he was named Fifa's Coach of the Century. Van Basten, now Holland coach himself, said: "Michels was the father of Dutch soccer."

Alex Murphy