Johan Neeskens | The oft forgotten Johan

Johan Neeskens | FI

Football and Beauty are synonymous.  The Brazilian flair is a thing of beauty. The Argentine wizardry is a thing of beauty. The Spanish technique is a thing of beauty. The Italians define the art of defending. Similarly Dutch Football represents all of these into a form collectively – ‘Total Football’. The Dutch side of 1970s managed by Rinus Michels and led by the revolutionary Johan Cruyff, laid the foundations for Total Football. To this day, all the talk of positional play and tiki-taka attribute their foundations to the Total Football played by the Dutch.

In the Total Football system, there is no fixed predetermined role or a playing position for the outfielders.  The players playing under this system need to be technically and physically sound. Johan Cruyff, perhaps, is the most famous exponent of Total Football.  There was another not so well known gem, who played with Cruyff at Netherlands, Ajax and Barcelona and also was one of the best midfielders of the 1970s. This gem is arguably the first proponent of the current day Box to Box midfielder. He goes by the name Johannes Jacobus “Johan” Neeskens.  Johan Neeskens is one of the most complete footballers the world has ever seen.

Johan Neeskens could create space and also make a brilliant tackle with the same precision. He was a tireless runner yet had an elegant technique. He could deliver an impeccable pass and also pressurize opponents with the same ease. Before Johan Neeskens, the footballing fraternity had never seen a complete player like him. Few players could ever be as complete as Neeskens. According to his teammates Johan Neeskens was worth “two men” in midfield. He was the orchestrator of the opera that Cruyff orchestrated so beautifully.

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Starting his career at hometown club RCH, he made his professional debut aged 17 in 1968. He quickly established himself at the club making more than 60 appearances before earning a move to giants Ajax in 1970. 19-year-old Neeskens filled in impressively at right-back, even starting the 1971 European Cup final against Panathinaikos which Ajax eventually won. He was moved to a more central midfield role in the 1971-72 where he supported Cruyff from the midfield. He made a name for himself as a tireless workhorse with tackling and passing being his strengths. He formed a key part of the Ajax side which ended up winning three successive European Cups.

Neeskens, after starring in the 1974 World Cup joined Barcelona to link up with compatriot Johan Cruyff who had moved to the Catalan side 12 months earlier. Upon his arrival, Neeskens was nicknamed “Johan the Second”. He quickly won over the Camp Nou faithful with his impressive displays. Neeskens was enormously important to bring the best out of Johan Cruyff which prompted Rinus Michels and Cruyff to recommend his signing to the Barcelona board. To put it in short, he was the Robin to Johan Cruyff’s Batman.

His work ethic and aggressive gameplay led to Barcelona fans nicknaming him El Toro. However his time at Barcelona was fairly unproductive if trophies are taken into consideration. During his tenure, Barcelona barely managed to win any major trophy of note with Cup Winners Cup and the Spanish domestic cup being the only trophy he won. Things turned sour soon as he fell out with the then Barcelona president, Jose Luis Nunez.

Around the same period, the Americans were taking a keen interest on the game which eventually saw Neeskens earn a lucrative move to the famous New York Cosmos. He went on to spend 5 years in the United States but his time in the country was filled with problems related to substance abuse and gambling. Alcohol, cocaine and gambling took a significant part of his career. However, he returned back to homeland in 1984. This was the last significant move of his career as his playing career beckoned to an end.

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Internationally very few players could match the impact of Johan Neeskens (for the Dutch) for their respective national teams. He was a true international superstar. He ably supported Cruyff in the 1974 World Cup and led the team brilliantly in the 1978 World Cup which Cruyff missed. Neeskens scored 17 goals in 49 appearances for the national team.  He was a part of the Dutch national team’s campaign in the 1974 and 1978 World Cups, a team considered by many as the greatest to have not won a world cup.

However, individually both the World Cups brought the best out of Neeskens. While Cruyff led the Oranje in the 1974 World Cup, it was Neeskens who knitted the team together and made them tick as a unit. His boundless running, brilliant tackling and an innate ability to create space for Cruyff ensured Neeskens made his mark in the World Cup. He went on to score 5 goals, scoring twice against Bulgaria, once against East Germany, once against Brazil(semi-final) and one in the final against West Germany which the Dutch went on to lose 2-1.

Johan Neeskens was once again terrific for the Dutch in the 1978 World Cup. He led the team impressively in the absence of Johan Cruyff. Netherlands managed to reach the finals once again but ended up losing to a Mario Kempes and Diego Maradona inspired Argentina. Neeskens and the rest of the Dutch team were subjected to rough treatment from the opposition and hostility from the Argentine fans. Despite moving to the United States of America, he continued to feature for the national team. He played his last game for the national team against France in 1982 as the Dutch faced the ignominy of not qualifying for the World Cup.

Johan Neeskens and his playing style

Johan Neeskens was a box to box midfielder who could attack and defend equally well. He could be used as an outlet to carry the ball into the opposition half during build up. His energy allowed him to track back to his box to make tackles or put in a block in front of the goal at the right time. Neeskens is considered to be one of the most all rounded midfielders of all time. He was elegant on the ball and a destroyer off the ball.

For the better part of his international career, he formed a midfield triumvirate with Feyenoord duo Wim Van Hanegem and Wim Jansen. Neeskens was often seen making a tackle near his own box and within moments he could be found darting forward to provide an extra option for the attacking phase. He had a never say die attitude and stood up for the team. His 17 goals for Netherlands in just 49 games show how much of a goal threat he was.

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Neeskens had an all-action high octane and aggressive gameplay which was physically very very demanding. This contributed to his low fitness levels in the latter stages of his career. His desire to win was up to the extent that he barely cared about his/ or his opposition’s safety. His fierce tackles caused a huge threat to the opposition. So was his ability to break up play. His ability to reclaim possession quickly allowed his teammates to thrive.

Sometimes he was positioned high up the pitch keeping the opposition occupied in their own half which allowed Cruyff and Van Hanegem to thrive. Neeskens when asked about his tackling quipped ““When I walk onto the field, I always want to win and get the ball – I am not concerned about myself.” Such was his influence on the defensive side that he intimidated legends into anonymity. His sheer presence would strike fear in the minds of the opponents.

His ability to stifle opponents in the opponent third was the backbone of the Total Football of the Dutch Team. This allowed his defence to position themselves high up the pitch, limiting the space for opponents. This side of Neeskens was used admirably by Rinus Michels as the Dutch made the playing field much more compact and life harder for the opposition. His ability to press opponents to lose possession as soon as they gained it helped lead the way for what is currently called counter-pressing. It would not be overstated to say that Neeskens has had probably one of the best footballing brains as his tactical understanding of the game even back then, was not rivaled by many.

His uncanny ability to get goals is something that needs to be specially mentioned. As mentioned above scoring 17 goals in 49 for the National team is by no means a normal feat. It is something remarkable. Most of his goals were scored due to his darting runs and his ability to be in the right place at the right time. Neeskens just loved to lob the ball which can be seen in many of his goals. His 5 goals at the 1974 World Cup saw him win the World Cup Silver boot and he was named in the all star team of the 1978 World Cup. Not bad for a midfielder who spent time winning the ball back too.

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Neeskens had an impeccable technique and passing ability. This allowed him to operate anywhere across the midfield whilst still doing his fundamental duties. His ball control was top notch and he alonged with Wim Van Hanegem dictated games at ease for the Oranje. He made things happen for Johan Cruyff and the rest of the team on the pitch.

The legacy of Johan Neeskens

Johan Neeskens was revered for his looks. His long wavy blonde hair and rockstar looks earned him cult status among the girls. People loved his endurance and passion on the field. The way he imposed himself on the game made millions fall in love with his game play too. To be fair his commitment and energy to the team were unrivaled. He was the perfect team player.

He formed something like a mutually beneficial understanding with Cruyff. Neeskens helped Cruyff by winning the ball and creating space for Cruyff. Cruyff benefited and he spun his magic in the game by exploiting the space created by Neeskens perfectly.

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Neeskens established a template for the future midfield metronomes to thrive upon and look up to. He was the first all round box to box midfielder and also helped shape the role in the future. His technique and tenacity represented what Total Football was and also what its ideals were. In some ways, it can be said that Total Football and Johan Neeskens was the perfect couple too, as without him the system would not have reached its zenith. Just like Cruyff, Krol and the likes, Neeskens was equally, only if not more, important to the Dutch with his unrivaled all rounded nature to his game.

Perhaps the most telling contribution of Neeskens to the beautiful game is for without the coldblooded and combative nature of Neeskens, the footballing world would have never recognized the genius of the 1974 Oranje. Giving enough freedom and space to Cruyff, Neeskens did all the dirty work thereby creating the ideal set of circumstances for the beauty of Total Football to blossom.