The word “philosophy” comes from the Greek word “philosophia”, roughly translated into English as the “love of wisdom”. Wisdom, of course, is a varied concept, and can be applied to a whole manner of life issues, including values, reason and the worth of existence. In the context of football, philosophy is a hotly debated topic. In Amsterdam, however, there is one particular philosophy that needs highlighting, and that is “totaalvoetbal”, or, in English, “total football”. Such a philosophy emerged in its modern form from Amsterdam’s finest club, Ajax, in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s. Rinus Michels encouraged Johan Cruyff to roam freely around the pitch one day and the rest, as they say, is history.
Ever since then Ajax have followed Michels’ lead in creating a side that consistently adheres to certain philosophical requirements – fast, free-flowing football, with an emphasis on technical ability and tactical knowledge. Strictly speaking, “totaalvoetbal” revolves around 10 outfield players who are adept in all positions, with a goalkeeper, of course. This creates a side of complete fluidity. In reality, “totaalvoetbal” is a utopian concept in the modern game, but that doesn’t stop Ajax in trying to achieve it. In commitment to their attempt to play fast, free-flowing and fluid attacking football, the club has built up a world-renowned academy that serves as a factory of footballing talent. The De Boer brothers, Bergkamp, Kluivert, Seedorf, van Basten, Rijkaard, Van der Vaart, Sneijder, Alderweireld, Vertonghen… the list goes on. Despite playing in positions from defence to attack, all of these players are technical, and all of them were educated in the context of the footballing principles I have just discussed. They share traits. They complement each other. And more important than anything, they are representative of the club’s philosophy.
Ajax's Marco Van Basten with an overhead kick v FC Den Bosch in November, 1986. Ajax went on to win 3-1. pic.twitter.com/mdRSTCYZnv
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Ajax have had their ups and downs since Michels’ time, but the club’s tactical approach has become a “rubber stamp” on the way that you can expect Ajax to approach a game of football, and no truer is that the case then at present. Despite financial gaps that see the Eredivisie way behind the top leagues in Europe, Ajax have reached the quarter-finals of the Europa League playing football with these norms in mind, constructing a mobile and exciting attacking outfit that is taking Europe by surprise. Why the world is surprised is another matter. Ajax have been reproducing quality, talent and success for bygones. This is very much the norm.
This current crop of talent, though, are perhaps some of the most exciting Ajax have had on their hands for some time. That’s a big compliment, considering this side are yet to win a trophy which showcases my statement. But it’s a compliment I feel they deserve. Ajax haven’t lost this calendar year, and they’re not just winning games, but winning them with style and grace. Ajax may be 2nd in the Eredivisie, but they played Feyenoord off the park just shy of 3 weeks ago in a game where their dominance, fluidity and chance creation does not justify a 2-1 scoreline. A similar pattern of events also emerged in the ArenA just last week, where Ajax beat Schalke 2-0. Again, it could’ve been 4, 5 or 6. At times Schalke looked lost for ideas. You could even make a case for Kehrer getting himself booked (and subsequently suspended) for tonight’s return match, such was his difficultly in handling an explosive Amin Younes. On the other wing, a young 17-year old by the name of Justin Kluivert was handing out free nutmegs. Plato’s much-famed “theory of the forms” states that we strive for things on Earth that are perfect, yet this cannot be achieved in reality. “Perfect” forms exist outside the realm of regular perception. I beg to differ.
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This is football, right? This is how the game should be played. At its most simple, the winner of a football match is the team that scores the most goals. This is not to negate the importance of solidity, defensive abilities and all-round discipline, especially in games where it is proving particularly tough to score goals. But the fact that the winner of a football match is the team with the most goals means we should approach the game trying to do nothing more than scoring the most goals, right?
Again, I have to bring in philosophy. This is all a matter of philosophy. Proponents of “catenaccio” are currently shaking their heads, or have probably closed the tab with this article on. There is nothing necessarily “right”, or “wrong” about approaching football in this way. It depends on your values. It depends on your reason. And perhaps you can even stretch it as far as your reasons for existence on the planet upon which we make a living.
I will tell you one thing, though. Life is short. Seeking entertainment from a sport that can be so beautiful that it reduces you to tears of joy at times is not an irrational objective. In my opinion, when you couple entertainment with victory, you get a perfect match. There is a pride in victory that comes with being entertained simultaneously that cannot be put into words. But if you’re reading this article, you most definitely know what I mean. For you are an Ajax fan, or at least a football purist that holds an interest in the way Ajax have approached the game historically, or is approaching the game currently. And if you are that way inclined, you will know just how important philosophy is to football as we know it, and as we love it.