Total football — from catenaccio to gegenpressing it’s about openness to ideas

Footballing philosophies are central to the national mythologies of the cultures that produce them.
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Supporters wave England flags during the Women's Euro final 2022 in Trafalgar Square. Credit: SOPA Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo
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‘Tell me how you play and I’ll tell you who you are,’ wrote the Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano. Footballing philosophies are central to the national mythology of the cultures that produce them. The ‘native style,’ Galeano called it: a way of playing to express a ‘way of being’ — ‘I play therefore I am.’

The writer Jonathan Wilson’s history of tactics, Inverting the Pyramid (2008), shows how the English way, following the game’s codification in 1863, was centred on individual dribbling. With little cooperation, Wilson says, ‘teams simply chased the ball.’ In the first recognised international match in 1872, Scotland decided to pass the ball around — rather than run through — a physical, aggressive England team. The first great tactical development, then, was teamwork. Known to Victorian and Edwardian observers as the ‘combination game,’ the innovation was treated with predictable suspicion by the English gentlemen amateurs who claimed ownership over the sport. For them, too much preparation, too much teamwork, too much thinking about football was simply vulgar, and an individualist ideology prevailed. But when Blackburn Olympic, a team of industrial workers, beat Old Etonians in the 1883 FA Cup Final — having perfected their ‘combination’ play at a training camp — the age of the amateur was over. The English may have codified the rules, but Scottish tactics truly invented football.

Jimmy Hogan, an itinerant Englishman of Irish descent, brought the Scottish style to Central Europe. Along with Bohemia-born Hugo Meisl, Hogan developed a ‘Danubian School’ of football in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, with an emphasis on technique and teamwork.

Unlike in England, Wilson says, where the working classes soon dominated the game, football was ‘seized upon by intellectuals’ in interwar Prague, Vienna and Budapest. For the Danubians, football was an aesthetic as well as a sporting pursuit. The Hungarian side Ferencváros became known as the ‘Green Ballet,’ such was the beauty of their play. Matthias Sindelar, leader of the national Austrian Wunderteam of the 1930s, was heralded as the tragic hero of Danubian football: a skilful socialist who refused to play for Germany after the Anschluss — and was found dead in mysterious circumstances aged just thirty-five.

The war stunted the growth of the Danubian School, but a visit by Hungary to Wembley in 1953 exposed English conservatism. The ‘Golden Team’ coached by Gusztáv Sebes, a former trade union organiser, thrashed England 6–3 (and 7–1 in the rematch). Drawing on the Scottish ‘combination’ style, Hungary manifested a tactical expression of post-war Communism: collectivisation triumphed over England’s individuals lacking a plan.

In Brazil, a style developed focussed on the beauty of movement, leading commentators like Wilson and Galeano to compare Brazilian futbol arte with capoeira and samba. It reached its apotheosis at the 1970 World Cup, but Brazil’s success was built not only on the virtuoso brilliance of individual footballers such as Pelé, Rivelino, Jairzinho, and Gérson. Post-war economic growth led to waves of internal migration to the cities, fuelling the expansion of the favelas, where close control, agility and dribbling were all-important. When Brazil danced past Italy 4–1 to claim their third World Cup in 1970, the joy of joga bonito was immortalised as the apogee of football-as-art.

Elsewhere in South America, British influence initially prevailed. But with a fresh influx of Spanish and Italian immigrants to Argentina and Uruguay during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, football became fútbol, migrating from the boarding school to the barrio.

Uruguay caused a sensation when they travelled to the Old World, won nine friendlies in a row and claimed gold at the 1924 Paris Olympics, scoring 20 goals and conceding just two. They beat Argentina 4–2 in the first World Cup Final in 1930, inaugurating a fierce rioplatense rivalry. In Uruguay, the smallest nation on the continent, la garra charrúa (‘the claw of the charrúa,’ named for the native inhabitants of the Southern Cone) fired an underdog mentality and fighting spirit that persists today.

In Argentina, criolla viveza (‘native cunning’), together with the cult of gambeta – belief in the messianic power of the virtuoso dribbler — forged la nuestra (‘our style’). Under the isolationist policies of the Peronist government, though, Argentina did not contest the next three World Cups. Elimination following a 6–1 thrashing by Danubians Czechoslovakia in Sweden in 1958 led to a drastic rethink. Argentina toughened up, pushed criolla viveza to its limits and forged anti-fútbol, a win-at-all-costs mentality using violence, playacting, and rule-breaking wherever possible.

The cynicism of viveza and the expression of gambeta combined at the 1986 World Cup. Diego Maradona’s two goals against England in the quarter-final –— the ‘Hand of God’ scored via a blatant handball, followed by the ‘goal of the century’ after he dribbled sublimely past five defenders — immortalised Maradona and the Argentine way.

In the post-war era, it was only when England shuffled off its haughty sense of superiority and footballing entitlement, strangely undiminished by a succession of humiliating tournament defeats, that the team enjoyed success. An FA report on the England men’s team’s sole tournament success in 1966 highlighted the importance of a tour of South America to the team’s tactical development.

On the Continent, things had also changed. Before the war, football in Italy was seen as a hyper-masculine, quasi-militaristic exercise. Benito Mussolini built new stadia, forced clubs to Italianise (Milan Football Club became Associazione Calcio Milan, for example), and reformed the domestic league (strictly limiting foreign players) to boost the national side and promote fascism, as Italy won the World Cup as hosts in 1934.

As with Argentina and Brazil, Italy’s ‘native style’ shifted with the fortunes of the nation. If Mussolinian football nationalism channelled an ideology of ethnic superiority, the ultra-defensive, hyper-cynical catenaccio (‘door-bolt’) that followed it was born of paranoia and defeatism. The sports journalist and writer Gianni Brera thought Italians, humbled in the war and struggling to rebuild their shattered cities, were inherently weak. For Brera, defence, gamesmanship and cunning were the only means by which Italian footballers might succeed.

Catenaccio started life as verrou (‘bolt’), a man-marking system invented by the Swiss tactician Karl Rappan. But catenaccio is also an Italian expression of Argentine anti-fútbol. Milan manager Nereo Rocco told his players: ‘kick everything that moves; if it is the ball, even better.’ Helenio Herrera, an Argentine by birth, added a healthy dash of viveza to his Grande Inter team. In the second leg of a European Cup semi-final against Liverpool in 1965, Herrera almost certainly bribed the referee (who allowed two obviously illegal goals) and was accused of match-fixing and doping throughout his career.

It remains one of the most infamous sporting philosophies, associated with attritional football and unsportsmanlike conduct. But catenaccio achieved glory, winning two European Cups apiece for Inter and Milan in the 1960s, and producing some of football’s greatest defenders: Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta, and Fabio Cannavaro. Despite the rise of Arrigo Sacchi’s attacking Milan teams of the 1980s and 1990s, Italy never lost its reputation for defensive play, conceding just two goals as they won the 2006 World Cup.

Amsterdam birthed the antithesis of catenaccio in Totaalvoetbal (‘total football’), which peaked with Ajax’s three successive European Cup wins from 1971–1973 and the Netherlands’ triumph at Euro 1988. But this philosophy of positive play and fluid movement, in which players roam unrestricted by traditional roles and positions on the pitch, was forged in the 1960s. As Wilson notes, amid a progressive social and cultural post-war atmosphere, from the Provo counterculture to sexual liberation, Dutch football was ‘ripe for innovation.’

In the 1972 and 1973 European Cup finals, Ajax beat Inter and Juventus respectively, earning a moral victory for the liberatory Totaalvoetbal against repressive catenaccio. The Dutch approach, combined with the Ukrainian Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s use of science, statistics, data analysis and tactical detail, laid the foundations for juego de posición, the all-conquering possession game perfected by Pep Guardiola at Barcelona and the Spanish national team during the late 2000s and early 2010s.

In Germany, Die Mannschaft (‘The Team’) has historically been characterised by supreme efficiency. In the 1954 World Cup, they beat universal favourites Hungary 3–2. The ‘Miracle of Bern’, as it became known, put Germany on the footballing map and restored a sense of national pride after the devastation of the war. In 1974, West Germany again spoiled the party, defeating idealists’ favourite the Netherlands. They were champions for a third time in 1990 after reaching the final in 1982 and 1986.

The successor to the German tradition of footballing efficiency is gegenpress (‘counter-press’), a highly drilled, systematised method developed by the German football manager Ralf Rangnick (who took the idea from Lobanovskyi) and raised to a standard of excellence by other coaches. At club level, manager Jürgen Klopp used gegenpressing to win back-to-back Bundesliga titles in 2011 and 2012 against an utterly dominant Bayern Munich. He led Liverpool to the Champions League (2019), Premier League (2020), FA Cup and League Cup (2022) with a fraction of the budget enjoyed by Abu Dhabi’s sportswashing vehicle Manchester City, who are yet to win the Champions League despite spending more than £1bn. Meanwhile, former player-turned-coach Joachim Löw guided Germany to their fourth World Cup in 2014 with a merciless, high-pressing style.

Before his death in 2015, Galeano lamented such ruthless efficiency in which, he thought, individual expression was sacrificed to the demands of the system. ‘The history of football,’ he said, ‘is a sad voyage from beauty to duty.’ Galeano may have died grumbling about the latest tactical trend, but football remains, as he put it, a ‘primordial symbol of collective identity.’

One potent recent example is the England women’s team’s triumph at Euro 2022. The Lionesses have united a squabbling nation and achieved what the men’s team failed to do since 1966. After a disappointing spell under Phil Neville, the FA appointed Sarina Wiegman as the first ever permanent foreign coach of the women’s team. She dropped captain Steph Houghton, selected nine players with no previous tournament experience, and implemented a technical, pressing style in the tradition of her native Netherlands. When the England men’s team lost to Italy in the Euro 2020 final, manager Gareth Southgate lacked the nerve to make risky substitutions in pursuit of victory. Wiegman, on the other hand, has been widely praised for her fearless and decisive tactical changes throughout the tournament. Once again, England’s success on the international stage came when conservatism was abandoned in favour of a bolder, more open-minded approach.    

Football can’t tell us everything about the world. But as the historian David Goldblatt points out, ‘football is first. First among sports themselves, first among the world’s popular cultural forms’ and ‘the most global and most popular of popular cultural phenomena.’ If the way we play expresses our ‘way of being,’ one lesson football tactics can teach us is that insularity ends up, more often than not, on the losing side.

Josh Mcloughlin

Josh Mcloughlin is a writer from Merseyside. He is the editor-in-chief of New Critique, a Wolfson Scholar in the Humanities at University College London, and he was shortlisted for the Jane Martin Poetry Prize (2019) and the International Awards for Art Criticism (2020). He writes for The Times, The London Magazine, The Spectator, The Fence, and others.

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