“Let no one destitute of geometry enter my doors.” – inscription over the doors to Plato’s Academy, Athens
In 1915, eccentric mathematician M.H.J. Schoenmaekers penned his first book discussing his ideas regarding the mystical philosophy called Theosophy, which revolved around ideal geometric forms. In this, he was borrowing from the Greek philosopher Plato, about whose enduring influence mathematician and philosopher A.N. Whitehead said, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
From the ideas of Theosophy was born De Stijl - or “the style”. A radical artistic style and perhaps the most significant cultural expression of the Dutch in the 20th century, De Stijl tried to create the ultimate design; be it in painting or architecture. The aim was to reflect the universality and perfection of simple geometric forms. It tried to achieve pure abstraction by reducing everything down to its essential shape or colour.
Around five decades after the birth of De Stijl - in the 1970s - the Dutch started playing football with a unique style that dazzled the world. With overlapping wingers, scintillating runs and fluid passing, AFC Ajax and later the Netherlands national team, under Rinus Michels, created intricate geometric patterns on the pitch.
Ajax and Dutch captain Johan Cruyff would later testify “Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is.” He was referring to Total Football as ‘simple’, i.e. logical, intelligent football. If one analyses the movements made by Michel’s teams – AFC Ajax, Holland, or Barcelona – one will find his philosophy was very similar to that of De Stijl – logical, stripped down, calculated, and of course geometric in a way never seen before.
Since De Stijl itself was indirectly inspired by Neo-Platonism, it is here that we can compare Rinus Michels and Plato. Plato makes his love for geometry especially evident in the Timaeus. Written as he approached the end of his life, Timaeus describes a conversation between Socrates, Plato’s teacher; Critias, Plato’s great-grandfather; Hermocrates, a Sicilian soldier-politician; and Timaeus, a philosopher and scientist. They discuss the geometric creation of the world, paying much homage to Pythagorean theories of mathematics.
Borrowing from Empedocles, Plato deduces the need for four elements (earth, air, fire, and water) to constitute matter. Plato’s demiurge, who is a geometer-creator, first creates fire to make the world visible, and earth to make it resistant to touch. These two elements are held together by air and water by perfect bonds in geometric proportions. To stress the importance of proportion, Plato writes,
“the most beautiful analogy is when in three numbers, the middle is to the last as the first to the middle…they become the same as to relation to each other.” Thus for Plato, fire : air = air : water = water : earth.
For the sake of convenience, let us consider the football field as a two-dimensional plane. However, a problem arises here; since we can divide a team formation into offence, defence, and midfield - three elements - how is it possible to relate Plato’s four elements to a football team?
Plato says in Timaeus, “if the universe were to have no depth, one medium would suffice to bind all the natures it contains.” So for our purpose, let us take air and water together as a single element. Thus we have, fire : air/water = air/water : earth.
Rinus Michels deployed his sides in a straightforward 4-3-3 formation. The two centre-halves and the goalkeeper were his earth – uniform, compact, and resistant (in the 1974 World Cup, the Dutch conceded only three goals in the whole tournament - one an own goal). The offensive trio up-front represent fire – deadly in front of goal, scoring a staggering 15 goals from seven matches, and demolishing Bulgaria, Argentina, and Brazil en-route to the final. The midfield trio, with their slick passing and penetrating runs, connected the defence and the offence, and was thus air/water.
However, the most striking similarity between Plato and Michels is perhaps the value of the triangle. In Timaeus, Plato says that the fundamental building blocks for the elements are triangles; i.e. the basic unit of the structure and geometry in the Platonic cosmos is the triangle. If one is to analyse any single moment of a match in which one of the sides is managed by Michels, one will find that each player positions himself in such a way that the three players nearest the ball almost invariably form a triangle. While defending, when one moves in to make a tackle or a block, the other two are ready to intercept a possible pass or pick up the loose ball. Similarly, while in possession, forming a triangle will mean that the player with the ball will always have at least two passing options to choose from.
While Louis van Gaal went a step further with his 1995 Ajax side, and sought to combine two triangles to form diamonds, squares, or rectangles - thus increasing the minimum passing option to three in attack, and while defending, applying more pressure and cutting off more space - it is in the philosophy of juego de posicion of Pep Guardiola that one finds the use of the tactical triangle taken to a dogmatic extreme.
But how is the triangle the basic unit of the cosmos? Plato says that two similar triangles combine to form a square or rectangle, six similar squares form a cube, four similar triangles form a tetrahedron, and so on. No matter how complex a shape is, we can keep deconstructing it until we get a triangle. Plato takes regular polyhedrons (cube, tetrahedron, octahedron, icosahedron, dodecahedron), and associates four of these Platonic Solids to each element – the cube to earth, the icosahedron to water, octahedron to air, the tetrahedron to fire - in ascending order of their degree of “mobility”, and says that the fifth (dodecahedron) was what the demiurge used for “embroidering the constellations on the whole heaven.”
It is here that Rinus Michels’ philosophy radically differs from that of Plato. In contrast to Plato, for whom everything has its own designated space, Michels was an advocate of radical dynamism. Plato would’ve probably had the defence (earth) as a rigid, rock-solid entity, the offence (fire) as the most mobile, and the midfield (air/water) as something intermediate. For Michels, however, there was no question of a difference in degree of mobility for his players. Let us see why.
On paper, his back four in the 1974 World Cup Final comprised Krol, Rijsbergen, Suurbier, and Haan; his midfield Jansen, Neeskens, and van Hanegem; and his offence Rep, Cruyff, and Rensenbrink. However on the pitch, the essence of Total Football meant that everyone could play in everyone’s place. So if Neeskens made a driving run forward from midfield, one of the striking trio would immediately drop back and take his place. Even the goalkeeper was chosen for his ball-playing ability – David Winner in Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football wrote that Jongbloed was the first goalkeeper in the world to be selected “for his dribbling skill”.
The prevalent theory before the Total Footballers burst onto the scene involved rigid man-marking and formation play – on no account could a defender venture into midfield, or a midfielder find himself in front of goal playing as a no. 9. This was exactly why Total Football was so effective. Since anyone could fill in anyone else’s place, the formation of the Dutch team remained intact but at the same time confused the opposition. If the Dutch centre-forward dropped back, was the centre-half marking him supposed to go with him or was he supposed to hold his ground and check the attack of the charging midfielder? Or was he to try and cut off the opposing left-back, who was running down the wings to assist the offensive push forward? In Total Football, there is no Ptolemaic Harmony of the Spheres because there are no predetermined spheres of movement in the first place.
In Republic, where Plato describes his ideal state, he advocates for a society where the occupation of each citizen depends on what he does best. Put simply; in Plato’s Republic, a carpenter can never be a potter, a blacksmith cannot be a soldier, and so on. In this, Plato was arguing in favour of an extremely rigidly stratified society. Total Football, on the other hand, turns this idea on its head. Since no one has any fixed position as such, everyone can be everything at any given moment – we might find Krol the centre-half attacking the opposition goal while Cruyff drops back all the way to the defence to fill his place.
Plato also says that if his utopian city was to ever come into being, “philosophers [must] become kings…or those now called kings [must]…genuinely and adequately philosophise.” Michels’ philosophy also overturns this idea. In the Dutch team, there were no kings or any central player(s) around whom the whole team was structured – despite Johan Cruyff being the poster boy of Total Football. Drawing heavily from the ethic of “team first, player later” of the Soviet teams, the Dutch shunned individuality if it did not help the team in some way – any attempts at personal glory at the cost of the team is frowned upon to this day. At the same time, each player was required to philosophise or understand every phase of the game. “You play football with your head; your legs are there to help you,” Cruyff would say.
Born centuries apart, geometry was of prime importance for both Michels and Plato. However, the two applied it differently – where Plato advocated for uniformity through division, Michels was a radical advocate of dynamism and collectivity. If society is organised according to the philosophy of Rinus Michels, there probably would be no class.
By Shirsho Dasgupta, who is a Senior Writer at In Bed With Maradona.
Header image credit goes fully to Matt Brown.