He looked like a savage lion. His long sideburns reached to his jawline, while his inimitable hair touched his shoulders. In his eyes his opponents read: I will eat you alive. Forechecking may be a relatively new term in soccer terminology, Johan Neeskens was already in the seventies master of it. As a real lion who defends his kingdom, Neeskens ran over to the whole field to win the ball. He did it in a way risking hurting his own legs and head. This irrespective attitude gave him his characteristic invincible aura, which the Dutch fans loved.
Most exemplary for his style of play is the 1974 World Cup semi final match between Holland and the at that time current World Champion Brazil. Twice Neeskens (born 15-09-1951 in Heemstede) was brutally kicked to the ground. First Mario Marinho hit him, then Pareira launched him with a reckless tackle. After this horrible charge nobody thought that ´The Nees´ would stand up again. But he never gives up. He pulled his socks right and continued the game.
He could not only receive, the strong Dutchman was very good in giving as well. Once even after the game was momentarily stopped after a rough foul by a Brazilian. The TV commentator said: “Free Kick. But a Dutchman takes revenge. That must be Neeskens. There´s only one who tackles like that.”
Perfected the style of play
Nowadays every team needs a skillful winner like Neeskens. Real Madrid has got Xabi Alonso and Internazionale Cambiasso. With FC Barcelona it´s Sergio Busguets who recovers the ball quickly where needed, just so his frivolous colleagues in the front can concentrate on scoring goals. But it was Neeskens who perfected this way of playing that was needed in his position in the team.
Before him there were more players with gait, perseverance and a over-my-dead-body-mentality as their strongest characteristics. But he combined this with attacking intentions and technique. More than once he was the starting point of a perfectly performed attack. He reported often in the penalty box, resulting in scoring goals. Usually not beautifully, but by sheer effort. When Neeskens scored, it was with his head after jumping between two players, risking breaking his neck. Or with a sliding. Just as he did in the semi final match against Brazil. He started the counterattack by passing the ball to Cruijff. The legendary Dutchman gave a cross pass in the box. With a sliding Neeskens reached the ball with the tip of his toe a fraction of a second earlier than a Brazilian defender.
Eventually Holland won with 2-0 and reached their first ever World Cup final, against archenemy Germany. In the with 80.000 people filled Olympia Stadium in Munich it was Neeskens who scored the first goal. By a penalty, his specialism. He shot always mercilessly hard and high into the goal. But this time he shot the ball, together with the penalty dot, hard straight in the goal. After ninety minutes the game ended in a 2-1 victory for the Germans. Four years later, Neeskens lost his second World Cup final, this time against Argentina.
The Netherlands didn´t win the cup in 1974, but they won the hearts of football fans all over the world with their famous ´Totaalvoetbal´. This was a new attacking style of play with players constantly in motion and taking each other´s positions. The wing defenders joined the attack as often as they could. Players had to fulfill many roles. As one of the fittest players on the pitch, Neeskens could fulfill any role: breaker, ball winner, creator and scorer.
This style was invented a couple of years before, at Ajax Amsterdam. Holland´s coach at the World Cup of 1974, Rinus ´The General´ Michels, was Ajax´ headcoach from 1965 till 1971. Under the leadership of Michels and together with youngstars Johan Cruijff, Piet Keizer and Johan Neeskens, Ajax began to play in a way the world has never seen before. With Neeskens as one of the architects of Totaalvoetbal, Ajax won the Europacup 1 – precursor of the Champions League – three times in a row, from 1971 to 1973. Ajax also won the World Cup (1972).
It was quite natural that in 1974 Michels, now coach at FC Barcelona, persuade Neeskens to leave Ajax for the second club of Spain. There he was reunited with Johan Cruijff, who left to Barcelona one year earlier. Therefore Neeskens got the nickname ´Johan the Second´. Also in Spain he captured the hearts of the fans with his tremendous thougness, forecheking and high resilience. Like at Ajax and Holland´s national team, Neeskens was important for Barcelona because of his penalties and goals made through commitment. Also because of this Neeskens won in 1976 the Spanish title of ´Player of the Year´.
Lion is tamed
After playing 141 matches for FC Barcelona, in which he scored 35 goals, the almost 30 year old Neeskens left Spain to join New York Cosmos. In that time, many great players went to play in the United States of America, for example Pelé, Cruijff, Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia and Carlos Alberto. With his team Neeskens became champion of America in 1982. This was his last great performance. After 107 matches and 20 goals for NY Cosmos, he went back to Holland to play for modest club FC Groningen. After that he played in America (indoor soccer) and Switserland. In 1991 the lion was tamed. No more flying in the duels, scoring goals from impossible positions using his whole body. No more Europacups lifting above his head. After retiring as a player, Neeskens started his coaching career, mostly as assistant at FC Barcelona and Galatasaray. Today Neeskens is perched in South Africa as headcoach of Mamelodi Sundowns. There he´s teaching his boys to never give up. And what better man is there to teach this lesson?
Awards as a player
Champion of Holland: 1970, 1972, 1973
National cup: 1970, 1971, 1972
European Cup 1: 1971, 1972, 1973
World Cup: 1972
European Super Cup: 1972, 1973
Champion of Spain: 1974
National Cup: 1978
European Cup II: 1979
New York Cosmos
Champion of the U.S.A.: 1982
Silver World Championship 1974
Bronze European Championship 1976
Silver World Championship 1978