His tan is Californian and recent, but Rinus Michels' apple-rosy cheeks are pure North Sea, Dutch as a dike, like his uptilted nose and the serious view he takes of the world. He yells at the sweat-drenched L.A. Aztecs of the North American Soccer League with the vocabulary of a sociologist and the guttural harshness of a drill sergeant: "You must look for the solution of situations! You were not concentrating and so the possibilities escaped you! Arrgh!" Maybe it's the first time anybody has pronounced that last word outside of a comic-strip balloon.
At Brookside Park in Pasadena, Calif., where years ago the Chicago White Sox went for spring training, it was pushing 80�, and the Aztecs had been working out for nearly two hours. All morning, without pause, Rinus Michels (pronounced REE-nus MIKE-els) had been driving them. But from the team there was no sound or gesture of complaint.
"He gets it from us because he has our respect," says the Aztecs' captain, Bob Sibbald. Bobby Rigby, the fine American goalie who came to L.A. from the Cosmos, says, "We dragged our tails last season. He makes us feel strong. You're going to hear us loud."
It is not surprising that the 51-year-old Michels should have the respect of his players. He is probably the finest soccer coach in the world. You could argue about that, but you'd be scratching. And now, somewhat mysteriously, in his prime and laden with honors, he arrived in Pasadena in March to take charge of a team that had a 9-21 record last season and finished last in the Western Division. At the Rose Bowl, the most famous college football stadium in America, he is attempting another miracle with his special brand of voetbal.
Voetbal is merely the Dutch word for soccer. You pronounce it, near enough, "football" and, what's more, 10 years ago nobody outside Holland could have cared less what the Dutch called it or, indeed, that they played the game at all in that little country. That was before Michels came along, took an obscure, tail-dragging club from Amsterdam called Ajax and won the European Cup; also before he coached the arrogantly confident orange-shirted National Team of Holland to the final of the 1974 World Cup, which it lost in Munich to West Germany by a single goal. Before, that is to say, Michels developed the concept of Total Soccer, the Dutch Whirl, the Clockwork Orange—call it what you like—and created a revolution in the sport so great that even without its star, Johan Cruyff, the aging rump of the Dutch team he created reached the World Cup Final again in 1978, principally on the momentum he had given it.
By then Michels was no longer with Holland. For a reported salary of $250,000 a year he had gone to coach Barcelona in the Spanish League, another set of tail-draggers whom he took to the League Championship and the National Cup. Last spring, if you had suggested that in a year's time he would be in Pasadena with the Aztecs, you would have gotten only prolonged guffaws from soccer pundits. Pel�, Beckenbauer, Trevor Francis—their arrival in the U.S. was nothing like as great a shock. Players go where the money is. Coaches too, of course, but Michels could scarcely have improved his Barcelona pay, and coaches, even more than players, need to be center stage. And Pasadena, in soccer terms, is far from center stage.
Before last summer Michels had never been in the U.S. Then, after the World Cup in Argentina in June, he and his wife Wilhelmina (they are childless) decided to vacation at Newport Beach on the way home. Wilhelmina loved California, Rinus hated the soccer. He saw a couple of Aztec games, saw Dallas, Fort Lauderdale and the Cosmos, talked to Dallas' Lamar Hunt in the West and Phil Woosnam, the NASL commissioner, in New York.
But, said Michels, "I decided it was not time to come to America. It was an amateur, not a professional, game. I mean it was professional in its marketing but the standard of play was primitive, not sophisticated. Maybe it was a bad time to come, straight after the World Cup, but I found the fundamentals, the pace of the game missing in what I saw. I forgot it."
One who didn't forget, however, was Larry Friend, president of the Aztecs. Last October he called Michels in Amsterdam and visited him at home. "He talked very well," Michels recalls. "He talked for three days." The Dutchman still had serious doubts, but in the end, and with Wilhelmina's prompting, he agreed to try it for a season. " California is a magic word in Holland," he sighs.
Michels was certainly an unsettled man by then. Last April there had been trouble in Barcelona. Spanish soccer clubs periodically hold elections for president and board of directors. Campaigns are waged in public, in the press, sometimes hysterically. The president elected in Barcelona last spring had come in on a sort of reform ticket. He was for firing the team, coach, everybody, and had been quoted as saying some hard things about Michels. Once in office, he changed his mind and wanted Michels to stay. But the coach had had enough. He decided to take several months off before deciding where to go—probably to the Bundesliga, the powerful West German league. But he ran into difficulties with his work permit there. Larry Friend's call came at precisely the right moment.