The Netherlands is one of the “bridesmaids” of world football: three times losing finalists at World Cups and with just a solitary European Championship (1988) to its name, despite an almost endless conveyor belt of talent coming through since the 1960s. David Winner’s book Brilliant Orange wonderfully captures the genius and madness of Dutch football.
But where did it all begin for Dutch football? I caught up with Bert Vermeer from the Archives Committee at the Netherlands’ first football club, Koninklijke HFC, to find out.
The birth of Dutch football
Football in the Netherlands owes its existence in large part to a 14 year-old schoolboy, Willem J. H. “Pim” Mulier. In 1870, Mulier was sent to join his elder brother at boarding school at the coastal village of Noordwijk. It was here that young Pim saw his first “English-speaking Englishmen” playing cricket and football.
When Mulier returned to his family in Haarlem in 1875 he struggled to describe the “famous big ball’ that he had seen to people and he couldn’t get hold of one to demonstrate the game, according to Vermeer.
“Finally he discovered in a shop-window a ball, that he described as ‘brand-new, bright yellow with an orange leather strap, a paradise on a string’. He bought it and subsequently went off with a couple of his friends, desperately looking for a place to play,” Vermeer told OW. “Armed ‘with the ball, some wooden sticks and a plank’ and a small green English booklet on the rules of the game, he took his friends to the surrounding pastures and an open space in Haarlem’s local forest Haarlemmerhout.”
Four years later, in the winter of 1879-80, those same boys formed a football club: Haarlemsche (spelled in the old fashioned Dutch way) Football Club. Mulier wrote to Haarlem’s mayor to request the rent of a field. He signed the letter “President of the H.F.C.”
The game at that time was a mixture of rugby and soccer, reason why the local authorities finally designated a piece of grazing land by the self-explanatory name of Koekamp (Cow Field), as a “wrestling arena” for Pim and his “little comrades”. The boys were allowed to rent the place on condition that they would financially compensate the principal tenant for the “abuse” of the soil as this needed now extra cow dung. The Koekamp was a piece of pasture with three large poplars in the centre where horses and cows were grazing. [Continues…]
Football comes of age in the Netherlands
Until 1883 the game that HFC played was a form of rugby, which at that time was a wild unorganised fight between groups of boys over a ball. Many parents complained bitterly about the number of torn shirts: “five to six jerseys torn to pieces in one winter”, it was said. From 1883 onwards, H.F.C started playing according to English Football Association rules and in 1886 played its first competitive match at Koekamp against a team made up of nine Englishmen and one Dutchman from Amsterdam simply named ‘Sport’. Sport won 5-3.
Interestingly, while H.F.C was the first football club to be founded in Netherlands, the very first competitive match on Dutch soil took place in the town of Enschede between Enschedese Football Club (EFC) and Lonneker on 6 September 1885. Jan Bernard van Heek, whose textile career had taken him to Burnley, England, where he had learned about football, initiated the match.
Over the following years, H.F.C. dropped the dots to become simply HFC, and found a new pitch in the south of Haarlem. On the club’s 80th anniversary the ‘Royal’ prefix – Koninklijke – was granted by Queen Juliana.
In the first years, Mulier encountered resistance from high society and the authorities to his matches. But looking back on those early days in 1919, Mulier explains that football’s arrival in 1880 made young men feel free. Leisure activities up to this point included long hikes, gymnastics and reading, so this more exhilarating pastime seems to have been a welcome change and the club’s membership grew rapidly.
According to Pim Mulier Holland underwent a revolution in the years between 1880 and 1890 in terms of better boats (from England), better rifles, good sportswear, better furniture, more comfortable beds (also from England), and better horses.
In the early years sports like cricket and football were principally only accessible to young men of the higher ranks of society. Good manners, hospitality and polite and respectful approach of opponents prevailed. Only as from 1910 onwards participating actively in sports became more common in the other layers of the society, Vermeer said.
Pim Mulier: Football pioneer
As Pim Mulier passed a couple of years at boarding schools in England, he learned how to organise big sporting events. He turned out to be a true pioneer of sports in Holland, where he not only introduced soccer, but also cricket and promoted sports like tennis, athletics, speed skating and long distance skating.
According to Vermeer, Pim Mulier was undoubtedly the initiator of the foundation of the Dutch national football association in 1889, which resulted in the birth of the NVAB (Nederlandsche Voetbal en Athletische Bond), the predecessor of the (K)NVB, where the letter K stands for Koninklijke (Royal). Hence the present KNVB, which stands for Koninklijke Nederlandse Voetbal Bond (Royal Dutch Football Association).
The KNVB acknowledges 15 September 1879 as the official date of foundation of HFC. On the first Saturday of each New Year, HFC plays an exhibition match against a team of retired Dutch internationals. This tradition has seen 83 matches played so far since 1923, interrupted only by extreme weather conditions, a fire in 1974 and World War II, when the Netherlands was occupied by Nazi Germany. [Continues…]Vermeer pointed out that Daniel Rewijk, the Dutch author of Mulier’s bibliography ‘Captain van Jong Holland’ (Captain of Young Holland), does not give Mulier all the credit for being the founder of sports in the Netherlands. He specifically refers also to F.W.H.C. baron van Tuyll van Serooskerken (Frits van Tuyll), who was more than ten years older than Mulier. In an article in the national daily Nieuws van den Dag of December 1878 Van Tuyll complained that physical culture in the Netherlands confined oneself to dull indoor gymnastics. According to Van Tuyll sports were indispensable for every form of education. Rewijk underlines that there were more pioneers of sports than Van Tuyll and Mulier alone.
Mulier promoted football in major cities like Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague, but encountered only little interest in the beginning. But in the winter of 1880-81 a club was formed in Amsterdam and in 1883 the football club Excelsior was founded in Haarlem.
In 1884 Concordia was founded followed by VVA in 1887, both in Amsterdam. Olympia of The Hague and a club in the town Wageningen were founded in 1886. In December 1887 HFC beat Olympia of Haarlem by 5-0. In those days new clubs sprung up suddenly and vanished even faster or merged, such as R.A.P. of Amsterdam that was a combination of Run, Amstels and Progress.
In the first ever football season in 1887-88 HFC played matches against V.V.A., R.A.P. and Excelsior. All matches took place in the months February, March and April 1888. In 1888-89 H.F.C., Concordia, A.V.V., H.V.V. and R.A.P. played inter-club matches in a mini-competition. In 1889-90 the group was composed of H.F.C., R.A.P., H.V.V., Olympia and Concordia and in 1890-91 the teams of H.F.C., H.V.V., R.A.P., Olympia and Concordia contested the title.
The 1893-94 season featured Sparta of Rotterdam (founded 1888 and still going) and Go Ahead (not to be confused with the Go Ahead Eagles of Deventer that was founded in 1902) as new contestants.
After a few earlier and fruitful attempts Pim Mulier, as the initiator, managed to convince ten other clubs of the necessity to create a national football association, founded on 8 December 1889. Of these eleven clubs only three still exist: HFC of Haarlem, HVV of The Hague and the Rotterdamsche Cricket en Football Club Olympia (1896). After a merger in 1904 with Volharding of Rotterdam (1895) it was decided to call the latter club VOC (Volharding Olympia Combinatie).
Although the Dutch national football association (KNVB) was founded in 1889 and HFC finished top in 1890, 1893 and 1895, these national championships are not formally recognised by the KNVB. The season of 1897-98 is the first official competition on the national title.
HVV of The Hague (1878) claimed ten national titles in the years up to 1914, but they include the two championships in 1891 and 1896, that, according to the KNVB, are not official titles. Nevertheless the club wears one star on their shirts, as token of ten national championships, probably tacitly condoned by the KNVB.
HFC itself flitted between the first and second divisions but the game itself was taking off, gaining sponsorship from Hak Holdert, later owner of the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, for a knockout tournament, the Holdert Cup, which is the predecessor of today’s national cup.
Although HFC never won the national league title, it did win the Holdert Beker in 1904, 1913 and 1915. HFC reached the final in 1904 having beaten amongst others the Vlissingsche Voetbal Vereniging (VVV) by 25-0. HFC’s striker was Eddy Holdert, Hak’s younger brother, who scored thirteen goals. No player has ever scored so many goals in a cup match since. HFC beat HVV in the final. In 1913 HFC beats DFC of Delft by 4-1 and in 1915 HBS of The Hague by 1-0.
The first international match took place against neighbours Belgium on 30 April 1905. The Dutch national team participated for the first time in the qualification for the World Championship in Italy in 1934. The team qualified but lost the first game against Switzerland by 3-2 and was consequently eliminated.
The growth of football in the Netherlands
After just 30 years of existence, HFC became nicknamed ‘the Good Old’ – rather like Belgium’s first club, the ‘Great Old’ Royal Antwerp. In the early years of glory when the first team played in the highest ranks of the amateur league the abbreviation HFC attained a second meaning: Hollands Fijnste Combinatie (Holland’s Finest Combination). Both nicknames are still in use, not only by the club but also by the national press.
In May 1907 HFC hosted an international match between Holland and Belgium in front of 10,000 spectators. Belgium won 2-1. In the same month HFC played a home game against Chelsea (3-7), and hosted the Netherlands’ 7-0 win over Belgium in 1910, attended by 11,000.
This gives some indication of football’s growing popularity in a society where other leisure pursuits, including cricket, rugby, tennis and a form of baseball called ‘kastie’, were prevalent.
Koninklijke HFC today
HFC has had something of a turbulent ride. The club almost folded as early as 1889 but was saved from liquidation by a single benefactor, Martinus ‘Tinus’ Loosjes. Arsonists irrevocably damaged the historic wooden grandstand and clubhouse in 1974.
By 1986 the club was languishing in the first class of the amateur regional subdivision – the Haarlemse Voetbal Bond (HVB) – the second class is the very lowest tier in the country at the time. Membership was alarmingly low but the club managed to recover and climb the leagues.
HFC played in the old top flight for the majority of seasons between 1888 and 1936. The club currently plays in the semi-professional third tier of Dutch football, the Tweede Divisie, and has an impressive youth academy, meaning its players attract the scouts of both the major clubs and amateur clubs alike.
My thanks go to Koninklijke HFC for their assistance in creating this article and for providing photography. To learn more about Koninklijke HFC visit http://www.konhfc.nl/