ANDY FULLER sees in the New Year with a bunch of old Dutch stars, some beer and plenty of fried snacks as he spends some time at the oldest football club in the Netherlands.
Oh Holland: home of wonderful splendid Total Football. Johann Cruyff architect of the beautiful game at Barcelona. And now, Holland: struggling against lesser ranked nations, and well, not qualifying for Euro 2016. Holland's most famous football figure is currently not a Bergkamp, Cruyff, van Bronckhorst or a van Persie (at his volleying, heading best), but instead is the dour and frowning and haughty van Gaal. Oh Holland. But football in the Netherlands is far more plural than simply than the fate of the Oranje. The strength of Dutch football lies in its immensity of tightly knit local football clubs. One of the proudest and most significant is Koninklijke (Royal) Haarlemsche Football Club. Watching their annual new year’s game and talking with its members and president reveals some of the competing trajectories in Dutch football and society.
It is a grey day. It could be any day of the year in the Netherlands, but, this winter has been strangely mild. And, hell, it's just about been better than spring and autumn – which were cold, windy and rainy. Yet, finally on the day of the Nieuwjaarswedstrijd it feels properly cold. The official temperature is hovering around 4 or 5 degrees Celsius but the 'real feel' is around zero. I arrived via Schiphol train station, where there was panic and heavily-armed-police and plain-clothes police busy on their phones after a false alarm about a suspect briefcase: a reminder of the outside world. The genteel and quaint grounds of Koninklijke HFC though, feel a thousand years away from any political trouble and anxiety. It's stable, boring, 'nothing to see here', the Netherlands at its pretty-good best. A gezellig day with friends and family drinking beer and watching the old-boys of HFC play against the ex-internationals, dolled up in their finery. The place is bubbling with bonhomie – helped of course by beer and the usual fried food.
The game is dull and the crowd watch little of it. Far more interested are they in their conversation and more beer and more fried food. A few spectators, though, have come along for the spectacle and to take photographs of once-graceful players. Now, many of the players are insulated against the cold with heavy beer-guts and a few extra-chins: far too much time on the other side of the fence, it seems. Van Hooijdonk delivers a free-kick into the back of the net and that is probably the bona-fide football highlight of the afternoon. There is a raft of names I've never heard of donning the Oranje shirt. And then there are the de Boers, who are well, reliable, steady, correct. But, who is this Tahamata? Short and stocky and fit. Bald as the proverbial badger. And with eyes that chew up the ball moments before it is at his feet. He does not star; but when he has the ball, he moves well and reminds one so quickly of other great players who also have low centres of gravity: Maradona and Messi, to name a couple. Tahamata: I guess he is Moluccan and I know I have never heard of him.
“A wonderful dribbler”, Marcel tells me. “No, I don't know why he left Ajax. He was the first prominent Moluccan player, and yes, he came to prominence at a time of political conflict. There was the case of the taking of hostages, amongst other incidents”. Marcel, a life-long Ajax fan and one of my main informants on general matters in Dutch football, remembers Tahamata particularly fondly: he smiles while talking about him. In a football landscape so dramatically changed since the time of Tahamata, such nostalgia comes quickly. But, perhaps indeed there was something more playful about the game in those days; something looser around the edges; something less circumscribed. Tahamata: a brilliant and playful footballer in the Ajax tradition, yet, also an outsider for his Moluccan-ness.
Much is often made of the Surinamese-Dutch footballers who have played for Holland – particularly through the late 1980s and 1990s and until now. Gullit, Kluivert, Davids, Rijkaard, Bogarde and the de Jongs have all left an international impression. A little less is made of the Moluccan connection. Yet players such as Giovanni van Bronckhorst, current coach of Feyenoord and the retired international and former AZ captain and midfielder from the 2000s, Denny Landzaat, are also of Moluccan background. Van Bronckhorst and Landzaat came to prominence in the late 1990s and 2000s – a time when the 'Moluccan-issue' had been generally reconciled. Landzaat and Van Bronckhorst were a part of a national team that reflected the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society of the Netherlands, much in the same way that France's World Cup winning team of 1998 also reflected their colonial past, and as Germany's team of 2014 also reflected its diverse demographics. Consider, however, the time and politics of the early 1980s: when being Moluccan meant having a contentious political identity; when being Moluccan meant being generalised as having sympathies to the Republik Maluku Selatan (Republic of South Moluccu) (RMS), and thus a potential terrorist, and in reality, facing unemployment, drug addiction and a sense of exile and displacement.
“There was a cloud around Tahamata's departure from Ajax. Apparently, there was some racist attitudes amongst some of the board members towards him. This wouldn't have been too unusual. Tahamata had been on the bench for several games and then all of a sudden, without him knowing it, he had been sold to Standard Liege in Belgium”, says Fridus Steijlen and anthropologist of KITLV and an expert in Moluccan-Dutch history.
“Tahamata arrived at just the right time, in one sense. He became a very public figure at a tense moment. The Netherlands was not like it is today. And, Moluccans had been in the Netherlands since the early 1950s, but their national identity and sense of nationalism was always contentious or viewed suspiciously. The first generation of Moluccans were ex-colonial soldiers who had come to the Netherlands, ostensibly temporarily (for six months, initially), to be de-commissioned. But, one thing led-to-another, and the Moluccan soldiers couldn't go back to their place of origin, where their break-away Republik Maluku Selatan movement had been suppressed by the Indonesian army.
“The Moluccans were suddenly in-between two nations: their ideal RMS and the Netherlands where they initially didn't imagine their future to be. Things had started to change, however, during the 1980s. Moluccans were actively exploring a range of identities and popular cultures. There were huge parties at Paradiso in Amsterdam as part of the Moluccan Moods nights and Moluccan-Dutch bands, such as Masada, were making it in the Dutch music scene. It was at this time that Tahamata played a starring role, however, in a great Ajax team. He was a skillful and charismatic player. He gave an example to other Moluccan-Dutch of one way of making it in a new homeland. Yet, he never disavowed his Moluccan identity and his loyalty to the RMS. But he didn't do this in a grandstanding and outspoken manner. He was a footballer and a public figure. He was respected by his fellow Moluccan-Dutch, while also acknowledged as a great player amongst the Dutch football fraternity – even if his exit from Ajax was problematic”.
“Monday night is club night”, Bert Vermeer says. Bert is sitting with his mate, Hugo Bettink, both long-time members of Koninklijke Haarlemsche Football Club: the oldest football club in the Netherlands. They're chewing the fat after the recent winter break, during which time the main team has been on a training camp in Spain, playing in a small tournament with other Dutch teams. The result of some games was positive, however, more problematic were the injuries to three of their best players.
During this down time at the end of the year, the club holds its annual Nieuwjaarswedstrijd against the Dutch ex-internationals. The first game was held in 1923 and the Ex-Internationals have a healthy lead in the ledger. Between Bert and Hugo, they've missed only a couple since the mid-50s. “New Year's day is blocked for me”, Bert says. Although he says he went home at half-time in 1963 as it was too cold. Hugo, on the other hand, played a role in shifting the date of the 'new year’s game' from January 1st to the first Saturday of the New Year: an attempt to accommodate the demands of the ex-internationals who would be preferring to sleep in following a big night rather than run around with a bunch of amateurs. Crowds can get up to 4,500 if the weather and the team is right: Bergkamp and van Bronkhorst being two of the big names who turned out in the past.
Koninklijke HFC was founded in 1879 by Pim Mulier – sportsman extraordinaire, who also founded what would become the KNVB (the Dutch Football Association) in 1889 and the Nederlandsche Olympic Comite in 1912. Mulier also established the Elfstedentocht, an ice-skating race through the north of the Netherlands. On this evening, there are some men playing billiards in the lower levels of the clubhouse. Highlights from the weekend's Spanish league are screened on one of the walls opposite the bar. A few members stand around drinking. It is a quiet night. Outside, there are three or four teams doing their training. Heavy showers come and go. Bert says, “when Hugo and I were playing, these nights would be much busier. The captain of the first team would be distributing small cards with the information of where we would be playing our next game. Of course, these days it is all done by email.
“I was asked three questions when I wanted to sign up: what does your father do? Which school do you go to? And, do you have a sister? Well, my request for membership was rejected. Of course I wasn't given a reason. But, as I was friends with a boy who was already a member of the club, his father acted on my behalf and saw to it that I was accepted”. After having been a member for 60 years, Bert is one of very few members to have been recognised for his outstanding and ongoing service to the club. He wears his recognition with pride – wearing the appropriate pins and ties for the right occasions. Hugo, too, is a member of the Koninklijke HFC elite, having given a fraction fewer years of service than Bert. He played hundreds of games and scored hundreds of goals for the club. “I was only asked one question when I signed up to join: which position do you want to play?” Hugo says that his path was smoothed into the club thanks to having a father who was friends with influential administrators. The club has decent – but far from luxurious facilities – yet, it is by far-and-away the most popular club to play for in Haarlem and Heemstede-Aerdenhout. The club sits on the border between the two municipalities where most of its members come from. Some of the players in the main team travel a little further.
Gert-Jan Pruijn, the club's president, runs a sports management company and gives around 20 hours a week to the club. He's leading the club at an interesting moment: the KNVB is introducing a new division, a 'second division', that will be below the current Jupiler League, which is also known as the Eerste Divisie, which is below the Eredivisie. The top seven clubs from the current Topklasse will be promoted to this Second Division, and one of the stipulations is that four-to-six players will have to be contracted. This will cost the club at least 200,000 Euros. Gert-Jan is adamant that the club cannot accept this demand from the KNVB.
“We can't give too much of our resources to one team and one small set of players. Depending on which day the team would play, the coach would be coming to me and saying, oh, we need to have our training on x, y, z, and when our game is on another day, we need to have our training on other days. There is no way we can do this. Financially and mentally we are not ready to do this. We can't compromise the training and playing schedules of our junior teams just to suit our top team. This is not what the club is about.
“The KNVB have also told us that we need to install lights onto the main pitch. Well, we can't afford that either. If we had the money, we would be investing it in a new artificial pitch. We can't update one of the pitches that is already ten years old: it is too hard and the players don't like playing on it as they get injuries. Our main pitch, which the Topklasse team uses, gets water-logged and we have to protect it. They too would appreciate a better artificial-turf pitch to be practicing and playing on.
“Our club is not only about servicing the main team. We have a duty and desire to make sure that our club represents the community of Haarlem and Heemstede-Aerdenhout. Although our membership is just about as good as full, we are doing our best to make our football club as open as possible. We held the first transgender game in the Netherlands four years ago. The two teams were men who became women playing against women who became men. It was an emotional and wonderful day. The football wasn't so great, but it was a lot of fun. We have teams for girls and for players with disabilities. We also have teams for players above 60. We are not against contracting our players, outright. We are just not ready to do it now. The Netherlands is a country of compromise. We'll reach one with the KNVB”.
Oh Holland: football nation. A small country carved up into tulip fields and football fields and polders, with small towns in between. HFC, a gezellig football club above all else. Servicing its community. The ex-internationals show their respect for the club through showing up yearly and participating in the game. The glamour of the upcoming Euros seems another world away: and indeed, Holland's demise as a point of reference for footballing know-how is not a matter of concern.
ANDY FULLER - @ReadingSideways
*Andy Fuller is the founder of Reading Sideways (http://readingsideways.net)
With thanks to Bert Vermeer, Hugo Bettink and Gert-Jan Pruijn. Photos courtesy of Joke Slootheer and Koninklijke HFC.