All aboard the train

Football and rails together created competitions

Jurryt van de Vooren
Jurryt van de Vooren

Is there a football club in your town? The answer is probably yes. But have you ever asked yourself what was needed to establish a club in your town? This article looks at football in the 19th century in The Netherlands, where football clubs were playing only in places with a train station. This article is part of a special series looking at the historical relationship between football and fossil-fueled industry.

FC Youth

The early days of Dutch football coincided with the rise of Dutch railways. The first footballers were considerably more mobile than their peers. Dutch sports in the 19th century was the domain of young people – both the practitioners and the spectators. In those early years, very few adults were involved in this. We should thus consider those early days as a youth movement or a collection of youth organisations. This conclusion was drawn by sports historian Daniël Rewijk in 2015 in his biographical study of Dutch sports pioneer Pim Mulier.

The athletes of the 19th century behaved fundamentally different from other young people of that time, because they were much more on the move in order to play their matches. They were particularly mobile, while other young people rarely left their hometowns. Rewijk: ‘The young athletes naturally benefited from the rapid expansion of the railway network.’

From the training to trains

Playing away matches was very difficult at that time because cars did not exist yet. The very short distances could be covered on foot, and in addition, it was precisely during that time that the breakthrough of the modern bicycle occurred. The train was the only way to play away matches outside of one’s own region, provided that the opponent also had a train station nearby.

And so there is a direct connection between the spread of sports and the expansion of the railway network, which is confirmed by figures. Through the website of the Dutch research institute Huygens ING, it is easy to find out which football clubs were founded in the 19th century and where this happened.

Counting stops

In total, there are today exactly 261 football clubs, of which 259 originated from a location with a nearby train or tram station. That is 99.23% of the total! Veendam, in the north, is included for convenience, although it could only be reached via the horse tram of the First Groninger Tramway Company. But in general, there were still very few railways in the three northern provinces, and accordingly, also very few football clubs, at the time. There was also a large gap between Rotterdam and Zeeland, where there were no clubs.

One village…

The only two 19th century football clubs without a nearby station came from Frederiksoord, also a village in the north of the Netherlands. Go On was the first to join the competition in 1896, having already played friendly matches the year before.

Due to the absence of a train station, it was not a popular destination for opponents. For instance, in March 1897, Go On played against Be Quick from Groningen at home. This was a journey of sixty kilometres, which in our time takes about an hour by car. Over 125 years ago, this was a tremendous undertaking, especially if you intended to return the same day.

‘They were terribly apprehensive about it,’ wrote the magazine De Athleet at the time about the people from Groningen, ‘because it was such a long and tiring trip.’ The hosts were well aware of this and made it a pleasant afternoon for Be Quick. ‘When they arrived and were welcomed in such a nice and festive manner, all sorrow was soon forgotten.”

Waiting for the tram

Ultimately, however, it proved to be too complicated for Go On. After all, the players of the club had to make that same journey themselves, every time they had an away match. And so, the club withdrew from the competition in November 1897. A few months later, students from the horticultural school in Frederiksoord started a new football club called Old Forward, but they did not yet register for the competition. The oldest mention is only from 1911, meaning travel problems were a thing from the past. Since the opening of the first tram station in Frederiksoord in 1914, this club has been a regular participant in the competition, even in 2023. All this is conclusive evidence that 19th century footballers had to live near a station before they could register for a competition.

Ceremonial Train Rituals

Nineteenth century footballers often turned these train journeys into complete ceremonies, with the visiting club being picked up from the station by the opponent. The sports magazines would state exactly what time a team departed for an away match, which was not only useful for the players themselves but also for travelling fans and journalists.

For example, on 4 March 1895, in Zwolle, there was a football match between the local Z.A.C. and Prinses Wilhelmina from Enschede, a distance of 70 kilometres. The visitors were escorted in a procession from the station to the football pitch, where the match was played. ‘The evening was concluded with a nice party,’ wrote De Athleet, ‘where the footballers provided abundant proof of their powerful voices and eloquence, while at 9pm, they bid farewell to each other at the station.’

The athletes would share travel tips to make life easier. In 1893, there were complaints about the poor connections between Heemstede and Haarlem, after which the clubs passed on the message that buses were available from Haarlem station for (in today’s currency) less than one euro per transfer – just as expensive as a tram.

Thinking points

Without stations, no new football clubs. Without railways, no mutual contacts between clubs over longer distances. And so, the railways laid the foundation for Dutch football in the 19th century.

Educators could take the historical perspectives on how footballers used to travels and discuss with their students:

  • How did football clubs emerge in your society?
  • Can you find connections between clubs and trains?
  • To what extent do footballers travel by train?
  • What are rituals for travelling to football (or other sport) matches today?
  • Can you imagine new rituals for the future?

Let’s review

Travellers to the match Netherlands-Belgium at the Haarlem Train Station (Photo: Municipality Haarlem).
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