Zealand team local flight 12-03-1939 (source: Zeeuws Archief).
Zealand team local flight 12-03-1939 (source: Zeeuws Archief).

Before Frequent Flyers

When flying was introduced in football it created connections and amazement

Jurryt van de Vooren
Jurryt van de Vooren Sportgeschiedenis.nl

In the years before World War II, football clubs rarely travelled by aeroplane. It was considered big news when it did eventually happen, as was the case with the Dutch Football club Willem II Willem II in 1934. How did people then think about flying? This article is part of a special series looking at the historical relationship between football and fossil fueled industry.

The future is fast

Dutch magazine Sportkroniek speculated in early 1926 about what the sports world would look like half a century later. One of the predictions was that, in 1976, sports enthusiasts would be inundated with the latest news daily. ‘Life in this era will be very fast,’ they foresaw, and this has certainly come to pass in today’s even faster-paced world. 

There was another interesting prediction, written as if it were already 1976 (but still using the old spelling): ‘De Amsterdamsche Elf (the Amsterdam Team) has just departed for Pichucalco by motorless airplane – to play a city match against that city.’ Pichucalco is located in Mexico, about a four-hour drive from Ciudad del Carmen International Airport, but they probably didn’t know that in 1926. 

The world connected by water

In 1923, air travel for sports enthusiasts was already being offered – one hundred years ago! Dutch airline KLM placed advertisements in sports magazines for flights from Amsterdam and Rotterdam to Brussels for 22.50 guilders. Tickets to London and Paris were offered for 48 guilders, which would be roughly equivalent to around 400 Euros, or a two week salary of a carpenter. There probably was a market for it a century ago, although it wasn’t huge.  

The participating countries in the football tournament of the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam did not arrive by plane, even though Schiphol was already in operation at the time. The Chilean footballers, for example, arrived two weeks before the start after a month-long boat trip. Upon arrival, the players boldly declared that they were not afraid of any opponent, except Uruguay, as they had never beaten them. The disappointment must have been immense when Portugal eliminated Chile in the first match. Months away from home for just one match at the Olympic Games! 

Teams like Argentina and Uruguay had to make such journeys as well. The Argentinians had already left in March 1928 and were away from home even longer than Chile. This team eventually reached the final, against Uruguay. 

Flying Footballers 

The earliest reports in Dutch media about flying football teams initially came from abroad. ‘In addition to flying businessmen and reporters, we are also seeing more and more flying footballers,’ wrote De Tijd newspaper on 21 March, 1932. ‘Last Saturday, the Italian team departed by plane to Vienna, and now Racing Club Mechelen has chartered an aircraft to take their team to the English Cup final, with a return flight on the same day to ensure the regular competition can continue.’ So, the Belgians just went to watch the match! A year later, Arsenal made international headlines by flying home from Paris after a match against Racing Club de Paris. 

The Dutch premiere was in 1934 in Tilburg. ‘Willem II travelled by airplane to the north for the championship match against Velocitas,’ wrote newspaper Het Vaderland on 25 June, 1934. By bus or train, an overnight stay would have been necessary, which the Tilburg club estimated would cost about the same as the flight. 

The trip was carried out with two KLM planes from Eindhoven to Eelde, near Groningen. The bus departed from Tilburg to the airport at ten o’clock for a flight lasting 75 minutes. Immediately after the match, the return journey began and was completed by seven o’clock in the evening in Tilburg. None of the players got airsick. Only the club secretary didn’t feel well that day, but he didn’t have to play anyway.  

The match and the journey were all carried out in a single day, which could never have been done by car or train in 1934. That’s why it is proudly mentioned in Willem II’s 125th-anniversary jubilee book (published in 2021/22): ‘With two KLM Fokker airplanes, the team brings back a 0-2 victory from the North.’ 

Escaping the isolation of Zeeland

Even in the years that followed, flying footballers remained a rare sight in our country. Individual international players would sometimes board planes, like goalkeeper Gejus van der Meulen in 1930. Captain Puck van Heel got a scare in 1934, when he realised that his football kit had not arrived for a match in Antwerp, after which it was sent by emergency flight. 

The players of Feyenoord flew for the first time in 1938, for a friendly match against Tubantia in Enschede. ‘One of the players got airsick on the outbound journey,’ reported magazine Sportkroniek, ‘but that didn’t deter Feyenoord from winning 3-1. After a smooth return journey, the team safely landed at Waalhaven.’ 

The last reports before World War II came from Zeeland. In November 1938, the second (!) team of De Zeeuwen from Vlissingen played an away match against Burgh in Haamstede on the island Schouwen. Nowadays, this is about three-quarters of an hour drive by car, but in 1938, the round trip took a whopping twelve hours! Dagblad van Noord-Brabant newspaper explained the route: by bus via Bergen op Zoom to Tholen, then crossing by ferry and continuing with another bus. ‘Thanks to the mediation of the local KLM agency here, the firm Wh. M. Müller and Co., an extra plane was chartered on Sunday, with which the footballers departed from Vlissingen airport at 1.15 PM to Haamstede, played in Burgh at 2.00 PM, and after the match, they boarded the plane again, which brought them back to Vlissingen, where they landed at about 4.00 PM. An example that certainly deserves to be followed. It definitely made Zeeland a bit less isolated!’ 

Something similar happened in 1939, but this time with EMM from Vlissingen, a club that also had to play against Burgh. Just before they boarded the plane, the players were photographed. That’s why we still know the names of these flying footballers: Frans Kopmels, Jan Kloosterman, Tinus van der Ent, Gilles van de Voorde, Fer Corveleijn, Jan Dommisse, Izak Slager, Goof Meulman, Adrie Meerman, Charles Heijman, Jan Fregeres, Gerard Heijman, Kees Spuij, Rinus van der Ent, Piet Bosselaar, and Cor Hollebrandse.

Thinking points

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

  • How might flying have felt to the footballers of the 1930s?
  • How do footballers use transportation today? Should this change?
  • How less polluting would be taking the train VS flying for football teams nowdays?

Let’s review

Zealand team local flight 12-03-1939 (source: Zeeuws Archief).
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