In 2022, Feyenoord won the Dutch league. Its team had travelled approximately 1500 kilometres for a single match against Danish club FC Midtjyland. A distance twice as much as the total travel distance of Amsterdam-based RAP in their entire 1897-1898 season, a century in which human mobility radically changed.
The world has become more mobile, and with it, so has football. Football is the biggest sport in the world and is played literally everywhere. In the previous century, it became easier to make long journeys, making it increasingly feasible to play international matches.
The way a competition is organised says a lot about mobility at a certain point in time. This article is part of a special series looking at the historical relationship between football and fossil-fueled industry. It looks at the historical development in The Netherlands. Does this reflect well with other countries and contexts as well?
For a long time, mountains and rivers were the biggest natural obstacles for football. Crossing a river without a bridge or navigating a mountain could be very time-consuming and at times challenging. For a long time, these barriers stood in the way of cross-border football, geographic conditions are, after all, crucial for mobility, and this also applies to football.
The rapid development of international travel changed everything, first by train and later by plane. Regions that previously had little inter-football contact were suddenly connected, this happened not only at an international level but also within countries.
The way competitions are formed and structured reflects historical circumstances, as revealed by this investigation on the mobility of Dutch football since 1898. In the early days, clubs from the top divisions primarily travelled by bicycle, bus, or train, depending on the distance they had to cover. Nowadays, buses are used for domestic travel and planes for international travel. Trains play a minimal role.
Over a period of 125 years, the distances covered have grown tremendously. In 1898, Amsterdam-based RAP was the first official Dutch champion. The club had to play thirteen matches against teams within a maximum distance of 65 kilometres from their home ground. Cup matches did not exist at the time, nor did international tournaments. By the end of the season, RAP had travelled approximately 750 kilometres for thirteen official matches.
Exactly 125 years later, Feyenoord Rotterdam won the national title. The club had to play 34 matches against teams within a maximum distance of 250 kilometres from their home ground. In addition, they had to play fourteen cup matches plus international tournaments, with trips to Rome of more than 3.000 kilometres (both ways) being the longest. By the end of the season, Feyenoord had travelled approximately 19.000 kilometres for 48 official matches – more than 25 times the distance covered by RAP’s predecessors!
Researching five champions
It’s no surprise that footballers in 2023 are considerably more mobile than those in 1898. The world has seen large-scale globalisation. Looking at this process puts forward some valuable insights into the historical development of the organisation of football.
For this reason I examined all the official matches of the five Dutch national champions over the past 125 years: RAP from Amsterdam in 1898, RCH from Haarlem in 1923, BVV from Den Bosch in 1948, Ajax from Amsterdam in 1973, Ajax again in 1998, and Feyenoord from Rotterdam in 2023. So, every time, there’s an interval of 25 years.
The travel distances were estimated by using Google Maps to determine the number of kilometres from the club’s city of origin to the location of an away match. In all cases, walking routes were chosen, as modern highways did not exist in those early days. If two teams played in the same city, a distance of ten kilometres was selected.
Example of RAP
In 1898, RAP played an away match against Rapiditas from Rotterdam. According to Google Maps, the travel distance between Amsterdam and Rotterdam is approximately 65 kilometres, so the recorded travel distance is 130 kilometres – round trip. It’s not a precise calculation, but the results provide good insight into the long-term development of these travel distances, as can be seen in the graph “Travel kilometres per season”
Until 1948, there wasn’t much change, which is easy to explain. The Eredivisie, the top tier of Dutch professional football, was only established in 1956, marking the first national competition. Before that, the top division was divided into four or five regional leagues, with the winners of each region competing in a championship competition at the end of the season for the national title.
This format was necessary, as it allowed participating clubs to travel and play on the same day. Before World War II, long trips were made only for the championship competition, and it was nearly impossible for a club from the south of the country to travel to the north without an overnight stay.
Matches on the map
This development is clearly visible in the maps for each season, showing where away matches were played. In 1898, RAP played its matches only in the western part of the country, which was indeed the focal point of Dutch football at the end of the 19th century. The only other region with its own competition at the time was in the east of the Netherlands. Cup matches did not exist yet. Twenty-five years later, RCH from Haarlem also played all of their regular competition matches in their own region. Long trips were only made for the championship competition. There was no cup competition that year.
At BVV from Den Bosch, the regional division is very clear, as the club played all of its competition matches in the south of the Netherlands. Only during the championship competition were matches played elsewhere in the country. BVV did not participate in the cup competition that year, as it did not yet play a significant role in Dutch football. This only began in 1960, when the winner could qualify for the UEFA Cup II.
The new national and European stages
With the introduction of the Eredivisie in 1956, everything changed because from that year on competition matches were played throughout the Netherlands. The growing mobility of society was fundamentally important for this new setup. Another decisive factor for the increasing travel distances is European football, clearly visible for Ajax in the 1972-1973 season on the map. While league matches and the cup tournament were all held in the Netherlands, the longest journeys were made for international matches. In the Netherlands, Ajax covered roughly 3200 kilometres that season, but for foreign trips, it was about 12.000 kilometres.
The principle behind these international tournaments is the same as when the Eredivisie was introduced: they are only possible with sufficient mobility. The key here is not so much whether clubs and players want to participate, but whether they are able to make the necessary trips. In other words, societal mobility is crucial for the development of football.
Toward 21st-century mobility
This mobility principle remains true in our time, both for Ajax in 1998 and Feyenoord in 2023. About a third of the kilometres covered in these years were within the Netherlands, and the rest were abroad. It all depended on the draw and the achieved success, which led to Ajax, for example, having to go to Moscow and Feyenoord travelling to Rome twice.
This analysis has not even focused on the distances covered for training camps or friendly matches, let alone the individual travels of players representing their national teams. For example, in the 2022-23 season, Feyenoord’s Santiago Giménez played for the Mexican national team, thus covering much greater distances than with his club.
War and other disasters
The above analysis is very general with a limited set of data, yet it already demonstrates the direct relationship between growing mobility and the global growth of football. It goes without saying that dramatic events such as war or disasters also have an impact but in a negative way.
For example, the geographical scope of competitions in Dutch football noticeably decreased during World War II. Apart from the stopping of the competitions and the impossibility of playing official games in certain war zones, also logistics were affected: Bridges were bombed, separating regions. Rivers again became barriers and once again turned into natural enemies, physically reducing the world of athletes. One other constraint was a decree from 1943 that allowed clubs to travel no more than one hundred kilometres by train per day.
The case of Arnhem and Nijmegen
An excellent example is the province of Gelderland in the east of the Netherlands, with Arnhem and Nijmegen as the best-known cities. There were significant differences in the number of participants per competition, depending mainly on the available bus and train connections. In 1940, the 1st Class, Department E, consisted of seven clubs centred around the town of Lochem, where each club played 12 matches. In the Dieren region, on the other side of the IJssel River, there was a competition with 18 matchdays. Around the city of Doetinchem, travel options were so good that 24 matches were played – twice as many as in the Lochem region.
Because of the war, many things, however, changed. The Gelderse Voetbalbond (Gelderland Football Association) noted in its annual report of 1941 that travelling was becoming increasingly difficult. Bicycle tires were scarce, and on Sundays, there were no buses at all. But the clubs weren’t willing to give in yet. ‘Perhaps sometimes we will have to travel by farm cart, from one village to another, but we will get there.’
Football club Lochem did indeed have to deal with these problems, according to the minutes of the board meetings and members’ gatherings. On 24 November 1943, the shortage of bicycles was discussed, which made it difficult to play away matches, even if they were just a few kilometres down the road.
The local association found it increasingly challenging not only to organise competitions but also to successfully complete them. ‘When organising the matches, this was done as geographically favourably as possible,’ as stated in the annual report of 1942. But as the war progressed, it became increasingly difficult, until in September 1944, all football-related activities in the Netherlands came to a halt.
Summed up, as the war continued, there were fewer travel options and consequently fewer football matches.
The example from Gelderland once again illustrates that competition structures provide a lot of information about the mobility of society at the time. We see this happening again in 1953 in the province of Zeeland, the year that this area was severely affected by the Watersnoodramp (Flood Disaster), the worst flooding in the Netherlands (and surrounding countries) of the previous century.
Zeeland: Long local distances
In the 1952-53 season, Zeeland had sixteen provincial senior competitions. Six of these, of the Christian faith, played their matches on Saturdays because Sunday was a day of rest. The two smallest competitions were 1st Class C and 2nd Class C, of which all clubs came from the island of Schouwen-Duiveland. Both leagues were made up of six clubs, something which can be easily explained by the geographical circumstances of this area: due to the lack of proper connections, an extremely long detour was needed to leave the region. Nowadays, it takes about 45 minutes to travel from Schouwen-Duiveland to the city of Vlissingen, but up until the 1950s, footballers had to travel twelve hours – back and forth! It is therefore completely logical that they only played in their own area.
Effects of the 1953 floods
It’s precisely in this isolated area that the death toll was the highest during the Watersnoodramp. In the village of Ouwerkerk, 91 inhabitants drowned. Local club SVOWK had exactly 23 members, of which six perished. The complete infrastructure was wiped out, making football no longer possible – as if there was still anyone interested. The two competitions on Schouwen-Duiveland were therefore never finished.
It’s rather remarkable that the football competitions in the rest of Zeeland eventually continued that same season, albeit with difficulty. Only on Schouwen-Duiveland this failed. This devastating disaster therefore only put a stop to football in the part where no mobility whatsoever existed, thus reaffirming this mutual relationship.
How about your country?
Because football is an international sport, it’s important that similar research should also take place in other countries, so that these connections can be further investigated. This way, information can be exchanged, compared, and incorporated, into an international context. Because even for sports historians to keep in touch, mountains and rivers are no longer an obstacle.
Football is a global economic sector as much as it is a local social activity. In all senses, it is built around teams competing with one another, and that means: travelling. How teams have travelled in the past, which obstacles they faced and which solutions were found, can inform football cultures today seeking to find new – less climate-impacting – ways of organising football.
Educators could take the historical perspectives on how footballers used to travels and discuss with their students:
What are the pro’s and con’s of the increase of football mobility?
Is the Dutch case also the same in other countries?
How have other wars and disasters made football mobility difficult, and how was this overcome?