The Dutch national football team only boarded an airplane for the first time after World War II, provided that the international players didn’t have a fear of flying, like the Dutch footballer Abe Lenstra did. This article is part of a special series looking at the historical relationship between football and fossil fueled industry.
On March 24, 1928, an intriguing advertisement from KLM appeared in the Telegraaf newspaper. It was a week before the away match of the Dutch national team against Belgium in Antwerp. ‘In 70 minutes from Amsterdam to Antwerp, attend the match, and get back home in time for dinner. If there is enough interest, a KLM aircraft will fly from Amsterdam to Antwerp and back on 1 April, with 7 seats available.’
Nearly one hundred years ago, this was the first advertisement in a Dutch newspaper offering a football trip by airplane. In 1923, KLM had already aimed to offer air travel for sports enthusiasts, but it was not yet associated with a specific football match.
These tickets cost exactly 45 guilders per person in 1928, an amount equivalent to two weeks’ worth of work for a carpenter at the time. Nevertheless, it was a success. According to the De Tijd newspaper, the aircraft, piloted by Jan Hondong, departed at 12.40 PMs, and upon return from Antwerp, hundreds of interested spectators had gathered at the airport to witness the landing.
Oranges in the Sky
The Dutch national team hadn’t come to that point yet. In June 1930, for example, they played an away match in Budapest against Hungary, after which the players dispersed throughout Europe. Ajax’s Jan den Boer remained behind because his club was touring Central Europe during those weeks. The PSV players immediately travelled to Scandinavia to play matches with their club. As far as is known, goalkeeper Gejus van der Meulen was the only one who came to the Netherlands by plane, probably being the first Dutch international to do so. The rest travelled by ground.
It was only after World War II that the Dutch Football Association (KNVB) began air travel. A plane had been booked for 19 August, 1945, destination Denmark, but in those first chaotic post-war months, it didn’t happen. In early 1946, Harie Ehlen from Sittard Boys flew from Beek to The Hague for the Dutch national team’s training sessions. When the other players heard about this, ‘it made a huge impression on the group of international players,’ according to Limburg’s Dagblad on 25 January, 1946.
The first flight of the Dutch team was on 25 November, 1946, to England, for a match against the English national team. This trip required quite a few hours of preparation, as appears from KNVB documents stored at the National Archives. On 28 October, there was a special meeting at the KNVB headquarters to discuss negotiations with Stanley Rous of the English Football Association. ‘If we were to fly, he would make that we could land near Harrogate, where there are plenty of military airfields from which bombers used to take off for Germany.’
During the departure from Schiphol Airport, hundreds of supporters, family members, teammates, and journalists swarmed around the players, with autograph seekers especially eager. Just over two hours later, the group landed at Dishforth, a dozen kilometres from the pitch in Huddersfield. There, the Dutch suffered a terrible defeat, with the English leading 6-1 at halftime. It was a significant punishment for an outdated style of play by the Netherlands, resulting in an 8-2 victory for the home team. The return journey on 29 November was therefore considerably less cheerful than the departure had been.
Fear of Flying
Abe Lenstra, at that time the best striker in the Dutch league with 26 goals in 29 appearances, did not go on this trip because he was not selected for the team. ‘We all acknowledge wholeheartedly that Abe is a player whose masterful qualities could be put to good use in the Dutch national team,’ defended the Dutch Football Association’s (KNVB) decision. ‘Provided that we could be assured that these qualities would indeed be demonstrated in a match. There is some risk with every player in this regard, but for some inexplicable reason, this risk is so great with Abe that the Dutch national team cannot afford it.’
In May 1948, Lenstra did not travel to Oslo either, according to various journalists due to his fear of flying. ‘We journalists knew for several days that Abe had very little desire for the flight,’ reported Tubantia. ‘He has never flown before, and even when we took a flight to Maastricht, Abe kept both feet firmly on the ground and travelled by car.’
That was just fine, but there was another factor at play: the KNVB had scheduled these matches for the Dutch team during the championship competition, in those days key in the fight for the national title. Heerenveen still had a good chance of becoming the champions, which is why Lenstra had no desire to play for the Dutch team – an understandable point of view. No one could foresee at the time, that BVV Den Bosch would ultimately win the title.
New problems in new times
In the end, Lenstra did fly, as he wrote himself on 19 June, 1950, in Nieuwsblad van Friesland newspaper, about a trip from Stockholm to Helsinki. ‘I was a bit hesitant at first, but once I was on the plane, I found it quite enjoyable, and later, I could also say that I had flown. We arrived in Helsinki without much fuss.’
Nevertheless, in these modern times, the KNVB was also faced with a modern problem: the fear of flying among football players. Because new times inevitably bring new problems.
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 1950s?
Looking at the football schedules today, how could top football clubs change their travel means?