Sport, and football in particular, cause a great deal of mobility. Flights, trains and automobiles. This article is part of a special series looking at the historical relationship between football and fossil fueled industry.
At this moment, the Dutch Olympic Committee NOC*NSF is preparing for the Olympic Games with the slogan ‘Road to Paris’. But why is the slogan not ‘Rails to Paris’? After all, the train played a significant role in both 1924 and 2024.
In July 2023, NOC*NSF entered into a collaboration with the international train service Eurostar for the transportation of Dutch Olympians to Paris for the Olympic Games. Most athletes and their staff will travel to Paris next year with the international train. Athletes from Belgium and Great Britain have also entered into similar agreements.
If the women’s football team qualifies, they will travel by train; “The football matches at the Olympic Games take place in various cities in France, such as Lyon, Nantes, and Bordeaux,” NOC*NSF explains, “which is why NOC*NSF is putting into practice the rule that distances less than 700 kilometres should preferably be covered by train.”
Train to Dordrecht
In this official announcement by the Dutch Olympic Committee, surprisingly, there were no references made to the Olympic Games exactly one hundred years earlier, also held in Paris. In 1924, participants also travelled by train. This was at a time when airplanes were not yet used for such journeys. Back then, the Dutch national team and their supporters were accustomed to this mode of travel.
On 2 April 1911, for example, the Dutch national team played a home match against Belgium in Dordrecht. This city in the province of South Holland handled the organisation very professionally, which left a strong impression on football official A.J. Bronkhorst, as he wrote in his 1926 book Hup Holland. ‘It was for the first time in the history of our sport that a city showed such unequivocal interest by offering the Football Association hospitality through the Mayor and authorities in Dordrecht.’
Another interesting feature of travel a century ago, was the considerable attention given to the way supporters were transported. “The State Railway Company will operate extra and affordable trains from Amsterdam and various surrounding towns to Dordrecht.” Additionally, a special train with discounted tickets ran from Brussels. The Steamship Company Fop Smit, provided extra fast services, allowing supporters to travel by propeller boat from Rotterdam to Dordrecht. The host city was clever in providing the visitors with a city map so they could easily find the stadium.
Thousands of train tickets were sold, “so the station and its surrounding area resembled the scene of a peaceful civil war,” as the reporter from the Dutch national newspaper Het Vaderland commented on the enormous crowd in Dordrecht. “Isn’t this indicative of the strong degree to which football has gained importance in this country?”
The national character of the international match was emphasised by the reception of the Dutch and Belgian football officials at the residence of Mayor H.J. Wichers of Dordrecht. Such an official tribute from the authorities to football, still a young sport at the time, had never before been seen in the Netherlands.
Train to the Olympics
So, train travel already played a crucial role for footballers, even when they participated in the Olympic Games. This happened for the first time in 1908, when, due to the final destination being London, a boat trip was added. The exact schedule for the departure of the Dutch national team was published in the newspapers of that week, showing that the journey then took almost twelve hours.”‘Departure from Amsterdam at 8.48 am, from Haarlem at 9.10 am, from The Hague at 10.00 am, to Hoek van Holland. Arrival in London, 8.00 pm at Liverpool Street station.”
Four years later, in 1912, the journey to the Olympic Games in Stockholm started with the night train from Amsterdam at 9.00 pm. In addition to footballers, also the referees, athletes, and officials travelled this way. Upon arrival, they were met by members of the Swedish Football Association, who offered the travellers a lunch, which was frequently interrupted by speeches. The train station thus became an important meeting place for international football associations.
Party on the way back
The return home after the games was very festive because the Dutch team had won the bronze medal. Through a telegram from the Netherlands it had already been announced that a national tribute was planned from the moment the train arrived in Amsterdam. “There were so many interested parties at Central Station that the large hall designated for the reception could barely accommodate them all,” as reported by newspaper Het Nieuws van den Dag. Thousands of celebrating football fans were waiting outside in the square for the parade with the footballers to begin. With some effort, the procession of carriages made its way through the crowd. It was the first major celebration for the Dutch national team.
Train to 1924 Olympics
The KNVB (Royal Dutch Football Association) archive contains an overview of the train connections to Paris in 1924, when the Olympic Games were also held there. The train journey between Amsterdam and Paris at the time took about twelve hours, which is now less than four hours with a functioning high speed rail..
The departure was on 26 May, as usual, a point of attention in the press. “Monday, the Dutch team arrived by day train at 6.35 am at Gare du Nord,” reported daily De Telegraaf. “Sixteen players had travelled with the team.” Dutch football officials Kips, Hirschman, and Coucke welcomed the footballers. “The team feels excellent and is by no means planning to return empty-handed.”
However, that’s exactly what happened, as the Netherlands did not manage to grab third place. Especially in the match against Uruguay that preceded it, the Netherlands had made a strong impression. The South Americans won through very robust play and highly questionable referee decisions in their favour. Just for that performance against Uruguay alone, which ultimately won the gold medal, a celebration was organised in the Netherlands – at, of course, a train station.
Pride at the station
On 10 June, the team arrived in The Hague, where a large crowd was waiting. The Arnhemsche Courant newspaper wrote: “A resounding cheer echoed when the players, led by captain Denis, appeared. A true ovation was given to them, and one by one they were carried around on shoulders.” It was even busier on the Station Square, where captain Harry Dénis was immediately hoisted onto shoulders.
In the summer of 2024, European footballers will hopefully travel to Paris by train as much as possible, just like they did one hundred years before that. For that reason, it would be fantastic if the Olympic committees could share this story in an appealing and historic way, so that there will be even more attention for this mode of travel. Including celebrations upon arrival at the station, with an ovation for the champions.
Educators could take the historical perspectives on how footballers used to travels and discuss with their students:
What could train stations do to stimulate sport and football mobility?