Football Lockdowns: The Spanish Flu of 1918

Apr 11, 2020

Football Stories

The global pandemic of a century ago also impacted football.

In a matter of just a few days, not just national football, but also international football has been fully paralysed due to the coronavirus. While this situation is undeniably exceptional and many countries are experiencing lockdown it is not the first time that a crisis impacts the world of sports to this extent. Here’s the short story of how the Spanish Flu affected football in The Netherlands.

In this post:

Guest author: Jurryt van de Vooren


Serbian soldiers being treated for Spanish flu (Photo: H.A. van Oudgaarden)

Serbian soldiers being treated for Spanish flu [February 5, 1919 Rotterdam. Photo: H.A. van Oudgaarden, Nieuwe Binnenweg 221, Rotterdam, courtesy of Mr. Piet van Bentum, sexton at the Restored Reformed Church in Garderen]

An illness that tackled football

In many countries, football competitions were interrupted because of the First World War, such as in Belgium, Germany, and England. The outbreak of the Spanish flu also caused a similar phenomenon, in which many national competitions were also cancelled. The football world lost the opportunity to see many great players in action, such as the Scottish Angus Douglas and Dan McMichael, once manager of Hibernian FC.

The Netherlands was a neutral country during WWI and was thus spared from the direct violence and consequences of the war. The Dutch competition went on, albeit under difficult circumstances, such as difficulties relating to the mobility of many international players, among other adverse conditions. The first media pieces about the Spanish flu appeared in the summer of 1918. The “Sportblad”, a media outlet of the Amsterdam Football Association, published:

this illness could become a serious obstacle for the games to come.

Players getting sick

The foreshadowing by the Sportsblad came true – and it proved to be every bit as serious as reported. In late August, the Rotterdam-based Feyenoord was to play in Amsterdam, but the game could not take place: the opposing side had seven sick players. Entire leagues were affected by the malaise, with teams from the East having seven or more players unable to go out on the pitch. By November, half of the planned games in the west of the country were cancelled. Cities such as Almelo and Wageningen promptly forbade public entertainment events altogether, football included.

C. Oosterwijk, a board member of Sparta Rotterdam, fell prey to the flu at the young age of thirty. In Winschoten, the famous footballer G. Schoonhoven, and in Deventer, Gerrit van Tongeren died as a result of the disease. A comprehensive overview of all the victims of the Spanish flu in the Dutch football world was never carried out.

A question of governance

The Dutch Football Association – before receiving the royal title in 1929 – decided to disregard the calls for postponing the competition:

the secretary and treasurer of the Dutch Football Association hereby informs that no postponing of matches will take place because of the reign of the Spanish flu (Dutch FA archives).

Not having enough players to face another team was deemed to be a more acceptable reason to postpone matches by the Association, though.

And as the coronavirus rages on, European football organisers are challenged to both comply with public health measures, as well as prepare and plan ahead for when the ball can start rolling again.

Article Tags:   Coronavirus  |   football  |   lockdown  |   Netherlands  |   Spanish Flu

SPECIAL  Lockdown Football Stories

Football Lockdowns: Smallpox outbreak in 1972

Football Lockdowns: Smallpox outbreak in 1972

Football Makes History Developer and history teacher Igor Jovanovic wrote for us about other times when Football was stopped like it currently is. This time it is the Smallpox outbreak in Yugoslavia.

Football Lockdowns: Tilburg (NL) 1951

Football Lockdowns: Tilburg (NL) 1951

Dutch sport historian Jurryt van de Vooren wrote a historical overview of other times when Football was stopped, like it currently is. Small story of a local epidemic.

Football Lockdowns: World War Two

Football Lockdowns: World War Two

Dutch sports historian Jurryt van de Vooren wrote a historical overview of other times when Football was stopped like it currently is. The Second World War is our second short piece.

LATEST POST  You may also be interested in

Formation for Human Rights

Formation for Human Rights

A class of high school history students in Oslo was asked to create an ideal starting XI line-up based on Human Rights. Find out why and how it went.

Share This