How a Disastrous Flood Changed Dutch Football Forever

GuidoAnalyst IOctober 11, 2008

Ironically the start of a proper league in the Netherlands happened very much despite the Dutch federation, KNVB, who did everything in its power to delay the entrance of money into the game.


In 1954 it submitted to pressure from press, players and several businessmen, who had started a successful league of their own.


Dutch football was averse to cash until well after World War II. The post-war years therefore saw an exodus of players like Faas Wilkes, Kees Rijvers, and Bertus de Harder who headed to France, Spain, and Italy respectively to earn a salary with their favourite hobby.


Leaving their own country also meant the end of their international careers.


The Dutch federation stubbornly refused to invite professionals for the Dutch team, which as a result saw a steady decline with only a single win between the summer of 1949 and the end of 1952, while average attendances at league matches also dropped with all the stars playing abroad.


Although there was an increasing support to turn the game professional, the KNVB would have none of it. Then came a seemingly unrelated drama, which would change the Dutch game entirely.


The North Sea flood of 1953 and the associated storm combined to create a major natural disaster, which affected the coastlines of the Netherlands and England on the night of 31 January 1953. Belgium, Denmark, and France were also affected by flooding and storm damage.


A combination of a high spring tide and a severe European windstorm caused a storm tide. In combination with a tidal surge of the North Sea the water level locally exceeded 5.6 metres above mean sea level. The flood and waves overwhelmed sea defences and caused extensive flooding.


During this disastrous night, many dikes in the provinces of Zeeland, Zuid-Holland, and Noord-Brabant proved unable to resist the combination of spring tide and a North-Western storm. On both the islands and the mainland, large areas were completely flooded.


At the time of the disaster, none of the local radio stations broadcast at night, and many of the smaller weather stations operated only during the day, as a result of which the warnings of the KNMI (Royal Dutch Meteorology Institute) did not penetrate the flood threatened area in time.


People did not receive warning and were consequently unable to prepare for the impending flood. Telephone and telegraph networks were disrupted, and within hours amateur radio operators went in to the affected areas with their home-made radio equipment to form a voluntary emergency radio network.


These well-organised radio amateurs worked tirelessly, providing radio communications for ten days and nights, and were the only people maintaining contact with the outside world. In addition to the disaster happening during the night, it was Saturday night. As a result, many offices in the disaster area were left unmanned.


The heaviest death toll was recorded at the islands of Schouwen-Duiveland and Goeree-Overflakkee. The government started the Delta-commission to study the causes and effects of the floodings. They estimated that flooding killed 1,835 people and forced the emergency evacuation of 70,000 more.


Floods covered 9% of Dutch farmland, and sea water inundated 1,365 km² of land. An estimated 30,000 animals drowned, and 47,300 buildings were damaged—of which 10,000 were destroyed.


Total damage was estimated at that time at 895 million Dutch guilders.


Several neighbouring countries sent soldiers to assist in the search and rescue. The U.S. Army sent helicopters from Germany to rescue people from the rooftops. Queen Juliana and Princess Beatrix visited the flooded area only a few days after. A large aid program came on apace, supported by the radio.


A national donation program was started and there was a large amount of international aid. Politically, the disaster prompted discussions concerning the protection and strengthening of the dikes, eventually leading to the Delta Works, an elaborate project involving the closing off of most estuary-mouths.


Another aid-programme, set up in France, would change the future of Dutch football forever. Understandably distressed, the French-based players Bram Appel (Stade de Reims) and Theo Timmermans (Olympique Nimes) asked the French federation to organize a benefit match between the French national team and the Dutch.


As stated before, the KNVB (the Dutch FA) was reluctant to let professional players represent the country by playing for the national side. Only amateur players were eligible for the national team, which meant some of the best Dutch players, who had turned pro abroad, were not allowed to represent their country.


The French chairman wholeheartedly agreed but the KNVB were reluctant to see their ailing team get a roasting in Paris. The professional players then suggested to form a Dutch XI of their own to play the French. The KNVB backed off, even refusing them orange shirts, and organised its own game against Denmark in Amsterdam.


A full house saw yet another humiliating defeat, which added to the excitement of the Paris game a few days later. Although the match was played outside the weekend, 8,000 fans travelled for this unique opportunity to watch the best the country could offer—although they had to do without legendary forward Faas Wilkes, who was not released by AC Torino for this game.


Even without him the team battled to a sensational 2-1 win, leaving the KNVB officials red-faced. They had asked the press not to write about the match, but afterwards enormous headlines celebrated the biggest football victory since the war. Along with it came an even bigger outcry to introduce professional football and bring back those top players to the league.


The KNVB resisted as long as it could but the success of a new federation, introducing payments and new clubs, forced them to merge and start a professional league in November 1954 also implying the return of the best players in the national team.


That is how a disastrous flood changed the outcome of Dutch football.