There once was a time when most European nations were governed by monarchies. Royal families (often related to one other) wielding almost limitless political power maintained the status quo by offering virtually zero social mobility to their peasant subjects. Revolutions in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries transformed the political landscape on the continent that was the first to industrialise and subsequently colonise the rest of the world. Only a small handful of European nations in the 21st century hold on to their Royal Families, and one celebrates its monarchy like absolutely no other.
The British view their Royal Family with either quiet affection or a cosy ambivalence. The continuing partisan nature of Spanish politics leads one half of the country to actively dislike their monarchy and obligates the other half to avoid public manifestations of support they may have for their King. And the Royal Families of Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Monaco are too low-key to really stand out as households names across the continent. However, one look at the average Dutchman’s behaviour on Koningsdag tells you all you need to know about the wide-reaching popularity of the monarchy in the Netherlands.
It wasn’t until 1813 when the Napoleonic Army were defeated that the current Dutch Monarchy rose to power. A member of the House of Oranje-Nassau (the lineage of Willem van Oranje who most Dutchmen consider to be their country’s founding father), William the I instated that unmistakable, feverish orange as the official royal colour. While being initially unpopular, particularly in the country’s Catholic South, the Dutch Royal Family’s popularity has increased markedly in the past century. The population’s exuberant use of orange is testament to that fact, as is the frequency with which both public and private companies are labelled as “Koninklijke”, the Dutch word for Royal. And in Haarlem, one of the oldest of all royalist cities in the Netherlands, that tradition extends to Football.
Founded in 1879 and initially playing a form of Football that included limited ball handling and body contact (similar to Rugby), Koninklijke Haarlemsche Football Club is the oldest Football club in the Netherlands, bar none. Currently competing in the Tweede Divisie, the third tier of Dutch Football, Koninklijke HFC exists as a community club in the idyllic city of Haarlem 15 kilometres to the West of Amsterdam while still reveling in the sporting successes it has achieved in 139 years. A smart home strip of white with royal blue (of course) accents and shorts is favoured by Koninklijke HFC instead of the national Dutch Oranje, yet this combination looks far more dignified and classy than any national kit of the Netherlands ever has. Like Haarlem itself, Koninklijke HFC is effortlessly sophisticated and graceful in its presentation; behaviour that is entirely befitting of a monarch.
If Koninklijke Haarlemsche Football Club’s history didn’t make it an attractive prospect for visitors, the ground does the rest of the work. A single tribune made primarily of wood and good ol’ concrete stands solidly as it has done for decades, while exquisite gates painted a brilliant white and displaying the club’s name elude to Holland’s pre-Eredivisie era of Football that is so often forgotten by mainstream media. The 1970’s were certainly the zenith of Football in the Netherlands’, but the small country was a proud Football nation long before the giddy days of Johan Cruyff and Totaal Voetball. The clubhouse itself features a tonne of memorabilia that further emphasises the club’s royal identity, while fair prices for food and drink keep the friendly staff busy in this community club. Rather kitsch giant crowns hang over a bar that is served by a barmaid so stunningly beautiful that I have mentioned her in this post for no reason whatsoever. It must be love.
Compared to a certain neighbour, Haarlem’s location further inland from the river IJ has arguably been to its disadvantage. As the Netherlands began to industrialise in the 17th century, towns and cities more easily accessible by water attracted industry and subsequently human capital. Once a negligible settlement, Amsterdam grew in size dramatically. The city’s distance from war zones with the Spanish and French made it a destination for refugees, further contributing to population growth. Cosmopolitan Amsterdam was at one stage the third largest city in Europe behind London and Paris. This unprecedented growth saw it surpass neighbouring Haarlem in size, which did not industrialise to the same extent. By the time the age of Football dawned in the late 19th century, it was Amsterdam that would come to eventually boast North Holland’s most successful team, not Haarlem.
Yet in the 21st century there is much reason to cheer. Picturesque Haarlem delights the visitor with one of Europe’s finest Gothic cathedrals and the same social-media-friendly architecture found in ‘Dam, yet without the hordes of egotistical hedonists looking for Sin with a capital S. A mere 15 kilometres apart, Haarlem and Amsterdam have developed into remarkably contrasting places.
The Royal City of Haarlem may have welcomed many distinguished guests over the course of its history, but on this fine Saturday it was two pissed-up English lads and a camera that it had to put up with. Koninklijke HFC were playing at home to the Kozakken Boys, hailing from Werkendam, with around 500 spectators present at the match. There was little in the way of chanting, but away supporters were made very welcome. A positive, jovial atmosphere around the place was made all the more enjoyable by the availability of cold Heineken on the terrace. The Kozakken Boys secured an opening goal and looked to all intents and purposes the stronger side during the opening exchanges. But Koninklijke HFC came from behind to win 3-2, the final goal coming from tall young fella (even by Dutch standards) that the two of us simply chose to call “Crouch”.
In the Netherlands, anything denoted as “Koninklijke” tends to be something that the Dutch can feel pride in and a certain ownership over. Koninklijke HFC is a remarkable Football club, brimming with character and heritage, that exists as a delightful microcosm of the city of Haarlem as a whole. It is a gem to behold and a public institution worth celebrating.