Lower leagues across the globe #4: The Netherlands
The next instalment of The Seventy Two’s series looking at lower leagues in other countries involves a short hop over to the continent. Kevin Jones, who discovered this site via The Guardian’s recommendation of Ben Shave’s article on Portugal, delves into life outside the Dutch Eredivisie, and tells a fascinating story of money and religion.
The Eerste Divisie
The Dutch national team’s run to the World Cup final in the summer engendered something of a feel-good factor in the country that spawned “total football”, but this hasn’t really filtered down to the Dutch second division yet.
The Eerste Divisie (or Jupiler League, as its sponsors would prefer it to be known) is Holland’s eighteen team second tier. It started with twenty teams last season, but the unfortunate demise of HFC Haarlem almost a year ago was the first real sign of the large-scale financial crisis afflicting teams outside the Eredivisie.
Another team was lost due to the re-organisation of the third tier of Dutch football, when bottom placed FC Oss were relegated to the newly-formed Topklasse at the end of last season. So teams already scrabbling around for gate receipts and income from match days now have to make do with two fewer opportunities to rake in some much needed cash.
Last season, De Graafschap cruised to the championship and the only automatic promotion place, and they’ve acquitted themselves well in the Eredivisie, looking well placed to put an end to their status as the Netherlands’ most efficient yo-yo team.
No such luck for the pre-season title favourites this term, though. Sparta Rotterdam were relegated last season in the ‘Nacompetitie’ – the promotion/relegation play-offs between the top two leagues – by Rotterdam’s smaller, poorer third side Excelsior. At the halfway point of the season, the Christmas break, they stand only seventh in the table.
As they are already a massive twenty points behind runaway leaders FC Zwolle, fans of Sparta — the oldest professional side in the country, winners of six Dutch titles (although the last came in 1959) and one that had always been safely ensconced in the top league until 2002 — already seem to have come to terms with another year in the doldrums. However, despite trailing six other sides, all is not lost.
Sparta’s lifeline is the aforementioned Nacompetitie. These play-offs bring together the 16th and 17th placed sides from the Eredivisie (the 18th placed side is relegated outright) with the winners of four ‘period championships’ and the four highest sides who didn’t win a period championships in a complicated series of games to see which two sides will take their place in the Eredivisie.
FC Zwolle have won both period titles so far this season, but Sparta weren’t the runners-up in either of those first two and currently stand 16th in Period 3, so their avenues back to the top flight seem to be rapidly closing.
Behind Zwolle — who will surely have to collapse in dramatic style to lose the title — there are two recent Eredivisie sides FC Volendam and RKC Waalwijk lying in second and third place respectively. If Zwolle does claim the Jupiler League title, then both of these will claim a Period championship place.
RKC were a point behind in the first period and Volendam were second, six points behind Zwolle, in the second period. After these are two sides who have not tasted top flight action for many a year. Helmond Sport are level on points with RKC, while FC Eindhoven (forever living in the shadow of Dutch giants PSV) are a further four points behind in fifth place.
This season table fails to tell the whole story of what has happened on the pitch. The KNVB (the Dutch FA) have decided to take a very hard line on those sides they feel are not taking responsibility for their financial well-being — perhaps a reaction to Haarlem’s demise last year. Fines totalling 28 points have been doled out to seven of the eighteen teams.
AGOVV (from Apeldoorn) and MVV (of Maastricht) were the hardest hit, with 9 points deducted from AGOVV) and 8 taken from MVV. Both sides are in the bottom five thanks to these deductions, although the bottom two; Almere City and Fortuna Sittard (the epitome of sleeping giants in the Netherlands) have also been subject to deductions.
Before last season, finishing bottom of the Eerste Divisie carried no penalty, as there was no promotion and relegation between the top two professional leagues and the amateur ranks. Last season marked the first time in recent history that relegation into the amateur ranks was the ultimate pitfall for finishing bottom. After many false starts, the KNVB has finally re-organised the best amateur teams into two leagues — the Topklasses.
The role of religion
There are two Topklasses due to the religious divides that mark out the amateur game in the Netherlands. Depending on how you worshipped in Holland, you would either have played football on the the Saturday or Sunday.
So Dutch amateur football had two distinct competitions – ‘Zondag’ and ‘Zaterdag’. Never the twain would meet unless they were drawn together in national or regional cup competitions or the overall championship play-off at the end of the season.
There used to be three top regional leagues for both Saturday and Sunday competitions. This season, the best of these three leagues now play in a Zaterdag and Zondag Topklasse. The two champions will play off as usual, but the prize at stake now is promotion to the Eerste Divisie.
Many teams are happy to remain amateur, although many of the large powerful sides in the amateur system are amateur only in name, and some will have larger budgets than some of the smaller Eerste Divisie teams.
The amateur approach
The top Saturday sides — including current Zaterdag Topklasse leaders IJsselmeervogels (who won the 2009/2010 amateur championship last year by beating Sunday champions Gemert 5-0 on aggregate) have already said they will turn down the chance to turn professional and so promotion may well pass to the Sunday champion.
This could well turn out to be FC Oss, the team relegated at the end of last season. FC Oss have taken to ‘amateur’ football very well and have led the Zondag Topklasse all season — at the moment they are level on points with De Treffers (from Groesbeek), but they do have two games in hand.
Financial problems affect the Topklasse teams too — Dijkse Boys (of Helmond) have already bowed out of the Zondag Topklasse after telling the KNVB that they would not be able to pay their bills. Dijkse Boys will start next season in one of the three regional leagues below the Topklasse.
So the fourth level of the Dutch football pyramid consists of six leagues of 14 teams — three in Zaterdag and three in Zondag — and there are some traditional powerhouse amateur sides here too.
The 2008/2009 overall amateur champions WKE Emmen (WKE being short for “Woonwagen Kamp Emmen” — literally Caravan Park Emmen!) had an appallingly bad run last season and so missed out on qualification for the inaugural Topklasse season. They are currently three points behind the pace in ‘Zondag C’ but have a game in hand on surprise leaders Alcides (from Meppel) so are handily placed to take up a Topklasse place next season.
Despite the title in the Jupiler League as good as decided, the KNVB are still keeping a watch on financially careless clubs, with points still being deducted. With amateur sides spurning the chance of promotion and sides battling to take their place in the new-look amateur system, in the Netherlands there is still much to play for.
Read the other posts in this series: