I had a telling moment a few weeks ago in my football/futbol development. While watching television a friend who is a Philadelphia Eagles fan sent me a text message that read “So long, Donovan.” Not more than ten minutes prior to that message I had seen along ESPN’s bottom line that Donovan McNabb had just been traded to the Washington Redskins. Despite that, when I read the message devoid of any other context my immediate thought was, “The US just lost Landon Donovan for the World Cup.” That was my gut reaction.
So have I become more of a professional (and world) soccer fan than professional football fan? Probably. My interest in the former seems to grow weekly while my interest in the NFL seems to wane with each passing year. College football is a different matter entirely. That will always be my bread and butter, my area of so-called expertise, but I keep finding intriguing angles in soccer that I don’t see anywhere else.
One such angle is that of lower-level football. I’m intrigued by the small town teams of Europe, part-time professionals who, through most association’s open cup competition, have the occasional opportunity and permanent dream to take on the giants of the sport but mostly they play one another on whatever space is available. It’s soccer far removed from what we’re able to see here in America and that’s where the Dutch photographer Hans van der Meer comes in.
In 1995, van der Meer started to photograph these lower-level games. Said van der Meer:
Football is a part of our culture and football fields form part of our landscape. There are proportionately more grounds in Holland then in any other country in the world. Even in the smallest municipality you will find at least one club… I was looking for those situations where I could make a combination of a field with players and an interesting landscape in the background. I needed the world outside the field to show literally that football is part of our culture.
He published his first collection of soccer images, Hollandse Velden (Dutch Fields), in 1998 to coordinate with the World Cup in France. Since then he’s made a sort of cottage industry out of these sport/landscape photos, expanding his view beyond Holland to publish European Fields: The Landscape of Lower League Football in 2006. It’s a steal at less than $30.
The symmetry of these photos immediately appeals, but it’s the drama inherent in the images that gives them their lasting impact. Framing a shot to include the deer grazing next to the pitch during a match in Ireland seems like a great way to downplay the global importance of the given match, and it does. But it also humanizes it in a way rarely seen for sports photography. The uniforms are a the perfect way to tie it all together. These are real people, some bald, others paunchy, in a real setting but their clothes, at least from the distance most of the photographs provide, are virtually indistinguishable from what you’d see on the world’s biggest stage. I like that.