On my first visit to the Netherlands in 2010, I was bewitched by the scene at the MOP hockey club in the small town of Vught, near Eindhoven. One could see from seven years to seventy, people of all ages, of both genders, playing hockey with great enthusiasm on the club’s four artificial turfs. Have been to this beautiful country thrice more and visited many places- the hockey culture pervades the entire nation, like no other nation.
In the Netherlands, hockey is the sport of masses and organised in a professional manner akin to football in Europe. In addition, the media coverage and following is also unrivalled.
Here are some figures: the country with a population of 16.8 million has around 350,000 active members who play regularly for their clubs’ various teams. This makes it more than 2% of the total population.
It is entirely club based. There is very little hockey in schools. Every club has a number of teams. Usually, it starts from under 8 and goes to under 10, 12, 14, 16 and 18 sides, both for boys and girls. Then there are men and women sides; 1st, 2nd, 3rd… Likewise, veterans have quite a few categories. They begin from above 35 years of age. The teams for those between 35 and 50 are in the ‘Veterans’ category; 50 and 60 in the ‘L’ Veterans and above 60 are ’XL’ Veterans. Top clubs such as Kampo boast around 35 teams.
Hockey is a family sport in this country. It is not an unusual sight to see the entire family active on different pitches at a club, with father, mother, son, daughter and even grandparents playing for various teams. All clubs have a number of artificial turfs- as many as nine in some instances. The total number of artificial pitches in this small country is around 450.
The country’s love for hockey started well over 100 years back and most of the clubs have very old history. Amsterdam Hockey and Bandy Club (set up in 1892) is the Europe’s oldest hockey club. The members’ number runs in hundreds. The big five- Blomendaal, Orange Zwart, Kompo, Rotterdam and Amsterdam, have more than 2,000 members.
The Dutch league is easily the most competitive as well as the best organised hockey league in the world. The season runs in two phases: September to December and, after a long winter break, March to June. During this interval, most of the players keep themselves busy with indoor hockey, though not all the clubs have such facilities.
Both Men and Women leagues have five divisions with promotion and relegation. The top tier is called Hoofdklasse. Mega hockey stars from all over the world are attracted by lucrative contracts. Australian Jamie Dwyer, the five time FIH world player of the year, was reportedly paid up to 150, 000 Euros a season by Blomendaal.
Even, the women earn very good money. Dutch super star Maarte Paumen whose club Den Bosch has won 15 of the last 17 Hoofdklaase titles as well as 13 EuroHockey Club Champions Cup during the same period, earns 60,000 Euros.
Pakistan’s national team might have been out of the reckoning on the international stage but not the players. M Rashid and Rizwan Senior, current members of the national side, have been active in the Dutch league for the last few years, earning 40,000 Euros (equivalent to almost five million Pakistani rupees) at the end of every season. It has been money well spent as the duo starred in Orange Zwart, winning the last two Hoofdklasse titles as well as this year’s EHL (European Hockey League).
Some solace for the despondent Pakistani hockey follower: the individual talent is still there.
Apart from the contract money, the big names are also provided with sponsored cars. Some make additional money conducting coaching clinics. Once, the playing days are over, many stalwarts go into full time coaching at clubs as well as the national teams. Presently, Holland, along with Australia, provides the highest number of coaches to national sides.
Australian forward Kieran Govers, double World Cup winner, who plays for Den Bosch in the Netherlands, says: “It is the best competition in the world. Being a professional hockey player means I can devote more time to training and skills development, rather than working in a job outside of hockey just to keep afloat with bills and family needs.”
For New Zealand’s Shea McAleese, who has spent several seasons with HGC, “Some games are as good a quality as international games due to the strengths of the top teams.”
The league games, especially towards the end of the season, are attended by thousands of cheering spectators. In the Netherlands, hockey has always been second only to football in participation as well as in following. There is excellent coverage in the newspapers and every Sunday, one top division match is televised live.
It is a glamorous sport here. Top stars such as Teun de Noijer and some females, including Fatima Moreira and Australian Anna Flanagan, have appeared in TV ads and featured on the covers of popular social and lifestyle magazines.
How do the clubs manage all this? There are two main sources of income: membership fees and sponsors. The membership fee for a playing member ranges from 300-400 euros per season. For a family, any number of a household can play paying 1,000 euros. Then every club has a number of sponsors. Generally, membership fee makes larger contribution, but for the top tier clubs, it is the sponsorship. Some have more than one hundred patrons.
It is the members again, who make the Royal Netherlands Hockey Board (KNHB) the richest national hockey federation in the world. 10 euros of each member’s fee paid to the club goes to the KNHB.
The KNHB has a staff of 25 people working full time. There are regional offices as well: North, South, West and East, who only play coordinating roles.
It is bottom from top and horizontally as well. Hockey is very much ingrained in the Dutch culture and psyche. In fact, the Netherlands is a hockey lovers’ paradise; may be from any country.