- Four Histories about Early Dutch Football, 1910–1920: Constructing Discourses by Nicholas Piercey
Nicholas Piercey's Four Histories about Early Dutch Football makes for refreshing reading. In a tone that is self-reflexive and critical without becoming pedantic, Piercey offers the reader stimulating perspectives on the early history of football (soccer) in the Netherlands. While he is hardly the first to be influenced by postmodernist thinkers and historians like Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Foucault, and Frank Ankersmit, whose influences he discusses in a thoughtful introductory essay, the self-reflexive way in which Piercey works with the methodological and conceptual tools with which they provide him is engaging.
Piercey looks at Dutch football during the 1910s. While this was a decade dominated by war in most of Europe, football witnessed strong growth in the Netherlands during these years, evolving from a mostly bourgeois pastime into a popular sport. He focuses on two of the country's main cities, Amsterdam and Rotterdam, both of which played an important role in the sport's development in this period. In his first history, Piercey uses the debates and decision-making surrounding the construction of two new sports stadiums, the Amsterdam Sportpark and the Rotterdam football club Sparta's new stadium, as an entry point into analyzing how the need for newer, larger, and more specialized sports grounds tangled with visions of urban space as a site for instilling a changing society with order, discipline, and civil pride. While this is not a new realization, Piercey's exposé of sports spaces as sites of power and social disciplining ranges wide. He expertly shows how social change, urban development, and the "civilizing offensive" of a liberal upper class entwined in the discussions surrounding both stadiums. In addition, his observations on how business, politics, and sports closely linked together in the two stadium projects are poignant.
The second of Piercey's histories is his most innovative. In it, he takes his readers on a fictional tour of Rotterdam in early August 1914, visiting the members (players and supporters) of the port city's fourteen football clubs as they go about their everyday business, whether working, playing, or worrying about the war that had just broken out. Piercey defends his experimentally skirting-a-thin-line between academic writing and historical fiction in the chapter by pointing out his "desire to represent different individuals and the problems posed by large amounts of incomplete data" (74). To me, his experiment is a successful and highly empathic tour de force. Based on solid research but almost cinematic in its narrative, it shows how sports were fundamentally integrated in everyday Dutch urban life by this time, weaving in and out of people's thoughts and actions as family, business, or politics imposed themselves at different times.
I found the book's third history the least engaging—something Piercey, self-reflexive as always, himself seems to realize (138). Here, he explores disciplining discourses in football reports in the daily press. Leaning heavily on Foucault, he analyzes how ideals like "sportsmanship" or "amateurism" served as moral and social constructs in disciplining society. [End Page 271] While he provides interesting insights into the cultural significance of the referee or the sports administrator as promoters of order and civilized behavior, Piercey's analysis is a bit one-sided. That football was used for promoting social order was, of course, the case, in the Netherlands as much as elsewhere in Europe. But what about the agency of players or supporters? Did they always meekly comply with this discourse of order and respectability?
The last chapter is hardly about football at all. Instead, it offers an account of Piercey's tribulations with the 1914–18 diary of Cornelis Johannes Karel van Aalst, the board director of the Amsterdam Sportpark and one of the city's most influential businessmen. While he initially has high hopes of gaining...