Low countryside

Without leaving his desk, Ian Plenderleith enjoys the finest and funniest views of football in Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and beyond, in his latest look at sites that highlight photographs of the game

It must be at least a matter of months since this column lauded football photographers on the internet but, in the absence of many inspiring new sites in prose, we’re compelled once again to recommend images over words. Just for a change, though, we’ll make it a condition that the sites must have a Benelux connection.

The Landscape of Lower League Football showcases the brilliant work of Dutch photographer Hans van der Meer, who has been across Europe looking for fields trodden by oddly shaped amateurs. His lens has been trained on doughty Spaniards enduring bone-dry mud, Frenchmen kicking in the shadow of a vineyard, Englishmen in Warley humping the ball upfield (and uphill), and eastern European seating systems made entirely of used half-tyres sticking out of the ground.

When you arrive at the home page you’re treated to a slide show that not so much emphasises the football (although the raised arms of triumph or the hidden heads of despair are just as much in evidence as at any other level of the game), but the mundane- to-magical settings. It’s always the background that captivates – in Dublin it’s the herd of deer by the pitch; in the French town of Cheux it’s an imposing church; in Porto it’s the tricoloured bus driving unawares past the game; in Sweden they’re playing in a ground carved out of rock with a stretch of water on the other side. There are Slovenian mountains, Hungarian high-rises and Yorkshire terraces. They do what all good ­location-based photography does in making you think: “I wish I was there.” Yes, even the pictures from ­Bradford.

“I needed the world outside the field to show literally that football is part of our culture,” Van der Meer says of his Dutch amateur football grounds book, for which he visited 350 fields. According to the website he “went out looking for football in its original form, as it had started more than hundred years ago: a piece of land, 22 players, and no spectators around the pitch, just a horse in the next meadow”. A stunning site.

A Dutch photographer’s fascination for amateur football pitches is one thing. English fans harbouring a fetish for Belgian football stadiums is quite another, and possibly more worrying. But it starts to make sense when you read the thinking behind it at the Belgian grounds section of photographer Mike Floate’s Grounds Frenzy website.

“The Terracers” are reportedly “an informal group of English football fans who have discovered the pleasures of both watching football in Belgium and also finding some outstanding grounds, many of which still permit the visiting fan to watch from a terrace. Belgium seems to have it all – the ticket prices are very reasonable, the people are most welcoming (and eager to speak English) and the terrace bands are something else.”

You can see what they mean when you look at the main stand of Excelsior Mouscron, which looks more like a grandiose main stand at a Victorian cricket ground. More impressive, in a melancholy way, are the pictures of the shut-off, overgrown ­terraces at Union Sint Gillis, with their barriers bent all ways above the encroaching weeds. They are the most fitting pictorial symbol for a rapidly ending era in stadium style.

That just leaves Luxembourg. There’s a sports photographer there, Christian Kemp, with tons of stuff on his site from Luxembourg league and international games, if that’s your thing. His pictures are nothing remarkable, but the commentaries have a certain speccy flavour some of us might have encountered when trapped in a train carriage with an earnest central European.

“There isn’t much to remark about this game,” Kemp writes in the blurb accompanying the portfolio to Grevenmacher versus Petange, “except that it rained most of the time and that I was glad to have brought along an umbrella.” Well thank goodness for that. At Hesperange versus Mamer, he noted that the days were getting shorter and chillier, “and when there’s a cold wind, there’s not much you can do to stay warm”. Gloves and a wind-breaker come in handy, but the lack of light “restricts the lens and aperture choice”.

At Luxembourg v Togo, though (Christian was a little worried because his “batteries in both cameras had become quite low”), there’s a treat – double-chinned former team coach Paul Philipp standing next to current captain Jeff Strasser, the latter endowed with one of football’s most generous foreheads. There’s no caption, but somehow the photograph tells you why Luxembourg haven’t won a competitive game for almost a dozen years. It’s difficult to explain how, but I blame Philipp’s poorly knotted 1970s school tie.

From WSC 241 March 2007. What was happening this month