Friday 19 October 2018

The Leagues That Religion Split In Two.

The term non league football isn't really used outside England, even in Scotland they use the term 'junior football'. But although other countries may not use this specific term, most of the top footballing nations in Europe have some form of lower league amateur and semi professional soccer similar to what we would call non league. In Germany they have 'Regionalliga' football, whilst in France they have the 'Championnat de France Amateur'. None of them however have quite as unique an existence as the religious leagues in the Netherlands, and I call them 'religious' because the leagues have literally been split right down the middle by religious beliefs.

Last year a weekend in the Netherlands saw me take in not only three top flight Eredivisie matches, but also a fifth tier Hoofdklasse match. A late October Saturday afternoon saw me in the beautiful town of Zwolle where along with 200 or so locals I was watching a local Dutch 'non league' side called Voetbalvereniging Berkum, or VV Berkum for short. Berkum play in Group B of the Zaterdag  (Saturday) section of the Dutch fifth tier, you guessed it playing matches on a Saturday. The Saturday section consists of two regional divisions, Group A and Group B, I guess a bit like the National North and South we have over here. However unlike the National League the Dutch fifth tier also has a Zondag (Sunday) section where two more leagues exist covering exactly the same regions.

Sportpark De Vegtlust - Home of VV Berkum

But why this duplication you ask? Remember earlier when I referred to the country's 'religious' leagues, well religion is exactly why some teams in the Netherlands play their matches on a Saturday in a Saturday league whilst others play in separate leagues at exactly the same level on a Sunday.
As with Britain, The Netherlands was traditionally split into two religious groups Protestant and Catholic. Religion had divided the country for centuries and indeed after the Eighty Years' War (1568–1648) religion saw what was then considered the Netherlands split into two separate kingdoms, with the southern majority Catholic part mostly consisting of what is now modern day Belgium (although some of it is part of the present day Netherlands).

St. Jacobuskerk church, Eenschede, Netherlands
Whilst Belgium had always been majority Catholic, the Netherlands always had more Protestants, albeit with a large minority of Catholics, and the divides between these two groups was once upon a time very visible in everyday Dutch life. As a Catholic you grew up attending a Catholic school, and in adulthood joined a Catholic trade union when you took up employment, whilst after work you would go home and read a Catholic newspaper and listen to a Catholic radio station. Protestants also had their own schools, trade unions, and media outlets, meaning many aspects of daily life were effectively divided into to Protestant and Catholic, and with football this was no different. If you were a Protestant you joined a Protestant football team playing in a Protestant football league, likewise if you were Catholic you played for Catholic teams in Catholic leagues.

Yes the two groups played in different football leagues, but why the Saturday/Sunday split? Well it's quite simple really, due to religious beliefs Protestants refused to play football on Sunday so therefore played their matches on a Saturday, whilst being the poorer of the two groups Catholics usually had to work on a Saturday therefore leaving Sunday the only day they had free in which to play football.

Basilica of Our Lady church, Zwolle, Netherlands
In modern day Netherlands the Protestant/Catholic divide surely plays a massively smaller part in Dutch society than in once did. In fact with mass immigration into Europe and the multi cultural societies it has brought with it, religions such as Islam probably have for many Dutch citizens far more influence in their daily lives than the two traditional religions ever would. However despite the massively declining  influence of these two religions their legacy still exists in the world of football with all amateur and semi professional leagues up to and including the fourth tier Derde Divisie still split into two sections, Saturday and Sunday. This even though most of the teams taking part are probably not influenced by religion in the slightest!

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