A Beautiful Game – Harry Pearson’s and Hans van der Meer’s Vision on Football
I don’t know much about football. The scant knowledge that I have is primarily gleaned from television commentary running in the background: Frank Snoeks and Jack van Gelder do the honours for Studio Sport, Wilfred Genee, Johan Derksen and Rene Grijpstra playfully banter during Voetbal International, and then there are of course the combined mumblings of Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer and Alan Hansen in Match of the Day. I have gathered some additional insights and factoids from the ups and downs of various football teams as related to me by friends and family. But most importantly I have been somewhat informed by books such as Harry Pearson’s The Far Corner – A Mazy Dribble Through North-East Football. It has been nearly twenty years since this book has first been published, but it still gives a fascinating insight into the importance of football in the North-East of England.
A quick summary then. Pearson moves back to his roots in the North-East after a stint as a journalist in London. A dedicated football fan and journalist, he decides to forego most of the premier league games available in the region. Instead he focuses on lower league and amateur football matches in places such as Bishop Auckland and Darlington. Pearson conjures up evocative images of former mining towns, desolate landscapes, rainy skies, windy seasides, and football matches played on muddy fields, watched by two spectators and their dogs. Pearson’s writing is not only very funny, it is also broad in scope and more detached and objective than that of other writers who have tried to paint a picture of the beautiful game. I am thinking here of writers such as Nick Hornby with Fever Pitch and Hugo Borst’s Waarom ik zo van Sparta hou (en Aad de Mos haat). These books are interesting in their own way, but limited by the focus on the writers’ obsession with their respective football teams. Pearson not only reports on the games he attends as they unfold, but he also cunningly intertwines this with the history of the myriad northern football competitions and their respective heroes. In the process he paints vivid pictures of the players as well as the spectators.
Hans van der Meer’s book European Fields has much in common with Pearson’s The Far Corner. But Van der Meer casts his net wider than Pearson. European Fields – The Landscape of Lower League Football does what it says on the tin. The project is a step up from capturing lower league football fields in rural areas in the Netherlands. Van der Meer travelled to the many far corners of Europe to portray lower league games being played on muddy football pitches. Or on grassy pitches. Or on sandy pitches for that matter. But they all have in common that the photographer has taken a large step back from the scene. Instead of zooming in on the individual football player after he scored a goal,1 Van der Meer captures if not the entire pitch, at least a large part of it.
More often than not, the football fields are set against majestic backgrounds. In one photograph, we see the Alps rising up like mighty kings behind the fields. In another, we see the waves of the Mediterranean washing against the shore. In still other pictures, we see the pitches crammed into tight urban spaces, emphasized by the high rises surrounding them. And in still other images the photographer has ventured out into the sticks, as you can see the moors or the fields sweeping away before you with hardly any human habitation in sight.
An interesting difference between the pictures is that some pitches are quite well maintained, whilst others are just lumpy uneven empty spaces occupied for the afternoon. Curiously enough, the ball tends to be completely absent in the photographs. As are the spectators, for that matter. But all those fields contain a bunch of men playing football. These are no athletes, mind. They do not display the grace and speed so readily on show in premier league games. The players often simply stand about gazing at something taking place further down the field. Or they go for a clumsy shot at the goal. The images are simply captioned by a place name. There is no indication of which teams are playing, what division they are in, or which team won.2 It is all about the game, there and then. By focusing on such a banal and everyday space as a football pitch, Van der Meer’s choice of subject matter has much in common with the New Topographics Movement. By stepping back and climbing onto a step ladder with his camera, he captures the scene in a similar way to Massimo Vitali’s images of sunbathers on beaches, and Raimond Wouda’s photographs of teenagers in the hallways and canteens of their high schools.
Van der Meer’s photographs are simple yet elegant. They are permeated with the same enthusiasm that brings Harry Pearson to go and check out games in Gateshead. They give a unique insight into the social landscape surrounding the football pitches by including the backdrops and the few spectators. Even though European Fields contains only one image actually taken in the North-East of England, depicting a field in Consett, Van der Meer has included quite a number of photographs of pitches in nearby Yorkshire. Looking at those images in particular, I know that they could have been a photographic rendering of the matches Pearson describes. A match such as Crook Town versus Easington Colliery. A game such as Spennymoor United versus Great Harwood Town. A beautiful game.
Harry Pearson. The Far Corner – A Mazy Dribble Through North-East Football. ISBN: 0-7515-1058-0
Hans van der Meer. European Fields – The Landscape of Lower League Football. ISBN: 3-86521-238-7.
1There is an argument to be made that the evolution of technology as well as the ongoing commercialization of football enabled the gaze in football games to shift from wide angle to extreme close-up. The film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait seems to be the logical end point of this shift.
2This information can be found at the back of the book however. My point here is that this information is not directly adjacent to the image.