Flicking through European Fields, I am surprised by my immediate attraction to the book. Not even nearly a football fan nor thrilled by books that take on the general topic of “Europe”, I would normally be shying away from such a title. Yet the large format images capture my attention from the first whistle, as do the muted colours and tranquility of the scenes portrayed.
Hans van der Meer began photographing football fields in the Netherlands on assignment for de Volkskrant magazine. His first observation from research into historical images of football matches, was the contrast in approach between these and today’s sports photography, the chief difference being depth of field. In images of present day football matches the focus lies solely on two or three players – captured with telephoto lens, mid action, background blurred and unrecognisable.
Things were not always like this. The earlier trend, which vanished in the mid-1950s, came from photographers with their over-sized speed graphic cameras, who, positioned in the stands, produced highly detailed images, whether intentional or not, of the overall view of the match. Van der Meer’s search for this “world outside the football game” resulted in the publication of Dutch Fields in 1998, followed by European Fields, this year.
With its timely release – the World Cup being imminent and certain to be ubiquitous and overwhelming – European Fields provides a respite from the business and politics of professional football – capturing those fields and players as van der Meer describes are “as far away as possible from the Champions League” – becoming a collection of shots of the amateur, yet no less dedicated, average European footballer. The last pages in the book include the full league name, team names and scores of each match photographed, maintaining that he, just as the players, do not underestimate the significance of victory.
Perched on his stepladder on the sidelines, van der Meer waits for the more mundane moments of each match. Players stand around waiting for something to happen, prepare to block a penalty kick or take time out for a stretch on the ground. Each player in the frame becomes a subject of scrutiny with van der Meer’s unyielding depth of field. Yet because of this, and the meticulous detail the large format affords, the players become secondary to the overshadowing landscape that contains them. Their football match seems more a comical performance taking place on a giant stage, the colours of their jerseys specks upon the backdrop of nature.
Football stands proudly as the only sport that unites Europe, no less the world. We see the various conditions and backdrops, from snowy, mountainous Switzerland and sandy fields bordering power plants in Portugal to the blindingly sunny coast of France, where thousands of lower leagues kick the ball around in the pitch everyday. In this way, we are provided with a glimpse into the daily life in each region. From Romanian villages to Bradford, England, van der Meer has captured the most ordinary, in council estates, amid rolling green hills or the middle of nowhere.
As we prepare to be inundated with images of football “heroes” and great games of the World Cup, van der Meer reminds us, quite literally, that it’s good to step back to look at the bigger picture and remember the little guy.