Nicolaas Steelink: Football's Ultimate Working Class Hero

He was a fine footballer, a political writer, was incarcerated at the infamous San Quentin prison and inspired the underprivileged youth of Carlifornia through football...
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Nicolaas Steelink was born in Amsterdam in 1890. As a child he lived for football, and in his memoirs he talked about how he got up at 6 a.m. every Sunday and walked to the field where his team played football. He and his friends would then have to chase the cows off the pitch, and the chickens out the barn that served as the changing rooms. They would then mark the pitch out and be ready for a 10 a.m. kick off.

At 18 he joined the Dutch Steamship Company and played football for the works team where he gathered a reputation as a fine footballer. Then in 1912, aged 22, he decided to immigrate to the USA to flee the repressive Dutch Calvinist environment. Landing in Los Angeles he quickly discovered a vibrant football culture that was run mainly by British and Latin Americans. It was through his contacts within the football teams that he got introduced to a variety of political activists including socialists, industrial unionists and anarchists. At the time Steelink was angered by the injustices that surrounded him in California. Poor working conditions, war propaganda and censorship that was luring young Americans to their death in the trenches of the Somme, corruption and unpunished lynchings, were among the issues that helped radicalise the young Steelink. Rejecting the parliamentary action preached by the socialist organisations he joined up with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and wrote a weekly column for their paper the Industrial Worker.


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Following the First World War a number of states passed repressive laws in response to a rising radicalism amongst a large section of the workers. In California the state passed the Criminal Syndicalism Act in 1920, and Steelink was subsequently one of the first of the 151 IWW members to be arrested under these new powers. He was sentenced to five years hard labour in the infamous San Quentin prison for being a member of the IWW. While in prison he translated the works of Multatuli into English, the first time this had been done. Multatuli was the pen name of Dutch writer Eduard Douwes Dekker, who in 1860 published a novel entitled Max Havelaar that exposed the abuses of the free labour in by the colonial Dutch in the Dutch Indies. Dekker before his death in 1887 went on to write more works that were critical of society and expressed non-conformist political views. In 1907 he was named by Sigmund Freud as top of his list of favourite writers, and in 2002, the society for Dutch Literature proclaimed Multatuli/Dekker as the most important Dutch writer of all time. In 1987, aged 96, Steelink flew to Amsterdam to attend the unveiling of a statue of Multatuli.

After two years Steelink gained parole and his strong sense of injustice had been reinforced by the experience.  He dedicated the rest of his life to continue to fight authority and injustice and continued contributing regular articles to the Industrial Worker entitled “Musings of a Wobbly”, under the pen name Ennes Ellae. He never lost his love for football either and was instrumental in organising the Californian Soccer League in the 1950s. It was through football that he found that he could help the underprivileged youth, giving them a sense of comradeship and self-pride. He coached his teams to play flowing, skillful football that expressed his ideas of individual freedom. For his work in the game Steelink was inducted into the American Soccer Hall of Fame in 1971.

Nicolaas Steelink wrote about his life and his imprisonment in a memoir entitled Journey in Dreamland.  These remain unpublished until long after his death in 1989, in Tucson Arizona, aged 99. No publisher was interested in them and they lay in the archives of the Multatuli museum until they were rediscovered by Bert van Stoke of Ball Productions, who published them in 1998.