The Global Game

Football thriving on windy, Covid-free Heligoland

Island of Heligoland, Helgoland football pitch
© imago images
  • Heligoland is more famous for wind and wildlife than football
  • But the beautiful game has a special place on the North Sea archipelago
  • We hear about football in Heligoland and how the islands have stayed Covid-free

Ask people what they most associate with the North Sea islands of Heligoland, and they will probably tell you high winds, red sandstone, the Lange Anna sea stack, unique birdlife or day trips to beaches teeming with seals. Football would not be top of the list. Indeed, you could be excused for asking if the beautiful game is even played on Heligoland.

But football has penetrated some of the remotest places on earth, so it is perhaps inevitable that it found a home here. And with the archipelago belonging to football-loving Germany, it can boast a traditional multi-team club, VfL Fosite Helgoland, dating back to the late 19th century. Moreover, the club has some 500 members, a hugely impressive number given that the total population is only 1500.

Heligoland facts

  • Approximately 1300-1500 inhabitants
  • Approximately 50 km from the mainland of Schleswig-Holstein
  • Consists of a main island and a smaller one (called Dune) that were originally connected
  • Tourism and wind energy are the main sources of income nowadays
  • Over 430 bird species can be observed there, as well as numerous seals
Football players on the island of Heligoland
© Others

Close to the main island’s northern beach, not far from the youth hostel, you can find Heligoland’s football pitch – undoubtedly one of the most picturesque in all of Germany. The artificial turf may need special care due to the harsh climate, but the ground is open to both visitors and locals, putting it in frequent use. Heligoland also hosts its own marathon, which usually involves five laps of an 8.4 km circuit that goes right around the main island.

Although Fosite is a member of the German Football Federation and could theoretically take part in national club competitions, its isolated location makes this unfeasible. With the mainland a good two hours away by ferry, fixtures would invariably require an overnight stay for the islanders or visiting teams, which would simply be too big an expense for an amateur outfit.

"We're therefore limited to playing friendlies," Fosite's chairman Oke Zastrow told FIFA.com. "On the whole, it’s been a serious challenge to put together our teams in recent years. We often have to mix the teams or field a combination of men and women, typically ranging in age from 18 to 40 – though sometimes quite a bit older."

Football players on the island of Heligoland
© Others

History of Heligoland

  • The infamous pirate Klaus Stortebeker was captured in a naval battle off Heligoland
  • For many years, Heligoland was a refuge for pirates
  • Denmark took control of the islands in 1714
  • They were then a British crown territory for much of the 19th century
  • Britain ceded the islands to Germany in 1890
  • They served as a naval base in both World Wars
Island of Heligoland/Helgoland Lange Anna
© imago images

As many a small-town club with populations like Heligoland will attest, working with a small pool of players presents its problems. Yet despite this, the islanders still cherish their football. "Adults train on an ad-hoc basis, usually once a week and arranged by mobile phone. Then there are two youth sides, one for younger children and one for older kids and adolescents. They train regularly on Fridays," Zastrow said.

There are around ten friendlies per year for the adult players. "We used to have cup games here and were virtually invincible because of the winds. Well, that was the myth that was doing the rounds for a while anyway," the chairman explained. "For friendlies, we admit to prospective opponents that we’re not the strongest, but teams visiting from the mainland don’t mind that."

Uwe Seeler in a 1970s friendly on Heligoland
© Others

In normal times, there are always requests for training camps on the island, with even the Cuba national team once enquiring about the possibility. Around 1970, Uwe Seeler, a runner-up at the 1966 FIFA World Cup™, played on Heligoland with Bundesliga stalwarts Hamburger on Fosite’s old cinder pitch – an occasion still fondly remembered by the club.

Currently, Heligoland is even a Covid-free thanks to strict entry and quarantine rules. "In this crazy time, it's a real privilege to live here. It feels like we're in a fortress and that the whole pandemic has sort of passed us by," said Mayor Jorg Singer.

It is fair to say then that, while football is an established part of life on the islands, the Coronavirus is most certainly not. And long may it continue that way.

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