When FC Emmen gained a surprise promotion in 2018 to become the 54th club to compete in Dutch Eredivisie history, few fans will have relished the prospect of a trip to a planned city in deepest rural Drenthe. Almost walking distance from the German border, Emmen usually gives the outside world one reason to visit: its menagerie.
Every year, some 1.5 million people come to see the Wildlands Adventure Zoo while FC Emmen, even during their promotion season of 2017-18, struggled to attract more than 3,000 for home games at De Oude Meerdijk. The collapse in 2013 of local rivals SC Veendam, a club with previous if brief Eredivisie experience, hardly boosted crowds.
The zoo grounds, in fact, provided Emmen with one of their first homes, back in the 1930s. Photographs exist of the elephant house with a football pitch marked out just behind.
The club had been created in 1925 by local hotelier Marchienus Groothuis, merging local teams SDO, EVV and VEV to form Noordbarge Emmen Combinatie. Announcing his initiative at his own Hotel Groothuis on focal Marktplein, the ambitious entrepreneur was also looking to unite what were once separate villages, Noordbarge and Emmen. Today’s Emmen, a town of 107,000 residents, is a post-war phenomenon. Back in 1925, it was a modest and dispersed rural community, in need, thought Groothuis, of a football club. What wasn’t quite thought through was the pitch.
NEC first set up between Emmen and Noordbarge at Sterrenkamp, close to the zoo, south of the modern-day centre. Not only was it used as an ice rink for four months of the year, it had no dressing rooms – players had to change at the Hotel Groothuis then walk in their kit several hundred metres to play.
Then came the zoo, by which time NEC had become VV Emmen. Then came the Sportpark at Kerkhoflaan, close to Sterrenkamp. With Emmen’s promotion to the highest regional level in 1946, a supporters’ association was formed at the Hotel Groothuis. Marchienus himself died shortly afterwards, not living long enough to see later PSV star Jan van Beveren start his goalkeeping career at Emmen in the early 1960s.
VV Emmen were crowned Dutch Sunday Amateur champions in 1975, encouraging the move from Kerkhoflaan to the new-build sports park across the ring road on the eastern outskirts of town.
After years of holding out, a decade later Emmen switched to professional football and VV Emmen split to stay amateur. Today they play in the top Sunday amateur division at De Meerdijk, alongside the professional team in the main stadium.
Since FC Emmen’s change to top-flight status in 2018-19, De Oude Meerdijk has seen its 8,000-plus capacity put to the test.
The last time this happened was in 2005, when a young Lionel Messi graced this ground, opening the scoring for eventual winners Argentina to beat Colombia here at the FIFA U-20 World Cup. De Oude Meerdijk – a quaint name for a somewhat functional ground built in a sport and business park in 1977 – has hosted a number of random matches. In 2015, Hungarians Ferencváros had to trek here to play a Europa League fixture with Go Ahead Eagles as the stadium in Deventer was being revamped. There was also the bizarre scene of the 48 minutes and 16 seconds played here between Den Haag and Groningen, after their first game was abandoned.
Among the many sports pitches surrounding De Oude Meerdijk, one is the site of the Sportpark Grote Geert, named after one of the founders of amateur club Woonwagen Kamp Emmen. Originally comprised of players who lived on the adjoining trailer park, WKE later attracted former professionals who helped push the club to the highest amateur level in the Netherlands. WKE made the headlines in 2009 by winning the national amateur championship – and gained further publicity in 2016 when it was declared bankrupt. The clubhouse, however, remains a decent place to watch Emmen away fixtures.
The nearest airport to Emmen is underused Groningen, 50km (31 miles) away. Qbuzz buses Nos.9 and 100 run to Groningen station 30-40min away. From there, a regular train runs to Emmen (€26) with one change at Zwolle, overall journey time 2hrs.
Dutch trains and public transport across the country run on the nationwide travel card, the OV-chipkaart (€7.50). Touch in and touch out at the start and end of your journey.
Amsterdam Schiphol is 196km (122 miles) from Emmen. From the terminal, a train takes 2hr 15min to reach Emmen (€27), also changing at Zwolle. For the quickest service from Amsterdam Centraal (2hr 10min), you need to change at Almere and Zwolle.
Emmen train station is north of the mainly pedestrianised town centre a 10min walk away. The stadium is way out east – you’ll need a bus or taxi. Local buses are run by Qbuzz – use your chipkaart or pay the driver €2.70 on board for a Eurokaartje paper ticket.
Taxi Dorenbos (+31 591 303 535) are based near the stadium and can be booked online.
Tourist Info Emmen has no online English-language or accommodation information.
Though the club was founded by a hotelier, no hotel was factored into the modern-day sport complex where the stadium sits – though if you need to stay over after an evening match, the B&B ‘t Oosterveld at nearby Splitting 10 can provide modest loft-like rooms immediately beneath its steep-sided roof, at around €45 for one person, €60 for two.
Also convenient for the stadium and far closer to the town centre a 15min walk away, the Fletcher Hotel Emmen stands by the stop for the No.12 bus that serves the stadium and the station. It’s a functional four-star with a restaurant, and tennis and squash courts. If you’d rather be by the station, then the B&B Villa Emmen on Stationstraat is a friendly, four-room choice.
Eminently central, comfortable Stads-Hotel Boerland on Hoofdstraat offers room-and-zoo packages, half- and full-board deals, and doubles at €85.
Further south from the town centre, multicoloured Hotel Ten Cate provides a more contemporary lodging experience on Noordbargerstraat, with a gym, solarium and restaurant equipped with a big TV screen.
Bars and cafés line central Marktplein/Hoofdstraat and fill the nearby retail hubs but few alleviate the sense of drinking in a 1970s’ shopping precinct.
One very happy exception is De drie Paardjes, a lovely, lived-in pub whose wooden interior is brightened by framed football shirts and TV screens showing match action. Burgers and toasted sandwiches soak up the draught Warsteiner, and tables spill out onto the square in warmer weather. The other bar with local character is Pierrot on Matissepassage. TV football is part of its old-school allure.
For something more party-oriented, head round to Dalipassage, where DJs spin at the Grand Café Karakter until 3am on Saturdays. Alongside, the PLEIN Grand Café does twofer beers during happy hour. Next door, there’s a cosy little bar at the Snooker & Pool Centrum, along with billiard tables and dartboards.