When shall we three meet again. In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 1
Written by Tom Furnival-Adams
Every death is laced with tragedy in some way, bound up with nostalgia; with loss, with regret, and with a lingering awareness of mortality. But the death of Erik Jongbloed in 1984 was almost unspeakably cruel.
Erik was the son of Jan Jongbloed, a former Dutch international goalkeeper, whose handful of caps was partly acquired whilst playing in two world cups. Jan’s career was contrary and unconventional in almost every possible way. A talented player, he was involved in a combined total of 12 games during the 1974 and 1978 World Cups (lining up alongside Johan Cruyff in the former), earning two runners-up medals in the process.
However, Jan’s 27-year career only yielded a further 12 international caps, and it took 12 years for him to follow up his 1962 debut with another appearance. Even more strangely, his recall came only a month before the 1974 World Cup in West Germany. Despite being under 6 foot tall, Jan emerged seemingly from nowhere as a vital component of one of the greatest Dutch sides of all time, before returning to relative obscurity. Very little about his career followed convention, and there must have been a strong element of good fortune for his peak to coincide simultaneously with a dearth of similarly talented Dutch goalkeepers and an abundance of gifted Dutch outfield players. Football and, indeed, life, is defined by chance; sometimes the most arbitrary factors conspire to deliver wildly unexpected outcomes.
It was in this spirit that Amsterdamsche Football Club Door Wilskracht Sterk (DWS) entered the field of play to face VV Rood-Wit on Sunday the 23rd September 1984. As both sides warmed up, the sun shone unremarkably, flanked by a cluster of dark clouds. DWS played in the fourth tier of Dutch football at the time, having emerged in the sixties as one of Holland’s eminent clubs after winning the Eredivisie title in 1964. Playing in goal for DWS that day was 21 year-old Erik Jongbloed, the son of Jan. Perhaps reflecting the improbable longevity of Jan’s career, he was keeping goal for Go Ahead Eagles in Rotterdam against Sparta while his son prepared for kick off with DWS in Amsterdam.
There were said to be numerous similarities between father and son. Like Peter and Kasper Schmeichel, their facial features resembled one another’s. Their goalkeeping style was very similar, both possessing good aerial ability combined with a tendency to venture from their goal lines, and a strong kick.
The coin toss that day went against DWS, condemning Jongbloed and his teammates in a way that they could scarcely have imagined when the ball was placed on the centre spot. As play commenced on the modest pitch, the weather worsened, culminating in rain showers half an hour into the game. Rain quickly turned to hail; hail to thunder.
As conditions worsened, Erik’s girlfriend Jacqueline Swart, his sister Nicole and her boyfriend chatted amongst themselves in the stands about the dangers of lightning in wide, open spaces. Mid-conversation, amidst sudden screams arising from all around them, Nicole looked up and saw the unmistakable figure of Erik, distinctive in his goalkeeper’s top, lying immobile on the goalmouth floor.
DWS Central defender Rob Stenacker recounts the horrendous events that had occurred seconds beforehand. Stenacker, who often took goal kicks, was instructed by Jongbloed to let him restart play:
“Just before lightning struck [Erik], I walked out of the penalty area. In retrospect, that saved my life. This might sound egotistic, but I’m glad I did. We were 6, 7 meters way from him. Then we heard a bang. An incredibly loud bang. The wave of air pressure moved us back. I saw a fireball rolling over the pitch. I am not overacting, but it looked like an illusionist had let him disappear.’
A cloud of smoke lingered in the spot where Erik had stood to take the goal kick. His body lay on the pitch, lifeless, visible for all to see; the gravity of the situation apparent from the spectators’ collective disbelief. You can always tell when a situation is exceptional in its horror when no one knows how to react; some unable to make any noise at all; others consumed by screams. This was one such situation. On the screams reverberating overhead, Stenacker said: “That cry haunts me to this day. It was the kind of cry that tells you that people have seen something terrible.”
Erik’s vocation had determined that he alone must stay in the firing line, impulse defied by a duty to protect his goal, destined by the toss of a coin to be standing in the wrong spot at the wrong time. Coaches, medical staff and supporters were united in their redundancy. It’s not unusual for injuries to take place on the field of play, but rarely are we faced with a situation so dire that it cannot be resolved. Medics simply stared at one another in disbelief.
News of the tragedy quickly reached Rotterdam, where 44 year-old Jan Jongbloed was playing for Go Ahead Eagles. The message was passed across the pitch to him, and play stopped to enable Jan – still adorned in full goalkeeping kit – to be driven by his coach to join his daughter at the scene of his son’s catastrophic misfortune in Amsterdam.
Although Erik was not as naturally talented as his father, he inherited his enthusiasm and ambition. Prior to his untimely death, top-flight side HFC Haarlem were monitoring his progress, and he had recently told a local newspaper of his dream of a big breakthrough. As it happened, Haarlem were wound up in 2010. Who knows how differently things might have turned out for both the club and the unfortunate Erik Jongbloed? Jan was understandably distraught at what had happened to his son, and suffered a heart attack a year later, aged only 45. To this day – over a quarter of a century later – he remains unwilling to talk about the incident, such is the pain it still evokes.
Concerning a professional footballer and the son of a former Dutch international, the incident gained significant media attention in the Netherlands in the aftermath and incited a morbid national intrigue. Erik’s funeral was a chaotic, high-profile affair, attracting tabloid journalists as well as famous Dutch footballers (Cruyff and Rinus Michels were present) and friends and family members of the deceased. Interest in the funeral made it difficult for the family to grieve, with photographers muscling in to get a shot of the coffin and obstructing those who knew Erik. Nicole Jongbloed, reflecting on the funeral, said:
“I was consoled by people I didn’t know. I remember that we walked away from the grave and all of the photographers were waiting for us. At that moment I thought: shit, leave me alone!”
Jongbloed was buried in his goalkeeper’s kit, his coffin draped in a DWS flag. On top of the flag, a pair of his goalkeeping gloves were placed, almost symbolising the suddenness of his disappearance; the uncanny nature of the existence of a healthy young man being erased by a bolt of lightning, survived only by his empty clothes. Despite the frantic nature of the funeral, Erik’s mother said afterwards that he would be proud to have been buried “as a movie star”, surrounded by paparazzi and legends of Dutch football. It is somewhat bittersweet that the tragic nature of his death gave him a funeral befitting of the great footballer that he aspired to be.
The legacy of Erik Jongbloed survives in part because his passing was so unusual, and so inherently tragic. Lightning is arbitrary in its devastation, traditionally associated with the wrath of gods or of otherworldly intervention. It sometimes seems to serve as a wanton demonstration of the sheer power of nature, highlighting the ultimately inconsequential nature of human life. Unlike volcanoes or earthquakes, it is so ruthlessly purposeful in singling out individuals. When Cyclops gifted Zeus the power of the thunderbolt, he bestowed virtually unassailable strength. There is nothing a mere mortal can do to repel such sudden, efficient assault from above.
Jongbloed’s death prompted a review of rules relating to perilous weather conditions during football matches in the Netherlands. A number of other fatalities had occurred in lower league matches previously, but Erik’s fame drew enough attention to the issue to ensure the authorities took the risk seriously. While his story is unavoidably bleak and heartbreaking, it remains a cautionary tale that transcends what we have come to expect within the boundaries of football.
Thank you to the following for their contributions to this article:
Yoeri van den Busken – Dutch football journalist and author of De Tragedies, in which he recounts the story of Erik Jongbloed
Jurryt van de Vooren – Press Officer at the Amsterdam Olympic Stadium, editor of Geschiedenis24.nl and Sportgeschiedenis.nl.