The forgotten story of … Willem ‘the Cannon’ Hesselink
International success came fairly late to the Dutch compared to their European neighbours – after making little impact at the 1934 and 1938 World Cups it was 36 years before Cruyff and co would take them back to the global stage, in which time West Germany, Austria, Hungary, England, Portugal, Italy, Czechoslovakia, France and Sweden would all visit the semi-finals or beyond – but that is not to say that the Netherlands had missed out on the great exportation of association football from British shores at the tail end of the 19th century.
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Read moreIn the town of Arnhem, 60-odd miles south-east of Amsterdam, young Willem Hesselink was not immune to the new craze sweeping the continent. In 1890, aged only 12, he had been part of an attempt to get a sports club off the ground in the town and two years later he was one of the founders of Vitesse Arnhem, the gentlemen planners plumping for the French word for “speed” as their prefix. Cricket was the initial activity of choice but football took over quickly and Hesselink was soon the star of the team.
The beginnings, though, were not particularly auspicious. “Nobody had a particular place in the team,” wrote Hesselink later. “Each player was asked in which position he would prefer to play. I replied: ‘I do not care,” which meant, of course, I was placed in the least preferred place, left-winger.” The young Hesselink used the inconvenience to his advantage, working hard to make his left foot as skilful as his right.
It was not necessarily his skill, however, for which he became known. Throughout the 1890s, first with Vitesse and then with HVV Den Haag when he moved to Leiden to study chemistry, he developed a reputation for a fearsomely powerful shot. Vitesse’s official history notes that goalkeepers would be “risking a broken wrist” when they attempted to save his attempts on goal and there is some talk of an English goalkeeper suffering a fatal injury after taking a Hesselink shot full on the chest, although this seems, thankfully, to be apocryphal. Nevertheless, the nickname “Het Kanon” – “The Cannon” – stuck.
Regional championship medals followed but Hesselink’s successes were not restricted solely to the football field. He won the Dutch national long jump and 1500m titles – his national long jump record stood until 1910 – and with several of his Vitesse team-mates he was the national champion in tug-of-war (at the time an Olympic sport).
In 1902, however, Hesselink was ready for pastures new, switching the cycle ride from Leiden to Den Haag for matches and training for life in Bavaria. The now 24-year-old Hesselink signed up to continue his studies at Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich and looked around for a new club to join. Handily, there was a club in its infancy in the area, only two years old and in need of a bit of leadership. Bayern grew out of the football division of the gymnastics club, MTV 1879, 11 footballers having walked out in 1900 when the club refused to allow them to join the southern German league.
Hesselink became Bayern’s first international star. Countless others have followed – from Brian Laudrup to Robert Lewandowski – but the Dutchman was the first. The club’s games were restricted to regional and city-based competitions but they became increasingly successful, in no small part because of Hesselink’s influence at centre-forward, and by 1903 he was coaching the rest of Bayern’s young squad, and helping to bring more players into the club.
In 1903 Franz John, instigator of that 1900 revolt against the gymnasts and Bayern Munich’s first president, left the club to return to his home town of Pankow and set up a photo studio. There was an obvious choice for his successor: the man from Arnhem who would rarely be seen without his blue woollen cap.
It’s fair to point out that the role of president in those days was not exactly the all-powerful position it is today and the job of coach/manager not as clearly defined as it might be now – as it was more concerned with day-to-day organising than big business – but Hesselink remains one of only two men to have held all three positions – the other is Franz Beckenbauer – and certainly the only one to hold all three positions simultaneously. In Hesselink’s time at the club, Bayern won three successive city championships, which included teams from Nürnberg and Augsburg, although was a fairly minor affair, and, perhaps most significantly, merged with Münchner Sport Club, a move that resulted in Bayern adopting red as their main shirt colour.
In May 1905 Hesselink, who had played for Dutch representative sides throughout the late 1890s, made his international debut in Holland’s second official fixture – and their first on home soil – scoring the opening goal against Belgium in a 4-0 win in front of 30,000 in Rotterdam.AdvertisementHis studies, though, had begun to grow in importance. In June 1904 he had won a doctorate for a dissertation on the port wines of the Douro region – he was known as De Dokter as well as his Het Kanon sobriquet – and would later add a doctorate of philosophy to his CV. His interest in food chemistry morphed into an interest in forensic science. A year later he married Berta Güttler in Frankfurt, where he would later perhaps meet, or maybe simply get to know the work of: the sources aren’t entirely clear, Georg Popp, the Frankfurt scientist who in October 1904 is credited as being the first person to solve a crime through forensic geology.
In January 1906 Hesselink left Munich, leaving a club that had grown considerably in his time at the helm in the hands of Kurt Müller, and returned to the Netherlands, setting up a forensic laboratory and building a reputation as a leading exponent of blood analysis and fingerprints in criminal cases, and becoming a regular expert witness in murder trials.
When he wasn’t starring in CSI: Arnhem, Hesselink continued his footballing career, rejoining Vitesse and later becoming coach, treasurer and president. He died in December 1973, having crammed an awful lot into his 95 years and written his name into a small but significant part of European football history.
Willem ‘the Cannon’ Hesselink, Bayern Munich player-manager-chairman, who became the club’s first international star. Photograph: Courtesy of Bayern Munich