The Dutch football legends who were decent at baseball

Johan Cruyff enjoyed the game and Johan Neeskens had an opportunity to spend time at Chicago Cubs

Netherlands, Johan Neeskens, Johan Cruyff

Holland's Johan Neeskens (r) lashes the ball past West Germany goalkeeper Sepp Maier (c) to score the opening goal from the penalty spot, watched by teammate Johan Cruyff (l). DPA/DPA/PA Images

It's not a particularly well known fact but Netherlands is the home for baseball in Europe.

While the game comes nowhere near to soccer in the land of Total Football, the Dutch are powerhouses of the US sport on this continent, regularly winning European Championships at youth and senior level.

Indeed, they are currently ranked ninth in the WBSC World Baseball Rankings, making them the second highest ranked European nation ahead of Italy where the game is also relatively popular.  

What is even less well known is that many legendary Dutch footballers exhibited prowess with baseball bats during their childhood and teens and it's something we put to Johan Neeskens in an interview with the 1974 and '78 World Cup great on this week's Newstalk's Team 33.

Indeed, Neeskens who would win three European Cups as a footballer with Ajax in the mid-70s, was quite good at baseball.

"I grew up of course with football and I started in a club when I was 8 years old but then in the same club, they also played baseball," he said.

"I started playing baseball when I was 9 years old and I kept playing baseball until I was 16 years old and I also played in the national youth team of the Netherlands in baseball and I played in my first team when I was 15 and just before I signed with Ajax Amsterdam, I had an opportunity to go on stage for three months to the United States to Chicago Cubs.

"But I preferred to play a little bit more football than baseball and I decided to go on only for the football."

Indeed, Neeskens would win the best batsman award while with Netherlands baseball team at a European Youth Baseball Championship during the 1960s.

"At the age of 14, we played with the national team over there in Rome and I was the best hitter of the tournament."

He's not the only Dutch football icon to have played baseball regularly as a youth. Neeskens' former Netherlands, Ajax and Barcelona team-mate Johan Cruyff discussed his love for the game in his posthumous autobiography and even felt that it contributed to how he saw football, saying, "Playing baseball I learned many details that were useful to football, when you determine the flight of the pitch and judging it as a catcher without a perfect view. That sharpened one of my strengths as a footballer, having a wider field of vision. I learned to think ahead. It has many parallels with football: speed, acceleration, adaptation, balance, spatial awareness, anticipation, and more."

A book called Baseball In Europe: A Country By Country History, also notes that Cruyff attended the 2007 European Baseball Championships in Barcelona, while it also highlights former Dutch sportsman Cor Wilders as a player who combined football with baseball.