The rise of football in Curaçao and the influence of Patrick Kluivert

The rise of football in Curaçao and the influence of Patrick Kluivert

One might think that the group stage of the CONCACAF Gold Cup was a complete failure for Curaçao. The Gold Cup newcomers accumulated zero points after losing a trio of matches by the same 2-0 scoreline to Jamaica, El Salvador and Mexico, before packing their bags for home. Labeling the tiny island nation as a failure, though, would be an incorrect statement, because to properly view the Curaçao national team’s Gold Cup results and effort, one must know where they came from.

Located 40 miles to the north of Venezuela is the island of Curaçao. The capital city is Willemstad and is home to roughly 150,000 of the country’s 159,000 inhabitants. Tourism is the main industry as Curaçao is known for its sunny weather, beautiful beaches and breathtaking coastlines. The island feels like a small piece of Europe in the south Caribbean with its colorful Dutch-influenced architecture.   

Curaçao is mostly known in the sporting world for its baseball exploits. Among the island’s most prominent alumni are current Major League Baseball players Kenley Jansen, Didi Gregirious, Jurickson Profar, Jonathan Schoop and Andrelton Simmons, while former MLB stars Andruw Jones and Randall Simon each logged 10-plus years of Major League service time. The island even has a Little League World Series title under its belt, defeating the United States in the 2010 final. With a firm grasp on how to develop baseball talent, football is where Curaçao hopes to advance in the realm of sports next.

Football has been a part of island life at national team level since 1924 when they played under the official name of Territory of Curaçao. The territory was originally organised and governed by the Curaçose Voetbal Bond (Curaçaoan Football Association), and they played under that association name for 37 years, for 21 of which they were recognised by FIFA off and on. The team had modest success, twice placing second in the Caribbean and Central American championships in 1955 and 1957.

In 1946, Curaçao unified with five other Dutch Caribbean islands to form a football team called the Netherlands Antilles, even though the Greater Antilles as a country under the Kingdom of the Netherlands wasn’t officially formed until 1954. Curaçao was joined by Aruba, Bonaire, Saba, Sint Eustatius and Sint Maartin to form the Greater Antilles team.

The side had some early success and was invited to play in the 1952 Summer Olympic Games hosted by Finland. Other accomplishments by the six-island combined side included third-place finishes in 1963 and 1969 at the CONCACAF Championship, the competition that preceded the Gold Cup before its establishment in 1991. In total, the Netherlands Antilles would play 191 games with a record of 52 wins, 50 draws and 89 losses.   

In 2010 the Greater Antilles were dissolved and the member islands established themselves as two different entities under the Dutch crown. Curaçao, along with Aruba and Sint Maartin, became constituent countries, while the islands of Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba became Special Municipalities. These actions steered each island to create their own national team and they would play under the unified banner of the Greater Antilles no more.   

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This led to the formation of the Curaçao Football Federation (CFF) in 2011, making it one of the youngest footballing nations in the world. From 2011 to 2014, the newly-formed national team scuffled along winning just six matches, drawing six and losing 20.

The year 2015 saw fresh air breathed into the team, with the hiring of former Dutch star Patrick Kluivert as manager. His stated goal for the national team was to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Kluivert collected 79 caps for the Oranje scoring 40 international goals, and played for top clubs including Ajax, AC Milan, and Barcelona during his career. Born in Amsterdam, Kluivert’s mother was Curaçaoan, giving him a natural connection to the island other than being Dutch.

With his star power, Kluivert was able to raise the profile of Curaçao football and recruited a higher quality of player based across Europe to the national team. Key players brought into the Curaçao set-up under Kluivert included goalkeeper and current captain Eloy Room from Vitesse Arnhem, Aston Villa’s Leandro Bacuna and top goalscorer Felitciano Zschusschen, as well as others plying their trade in Poland, Slovakia and Denmark. Of this group, both Room and Bacuna played youth international football for the Netherlands but took up offers to represent the island nation at senior level.

Watching Curaçao play football, it is easy to see the Dutch influence of Kluivert and the principles he learned at Ajax as a youth player years ago. The side builds out from the back, keeping possession while playing the ball on the ground, all while using the ever-present triangles that are famous to the Dutch style of Totaalvoetbal.

Kluivert would compile a record of six wins, three draws and three defeats in his short tenure as Curaçao manager between March 2015 and June 2016, matching the total number of wins the island accumulated from 2011 to 2014. His time in his mother’s homeland with the national team was cut short when he took a job to coach his son Justin at his former club as the manager of the Ajax U19s. His time back in Amsterdam would be short-lived though as he would take a role as Director of Football for Paris Saint-Germain just three months after re-joining the Amsterdam club.

When looking at the Gold Cup squad, the Dutch influence is very apparent with 10 players calling the Netherlands home for their club football. The rest looks like a decent travel itinerary for hardcore jet-setters with two players each in England and the home island of Curaçao, and one player based in each of nine other countries across Asia, Europe, and the Pacific.

When Kluivert left, his assistant manager Remko Bicentini stepped into his role. Bicentini played one season as a professional in the Dutch league for NEC in 1986/87 scoring two goals in 2