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 23 appearances as a central defender.This wasn’t his first role in management as he was an assistant manager for the Netherlands Antilles in 2008 and the manager for the final two years of the squad’s existence during 2009 and 2010. He also had stints managing Dutch amateur sides Beuningse Boys, Orion Nijmegen, and AWC.

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With the groundwork laid by Kluivert, Bicentini has overseen the biggest achievement in the history of Curaçao football under the CFF banner. He brought the 2017 Caribbean Cup to the island as the sixth different nation to do so, in a footballing turnaround not seen too often.

To understand the level of this accomplishment for Curaçao, one must take a look at the previous edition of the competition in 2014. Under the helm of manager Etienne Siliee, now the CFF technical director, Curaçao lost every game in Jamaica to finish bottom of their group. A 3-2 defeat to eventual runners-up Trinidad & Tobago, another 3-2 loss to Cuba, where the winning goal was scored five minutes into added time, and a 4-1 loss to French Guiana closed out their tournament.

The 2017 edition turned out to be very different, even though Curaçao had a close call in the first qualifying group stage, where they just escaped elimination on goal difference thanks to their 2-1 result over the Dominican Republic. It would be in the third group stage where Curaçao would really kick on, defeating Antigua & Barbuda (3-0) and Puerto Rico (4-2) to earn a spot in the four-team knockout stages.

In the semi-final they were drawn against Martinique, a nation that has placed in the top three of the Caribbean Cup five times since 1992, thus earning themselves five trips to the group stage of the Gold Cup. Martinique got on the scoresheet first with a 17th-minute goal, but then Curaçao evened the score through Gevaro Nepomuceno’s 57th-minute penalty, and went on to win the game 15 minutes from time thanks to Rangelo Janga. The victory set up a final against the defending champions Jamaica that would become the most important match for Curaçaoan football to date.

The influence of Dutch players on Curaçao has been emphasised so far, but in the Caribbean Cup final, it was Willemstad-born Elson Hooi who was the star. The striker, who represented Curaçao at under-20 and under-23 level, scored a brace, accounting for his only two international goals in nine caps to date. With the Caribbean Cup in their trophy cabinet, Curaçao advanced to the 2017 Gold Cup, their first major tournament as an autonomous country. This historic win saw their FIFA ranking rise up to an all-time high of 68th, and yet just three years earlier, before Kluivert’s arrival, the nation had slumped to their all-time low of 183rd.

Before their second Gold Cup group stage match in Denver, I had the opportunity to talk with the Curaçao radio and TV broadcasting team. As we overlooked the empty pitch from the fourth-level press area, hope was in their voices and eyes. They knew the pressure would be on the team as that night was a must-win match if they wanted to keep their knockout stage hopes alive. While the game that night was the immediate concern, the conversation moved toward the future of the national team. “The goal is to reach the World Cup, and (right) now we are at a nice level”, said Dwight Rudolphina, the man who has been the voice of football on the island for over 30 years.

While their Gold Cup dreams were all but over that night, the spirit of the long term goal of being the smallest nation to qualify for a World Cup is still alive. The 2022 and 2026 World Cups will see an expanded field to 40 teams, opening up an extra opportunity or two for teams from CONCACAF. This could be the springboard that helps Curaçao do the seemingly impossible as FIFA looks to expand access to the world’s most watched tournament.

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Club football has been played on the island dating back to 1921. The league became professional in 1974 with the establishment of the Curaçao Sekshon Pagá, which literally translates as the ‘Curaçao Paid Session’. In its current form, the league consists of 10 teams, seven of which hail from the capital city of Willemstad.

The small domestic league and the fact that there are only 159,000 people on the island make team selection quite the dilemma for the national team. Fortunately for Curaçao, they have a second pool of talent to pull from, under the Dutch umbrella. A case in point was the fact that only two players who play in the domestic league were in the Gold Cup or Caribbean Cup squads, and they were the backup goalkeepers. There are a number of Dutch players with family ties to the island who qualify to play for Curaçao under FIFA rules. 

They will use their 2017 Gold Cup experience as a lesson for future football success. While losing all three games, conceding six goals and scoring none themselves, may look bad on the surface, the situation is not so bleak when you take the broader picture into account. Curaçao was in every game during the Gold Cup and had plenty of scoring chances to beat Jamaica and El Salvador. It’s the little things that separated Curaçao from accomplishing something great and they will now better know the level of competition they face as they build for the 2019 and 2021 Gold Cups.

The flurry of success built on the foundations of the football philosophy of Kluivert will aid in their player development and recruitment. Just think of the kids on the island who may kick a football now instead of picking up a baseball after seeing their countrymen win the Caribbean Cup and participate in the Gold Cup.

In terms of player recruitment, after playing on a bigger stage, Curaçao may open the eyes of some Dutch players with family roots on the island. There’ll be more players who will view the national team as a legitimate opportunity to play international football rather than waiting for a call up from the Netherlands.

Football is a sport that is all the better for open competition; the beauty of this is the club and international football teams that seemingly come out of nowhere to accomplish what no one would have predicted. Many may chide these minnows, but I welcome them and their will to better themselves both on and off the pitch. The 2013 Confederations Cup gave us the great story that was Tahiti, while the newly-expanded European Championships last summer offered us nations like Iceland and Northern Ireland competing against the best Europe had to offer.

There is no reason Curaçao can’t accomplish similar things in CONCACAF over time knowing their recent history and their access to Dutch talent. Perhaps someday soon when you think of the island, you will no longer think of beautiful beaches or baseball but of the beautiful game played in the Dutch style of Total Football. Patrick Kluivert may no longer be the manager, but his stint of just over a year has built the foundation for their future success. We don’t know how the story of Curaçao football will end, but we do know it is one worth watching 

By Chad Smith  

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