Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Surinamese footballing diaspora

What do you know about Suriname? Probably not a whole lot. It's a country that the average person has never heard of. Located on the Caribbean coast of South America, it was formerly known as Dutch Guiana. Its 470,000 people are an unusual blend; the descendants of West African slaves, Dutch creoles, Amerindians, as well as the descendants of contract workers brought by the Dutch from Indonesia and India. Indeed, 27% of the population are Hindustani and 18% are Javanese.

While the Surinamese economy is based mostly around bauxite and bananas, its rather more famous export is footballers. Not that Suriname itself is any kind of footballing powerhouse, by any means - the national team has never been to a World Cup Finals or been ranked any higher than 84th in the world.

Yet over the last few decades, the Netherlands' national team has benefited greatly from the contribution of players either born in Suriname or of Surinamese descent. Other Dutch ethnic minorities have featured in the national team, notably Dutch-Indonesians and more recently Moroccans, but neither can compare to the Surinamese presence in the Oranje.

The Surinamese football story is interesting as a cultural study as well as a sporting one, as it exemplifies the disparities between First and Third World, the conflict immigrants feel between their old and new countries, and how a relatively small population can somehow produce mountains of talent.

Consider Ruud Gullit, a one-time European Player of the Year, and the captain of the Dutch team that won Euro 88. Or Frank Rijkaard, also a mainstay of that 1988 side, two-time Dutch Player of the Year and who would later coach Barcelona to the 1996 Champions League Title. Both are Dutch-born to Surinamese fathers.

Also a member of the Euro 88 squad were Gerald Vanenberg and Aron Winter (pictured). Winger Vanenberg was part of the the PSV Eindhoven side that won the Champions League in 1988, and he holds a record for winning the most Dutch championships. Defensive midfielder Winter, who notched 84 caps for the national side, also enjoyed a sparkling career at such big-name clubs as Ajax, Lazio and then Inter Milan. Born in the Surinamese capital Paramaribo, Winter is unusual in being one of the few successful Surinamese players of Hindustani background - the vast majority have been of African descent, despite Indians being the largest ethnic group.

From the mid-90s onward, 3 of the best-known Dutch players were also Suriname-born, having moved to the Netherlands at a young age. The wonderfully-named Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink (pictured here in the blue of Chelsea) was a prolific goalscorer at various clubs around Europe, and was the English Premier League's top goalscorer in both 1999 and 2001. Clarence Seedorf (pictured left) has the extraordinary honour of having won the Champions League 4 times with 3 different clubs - Ajax (1995), Real Madrid (1998), and Milan (2003 and 2007). Also a member of that magnificent Ajax squad (which won the Champions League in 1995 and were runners-up the following year) was Edgar Davids (below left), nicknamed the "Pitbull" for his tenacious midfield play, and well-known for his distinctive goggles-and-dreadlocks look. Davids would later enjoy a stellar career at Juventus. Seedorf and Davids, together with Gullit and Rijkaard, were all named on FIFA's list of the greatest 125 living players.

Also on FIFA's list was another star of that Ajax side of 1995, Patrick Kluivert (above right). Amsterdam-born to a father from Suriname and a mother from Curacao, Kluivert is the all-time highest scorer for the national team, and enjoyed a prolific title-winning career at Barcelona. The Ajax right-back in that era, Michael Reiziger, also moved to Barcelona and won two titles, as well as notching up 72 caps for the national team.

The 1998 Dutch national team that came 4th in the World Cup featured the aforementioned Kluivert, Seedorf, Davids, Winter, Hasselbaink and Reiziger, also well as journeyman goal machine Pierre van Hoojdonk and defender Winton Bogarde. That is 8 players of Surinamese origin, out of a total of 22 players in the squad - staggering when you consider that Surinamese make up only 2% of the population in Holland. Of course, the Dutch team has frequently been held up by infighting, and in 1998 there was talk of tension between black and white players. Hasselbaink, van Hooijdonk, Bogarde and Davids are well-known as stubborn and combative personalities - Davids accused coach Guus Hiddink of racism - so the unrest is unsurprising.

The heavy Surinamese presence in the Dutch team continues. Ryan Babel of Liverpool (pictured left), Mario Melchiot, Nigel de Jong, Kew Jaliens and Orlando Engelaar are mainstays of the team, while rising stars like Edson Braafheid, Eljero Elia, Andwele Slory, Romeo Castelen, Urby Emanuelson and Evander Sno have all made appearances in national colours. Indeed, the Dutch Under-21 squad that won back-to-back world championships and wowed the world with their flowing style of football, also featured as many as 8 Surinamese players (notably Real Madrid's Royston Drenthe (below), Babel and striker Maceo Rigters).

All up there are around 150 Surinamese playing in the Dutch professional leagues. Many of them come from Clarence Seedorf's family - his brothers Chedric, Rhamlee and Jurgen, cousin Stefano and nephew Regilio are all professionals.

So, with all this talent, why does Suriname's own national team languish in footballing no-mans-land?

The first reason is the same reason that has hamstrung so many developing countries - lack of infrastructure. The Netherlands have a coaching system that is arguably the best in the world, along with France and Brazil, at developing talent. Suriname can provide the DNA but not the next step, so the best players leave for the Netherlands at an early age.

But the other main reason is a curious Surinamese government policy that prevents former residents who have taken up Dutch citizenship from playing for Suriname. So all those Surinamese playing in Holland, who aren't quite good enough to make the Oranje, cannot enrich the team of their homeland either. Thus the Surinamese national team is made up almost entirely of amateurs from its domestic league.

Of course, the bulk of the Dutch-Surinamese players most likely consider themselves Dutch, and may not be interested in representing Suriname. But consider the African nation of Mali, whose rise up the world rankings has been helped by the inclusion of stars like Fredi Kanoute and Momo Sissoko - both French-born of Malian descent and who, perhaps due to being not quite good enough to make the French squad, have elected to play for the country of their parents. Turkey's 3rd-placing in the 2002 World Cup was powered in part by German-born Turks like Ilhan Mansiz, Umit Davala and Yildiray Basturk. Even tiny Trinidad & Tobago made the World Cup Finals by raiding the lower leagues of English football for British players with some Trini heritage.

Hypothetically speaking, a Surinamese team consisting of the 8 players in the 1998 Dutch squad (plus a few more) would have loomed as a serious threat on the world stage. If Suriname's government ever relaxes its strange passport laws regarding players, it would suddenly find itself with a team that could well qualify for the World Cup Finals every single time; despite being in South America, Suriname competes in the far weaker CONCACAF division that includes North and Central America and the Caribbean.

Thus the sporting relationship between Holland and its former colony remains a strange symbiotic one, from which Suriname is yet to really benefit. Around the time Suriname's independence in 1975, around a third of the country packed up and left for Holland, some of whom went on to raise future Dutch football stars like De Jong and Kluivert. If not for this, would Suriname's footballing story be any different? It is doubtful. In footballing terms, it is a country that can produce raw materials, but cannot turn them into anything special.For all the raw talent that emanates from Suriname and its diaspora, it is the Dutch coaching system that polishes these rough diamonds into superstars. Yet the success of the Oranje since the 80s would have been impossible without its Surinamese stars.

Like this? Check out:

Dutch-Indonesian footballers

West Indians now more Indian than ever - the Caribbean's Indian cricket stars

The Nigerian diaspora: Athletes

2006 World Cup Roundup


  1. The anguish all this must cause Australia's Most Read White Nationalist when he sees his beloved Dutch national soccer team "no longer Dutch"! LOL

  2. @ Peter - no doubt; I'm presuming you are recalling Bolt's dismay over all the dreaded darkies in the French football team (without whom, incidentally, France would never have won its only world cup.)

  3. The Buffoon, in his infinite wisdom, has chosen to interpret an all too human dislike of change and fear of the unknown -- manifested in a rather high level of anxiety at the moment over social cohesion and national unity -- as an indication of the inherent white nationalism of Australians! Like Jim Carey in Dumb and Dumber, the fool is confusing Australia with Austria! One wonders how Australia could have managed to so comfortably have a quarter of its population born overseas for so long if Australians are really the way Andrew "Afrikaner" Bolt imagines them to be. A preference for "soft" multiculturalism over "hard" multiculturalism (see here: http://www.sydneyline.com/Multiculturalism%20sociology%20of%20shame.htm) is interpreted by our "Afrikaner" friend as a yearning and itching amongst suburban Australians for ethnic nationalism over civic nationalism! This BNP cheerleader in Australia (such a party, if present in Australia, would advocate for the deportation of people like you, Eurasian -- no matter that you were born here!) has got Australia and Austria confused! What a moron!

  4. ^ Thanks for the link to that article, I hope to get around to reading it properly (my attention span is pretty short, and I'm meant to be doing my tax return right now.)

    Personally I like my multiculturalism neither hard nor too soft - I guess that means it's a "semi".

    Re: BNP - don't think I don't know that. That's why I disliked the One Nation people so much. While they didn't advocate sending Asians back, they clearly implied they wish we'd never came here in the first place.

    Oh, and about Bolt's French football thing - I found that funny, because all those black and Arab French players have done exactly what Bolt and his ilk want migrants to do - don't make a fuss, just put your head down and work hard at your chosen field, and embrace your new country. I guess they were TOO successful.

  5. >>I found that funny, because all those black and Arab French players have done exactly what Bolt and his ilk want migrants to do - don't make a fuss, just put your head down and work hard at your chosen field, and embrace your new country. I guess they were TOO successful.<<

    Which I guess seems to suggest that with the Stormfront crowd at the Herald Sun the issue is less to do with assimilation ("soft" multiculturalism) than it is to do with "purity". Assimilation, with them, may merely be a stalking horse for another agenda.