Jun 29 11:17 PM

First among the World Cup ghost nations: Suriname?

Surinamese Dutch legends Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard

Ah, Suriname.  Somewhere in a parallel universe, this small Caribbean nation is advancing ominously through the World Cup tournament, where its opponents await it with a studious concern.  In that universe, men such as Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit have worn Suriname’s colors – rather than Dutch orange – on the basis of their heritage.  This elite quintet claimed no less than twelve European Cups (as the UEFA Champions League was once known), while Gullit and Rijkaard made Holland champions of Europe in 1988. And they are only the most illustrious of hundreds of great players who originally hail from this tiny nation of a half million on the northern edge of South America.  One only wonders what they would have won had they all played together for their country of origin.

That wouldn’t be possible, today. As Kenneth Jaliens, the technical director of Suriname’s national team, has noted, “If you leave here and go to Holland, you can't play for our national team anymore, which is a domestic political decision and a real shame.”  The issue of national identity here is a particularly interesting one: normally the player is given the choice as to where he wishes to play, with the countries for whom he is eligible waiting in line like anxious suitors. Not Suriname, which has decisively and pre-emptively shut the door on some of its most talented exports. The message is that once you are out, you are out.  

Some might see this policy as stubborn and somewhat short-sighted: they might point out that, perhaps as a direct result of this principle, Suriname has never qualified for a World Cup, with the closest they ever came being the final group stage of qualifying for the 1978 tournament.  In that round, they played five games, lost five games, and finished bottom.  Meanwhile the Netherlands, for whom the best Surinamese players have ended up appearing, have emerged as one of world football’s leading powers, with several Surinamese players having been key to their success.

Certainly, the conditions are there for Suriname, a land passionate about football, to flourish; there is a precedent for many countries with relatively small populations -- most notably Croatia, Hungary, Uruguay, and at the current tournament Costa Rica outdoing themselves at the World Cup.  Yet, there may be another story at work here, about Suriname's steadfast desire to determine its own future without any help from its former colonial master, from whom it only became independent in 1975.  Unfortunately, its government seems to regard its sons in the diaspora as part of the problem: whilst it is happy, for example, to accept many of Clarence Seedorf's charitable contributions, it would not have countenanced him actually appearing in the nation's colours.

Suriname wants its superstars to be home-based, which is a very tough ask given its paucity of resources.  Its GDP per capita, according to the latest World Bank figures, is $8,680 per capita, whilst the equivalent figure for the Netherlands is $43,750.  It is thus unsurprising that its best young prospects seek success abroad, and it is easy to share Jaliens' frustrations that his government is missing a trick.  However, if the ban were lifted, that is not to say that the majority of Surinamese abroad would opt to play for them, given both the greater chance of World Cup success with a Western European country and the fact that they may feel a greater affinity with their adopted homeland.    

Perhaps, then, Suriname's stance represents the ultimate expression of pride: it is turning down its own players before it has the chance to be rejected.   Of all nations, it may be the one with the most reason to be resentful: arguably nowhere else in world football is there a land with such a great disparity between natural talent produced, and the means to develop it properly (although Kosovars looking the Swiss national team might feel some affinity with the Surinamese).  

Relations between Suriname and the Netherlands are currently less than cordial.  In 2011, the Netherlands stated that Suriname would no longer be a partner country in its official development policy; a year later, it announced that it was withholding millions in aid following the Surinamese Government's decision to grant amnesty to the suspected killers of fifteen of the current President's political opponents.

Suriname's disavowal of those footballers who leave its shores, albeit largely symbolic, appears particularly poignant against the backdrop of its slow political drift away from the Dutch.  Though several of them have returned to play in friendly matches, and remain proud of their heritage, there is the inescapable image of a proud parent nation looking forlornly over a past that might have been.


Soccer, World Cup

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