Thursday 25 August 2016, 11:46

Kluivert fires Curacao's rise

Tiny Curacao have little to brag about in international football. With no professional league and a population slightly greater than the capacity of Mexico’s Azteca Stadium, they recently reached out to a distant relative for a helping hand. It wasn’t just any old relation either, but one with a UEFA Champions League medal, La Liga crowns and a UEFA EURO golden boot in his bulging trophy cabinet.

“My mother is from Curacao,” Patrick Kluivert, who scored 40 goals in a decade with the Dutch national team, told after taking over as head coach of Curacao last year. “I have a lot of family over there. I felt like I could do something for Curacao.”

Kluivert, now 40, was just the injection the little island needed. Even working around his busy schedule and in a part-time capacity, his impact was felt at once. Curacao knocked Montserrat and Cuba both out of contention for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ and orchestrated, over the last two months, a huge jump in the global pecking order. They climbed from 154th to 131st, 23 full places up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, seeing them land 16th in the CONCACAF zone.

Team with a dream With minimal resources and little pedigree, Curacao’s FA have set their sights on an honest run toward the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. It seems, on the surface, an impossible dream for the semi-autonomous territory with strong historical bonds to the Netherlands. They’ve never made so much as a ripple in qualifying before. But since Kluivert’s intervention, a flock of professional players, primarily from the Netherlands but also from England and beyond, have put their hands up to play for Curacao. While the island has only a little over 150,000 inhabitants, there is a significant diaspora beyond the island’s shores.

In addition to Kluivert’s remarkable scoring touch with super-clubs like Ajax, AC Milan and Barcelona, his coaching chops are nothing to sneeze at. He was assistant to Louis van Gaal at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, where he helped guide his native Dutch to a third-place finish. His experience and lively personality have proven a boon to Curacao’s football, and have allowed the little island to begin dreaming big.

This June they reached the third round of the 2017 Caribbean Cup qualifiers with significant wins over Guyana and the US Virgin Islands. In the span of those two games Curacao scored a combined 12 goals and conceded only twice to reach the all-important third round. There they will meet Puerto Rico and Antigua and Barbuda in what is a fairly friendly draw considering it’s the stage when big boys Jamaica, Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago all enter the fray.

Aiming for Gold Curacao are not totally unfamiliar to success of a modest kind. As part of the former Netherlands Antilles they twice finished third in the old CONCACAF Championship, predecessor to today’s Gold Cup. But that was way back in the 1960s and since 2011, when Curacao broke away from the Antilles, they’ve been on their own in the world and have qualified for nothing of note. That could all change if they top their third-round Caribbean Cup group, a feat that would put them in a CONCACAF Gold Cup for the first time in over four decades and for the first time as an independent association.

With the raft of talent that has accompanied Kluivert’s arrival on the touchline, big dreams might be appropriate for this natural paradise tucked away in the Caribbean’s southern tip, almost in sight from the coast of Venezuela. At 24, Feliciatiano Zschusschen is the country’s top all-time scorer and he’s linking up well with the England-based pair of Cuco Martina and Darryl Lachman. There are seven players in the current squad that play professional football in the Netherlands' top two tiers, and the increased professionalism on the pitch and in the technical area is making Curacao a team to watch as they rocket away from anonymity.

It is unlikely Kluivert will continue on for too much longer in Curacao, as he’s earmarked for a future in the top professional ranks in Europe and recently took up the post as Paris Saint-Germain’s director of football. He has, however, committed himself to Curacao’s cause through the Caribbean Cup qualifying phases. And even if that’s the extent of his tenure, his impact on Curacao’s football will linger. “I’ve got some good players,” Kluivert said about his young team with a dream. “I feel proud to help the island a little further along.”