How Holland became the Brazil of European football

The story of how a tiny South American country transformed the face and style of the Dutch national football team.
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Surinam 3 Holland 1. A fanciful scoreline you would think. After all, many people haven’t even heard of Surinam never mind locate it on a map of the world. In 1991 however, a Surinam XI beat a Holland select team which included the likes of Ronald Koeman, Jan Wouters and Danny Blind. A few names on the Surinam Select teamsheet weren’t bad either - Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Winston Bogarde.

The match in Utrecht took place to raise money for families who lost loved ones in a plane crash just outside Paramaribo, the capital of Surinam, in 1989. On board were 20 members of a football team made up of players from the Netherlands’ Surinamese community. It may have been a charity fundraiser but the result proved too much for the Dutch football authorities to swallow. ‘Imagine their embarrassment when we won,’ recalls Winston Bogarde with a mischievous smile. ‘We were never allowed to play against them again.’

Rather than a source of embarrassment, Dutch football owes Surinam a huge debt of thanks. The former Dutch colony, previously known as Dutch Guyana, is situated north of Brazil on South America’s Atlantic coast. It’s five times bigger than the Netherlands, has a population of half a million and its main exports are bauxite, bananas and footballers.

Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert and Clarence Seedorf can all trace their roots back to Surinam. Without them Dutch football would be a good deal less colourful.

‘Without the Surinamese, the Dutch national team would be similar to Germany,’ according to Humberto Tan, Holland’s only significant Surinamese journalist. ‘The team would be weak, soft, strange, they wouldn’t be very creative and wouldn’t be very exciting to watch’.

Holland wouldn’t have won its only major championship had it not been for the Surinamese element.

‘You can’t say Dutch football would have achieved nothing without the Surinamese,’ Tan continues. ‘You only have to look at the 1974 and 1978 Dutch teams to see that. They were brilliant, they got to two World Cup finals and didn’t have any black players. But the 1988 European Championship winning team had Gullit, Rijkaard and Vanenburg. Without them we wouldn’t have won that trophy. You also have to look at the 1995 Ajax team that won the Champions League. 60 per cent of that team were from Surinam while this year’s Champions League final featured Davids and Seedorf.’

Today, the national team’s reliance on the national team is unquestioned. ‘A Holland coach who dared to play without Davids, Seedorf, Kluivert and Reiziger would be committing suicide.’

All of which begs an obvious question. Why has a country, with a population smaller than that of Amsterdam, produced so many fantastic footballers?

Edgar Davids has a theory. ‘Surinam has many similarities to Brazil,’ says the Juventus midfielder who was born in Coronie, 130 miles west of Paramaribo. ‘There’s a lot of poverty and a lot of kids on the street who have no money, come from broken homes and have plenty of time on their hands. They play football all the time and they learn to play with their bare feet.’

But enthusiasm alone does not produce a world class footballer. Davids was fortunate. At the age of two his parents moved to Holland. It didn’t take long for his raw talent to be spotted and at the age of five Davids found himself in the legendary Ajax youth set up. From there the gem was polished.

Ruud Gullit believes the Dutch system of coaching deserves most of the credit. ‘The coaching in Holland is some of the best in the world. Players are raised with attention on tactics and technique. That has benefited the Surinamese players and also the Dutch players. That mixture has helped produce interesting and exciting teams and it’s made us what we are today.’

Gullit and childhood friend Frank Rijkaard were born in the Netherlands but their Surinamese roots clearly influence their style of play.

‘In every aspect Ruud Gullit was a classic blend,’ says Humberto Tan. ‘He has a Dutch mother and a Surinamese father. His game was joyful – ‘sexy’ as he called it – but he still had that lethal Dutch efficiency.’

The mentality of the Surinamese players also adds to what Tan describes as the ‘magic potion’.

‘I heard a story once about Carlo Ancelotti who roomed with Ruud Gullit when they were playing for AC Milan. The night before a European Cup semi-final against Real Madrid Ancelotti didn’t get a minutes sleep because he was so nervous whereas Ruud slept like a baby. In the morning Ancelotti shouted at Gullit ‘how the hell can you sleep the night before such a big game?’ Ruud replied, ‘what’s the big deal? It’s only a game.’ You will find all the Surinamese players are like this. They enjoy playing, they’re more relaxed and they’re more self confident. These are qualities you need to be able to play at the highest level.’

The famed tolerance and open mindedness of Dutch society has also contributed to the Surinamese having a bigger impact on Dutch football than the relatively minor impact of players from former British colonies in the Caribbean have had on British football.

‘The first Surinamese player to play for Holland was in 1960,’ says Tan. ‘The first black English international was Viv Anderson in 1978. Why so late?’

Yet it hasn’t always been easy for the Surinamese to make an impact on Dutch football. Winston Bogarde moved to Holland with his parents in 1977 but making a home in Holland proved much easier than making his mark as a footballer.

‘You had to be at least twice as good as a white player in the same position,’ insists Bogarde. ‘Many players quit the game because they weren’t being given the chance to prove themselves. Today, people’s eyes are more open but in the past it was a real struggle.’

Any discussion on the influence of the Surinamese on Dutch football inevitably leads to a debate about race and racism. Euro 96 is also likely to get a mention. Controversy still surrounds the so-called feud between black and white players which derailed Holland’s Euro 96 campaign in England. You can still hear allegations of black ‘cliques’ and ‘separatism’ much of it based on incorrect newspaper stories. A photo of the Dutch team eating dinner during the tournament didn’t help matters either. The photo showed two tables, one with exclusively black players sat around it, the other table had only white players.

When Edgar Davids was sent home from Euro 96 by coach Guus Hiddink it was reported as a ‘race row’. Rubbish says Humberto Tan.

‘Davids and Seedorf were getting annoyed at not being played ahead of Danny Blind and Robert Witschge. Even Seedorf himself acknowledges that the problems at Euro 96 were nothing to do with race. He simply says that Hiddink didn’t have the balls to drop the older players for the younger players. It was an argument about age versus youth not white versus black.’

That said, Surinamese players still complain that racism is still prevalent. Clarence Seedorf was derided for his ‘arrogance’ in missing a penalty in a World Cup qualifying match in Turkey in 1997 while Ronald De Boer and Marco van Basten were never pilloried for missing decisive penalties in both European Championship and World Cup semi-finals respectively.

Yet all the Surinamese players are happy and proud to play for Holland. Mario Melchiot explains, ‘I feel very honoured when I play for Holland because it’s where I was born and Holland is a great country. But at the end of the day it’s work and it’s been great for my career. My passport says I am Dutch but I feel Surinamese, it’s the way my mother brought me up and the colour of my skin doesn’t lie. If I had to choose between the Dutch national team and Surinam I would choose Surinam.’

Fortunately for Dutch football that choice has never been seriously open to Melchiot and co. The Surinamese national team is ranked 147th in the world and despite being part of South America they are included in the weaker CONCACAF confederation. Regular opposition such as St Kitts & Nevis and Guadeloupe hardly represent a serious prospect for a budding international footballer.

The domestic game in Surinam doesn’t have much to offer either. During the 1970’s and early 80’s Surinam dominated football in the Caribbean. Back then, Robin Hood and Transvaal were among the strongest sides in the region, the latter winning the CONCACAF title on three occasions. But the exodus of players has meant there is little talent left today. There is no shortage of passion for the game in Surinam, football is the national game. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was brought up in Surinam before he moved to Holland with his mother aged five. The few memories the former Leeds player  has of his birthplace are all football related. ‘All I can remember is playing football all the time in the street. Everybody wanted to be a striker and score goals. I was no different.’ But having no professional league, poor facilities and a lack of quality coaches explains why the majority of Dutch clubs don’t even employ scouts in Surinam. That’s a short sighted outlook according to Humberto Tan who believes there is still untapped talent back home. ‘I had this discussion with Ajax. I asked them ‘why do you invest money in South Africa and Ghana?.’ Name me three top quality players of international repute who have come from South Africa and Ghana? I can’t. But I can name you seven or eight world class international players who have come from Surinam. In total 26 Surinamese players have played for Holland.’

The economic and political situation in Surinam does little to encourage investment. Since independence in 1975 the country has struggled to stand on its own two feet. The faltering economy is characterised by high unemployment, high inflation and the average monthly salary is just 100 pounds.

‘Independence was a bad thing for Surinam,’ claims Winston Bogarde. ‘The Dutch really looked after Surinam, they used the country’s resources appropriately and invested in Surinam. Since independence the Surinamese politicians have been greedy and taken all the money for themselves so the country is now in decline.’

Independence also led to a change in immigration laws and the flow of people from Surinam to Holland has been reduced to a trickle. The make-up of Holland’s football teams reflects this trend.

‘There are still a lot Surinamese players in Holland,’ says Ruud Gullit who is now Holland’s under-19 coach. ‘But it’s becoming a lot harder for Surinam footballers or Surinam people to move to Holland. Instead we are seeing more Moroccans and more Turks playing in our professional leagues and our junior teams.’

But despite the changes in immigration rules the 300,000 population of Surinamese now living in the Netherlands is unlikely to shrink for the time being.

‘The size of the average family in Surinam is very big,’ explains Winston Bogarde who is the youngest of nine brother and four sisters. ‘So the Surinamese will always have a big influence on Dutch football. But it’s hard to say if there will ever be another generation of great players like we had with Gullit and Rijkaard and the one we have today with Davids, Seedorf and Kluivert.’

Since independence Surinam has largely had to fend for itself but the Surinamese footballers haven’t forgotten their heritage. Players like Winston Bogarde and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink go back ‘home’ every year and play benefit matches to raise money for schools and hospitals. In Amsterdam every year a charity match is played between a Surinam XI (‘the Suriprofs’) and a Dutch second division select team to raise funds for charities back home. This year, as with the match in Utrecht in 1991, the Surinam team won. This time it was 5-1, but more importantly £50,000 was raised for the Diakkonessen Hospital in Paramaribo. ‘Surinam is a very poor country’, says Frank Rijkaard who coached this years’ Suriprofs team. ‘We can’t solve the many problems the country has but we can at least help a little bit. We can’t forget our roots and we wouldn’t want to.’ Likewise Dutch football will never forget the contribution of its Surinamese players. It wouldn’t be possible.