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The remarkable rise of one tiny island

Jack Douglas

160,000 people. 15,000 crammed into one tiny stadium. Eleven players ready to fight for their country. One dream.

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The stadium can fit one-tenth of the population of the country ©DonardoVrolijk

“Man, it was not normal. Then they continued to dance: in the bus, in the hotel. The beauty is that the party follows. There was really a team here. Man, how proud and happy I am,” Curaçao national team head coach Remko Bicentini told Voetbal International after his side put ten past Grenada in Willemstad.

Grenada, the Caribbean Island that is; not to be confused with Tony Adams’ former side Granada CF of the Spanish Segunda División.

The victory in the CONCACAF Nations League came for Curaçao after a surprising friendly win over Bolivia, and the form continued as Futbòl Kòrsou then recorded a five-nil thumping of the US Virgin Islands.

Now we know what you’re thinking. Why is this relevant to anything? Well, the island of just 160,000 finds themselves sitting at a remarkable 79th in the world rankings.

China, with a population of an estimated 1.379 billion, and with the astronomical amounts that gets pumped into the lucrative Chinese Super League, only sit a mere four places above the tiny Dutch dependency.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s Gabon, Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s Armenia, and Sepp Blatter’s accountant’s personal favourite Qatar, all lie lower than an island where stewed Iguana, or Stoba Yoana to give it its local name, is still a delicacy.

Comprised with players both local and overseas, the Curaçao squad are unbeaten since they were narrowly defeated by an experienced Mexican side in July 2017.

The side qualified for the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup, North and Central America’s equivalent of the Euros, after an Elson Hooi brace won the 2017 Caribbean Cup for his side, narrowly overcoming Jamaica 2-1 in the final in Martinique.

Captain and Stoke City defender Cuco Martina’s side were unable to progress past the group-stage of the Gold Cup however, after a tough draw alongside Mexico, Jamaica once-more and El Salvador saw them finish bottom.

Reading full-back Leandro Bacuna has earned 19 caps for the nation after switching allegiances from the Netherlands through his Curaçaoan descent. Former Swansea and Brighton central midfielder Kemy Agustien also opted to play for the nation after representing the Dutch throughout his youth.

“It’s the best feeling knowing you represent your country and when the whole island is with you and backing you up,” the midfielder tells me.

The victories over Bolivia and Grenada were brilliant for the nation says Agustien, and feels that they sent a strong message to their Caribbean rivals.

“Every game is important I guess, but winning those games really gives a signal to our people and the other nations that we are really on it and are playing well.”

The back-to-back hammerings of Grenada and the US Virgin Islands sees the side currently top of the CONCACAF Nations League. If the Whites can finish in the top six, they will be rewarded with automatic qualification for next year’s Gold Cup held once again in the USA.

“With the qualities we have got on the pitch we sure can surprise a lot of people,” adds Agustien.

“We have people that play at the highest level, and we have got lots of players that have been training and playing since they were kids so this is a good, youthful back up to have. With the support from the country and if the team unites, then we can go far.”

The Sentro Deportivo Korsou Ergilio Hato, or Ergilio Hato Stadium, is the country’s national stadium, and can host up to 15,000 vibrant Curaçaoans who cheer on their boys in almost a samba-party atmosphere when they welcome visitors to Willemstad.
Ergilio Hato, the man whose name is blazoned across the stadium and airport of the island, was a goalkeeper who played his entire career on Curaçao with CRKSV Jong Holland. The Curaçaoan Lev Yashin, with both players being nicknamed the Black Panther, received offers from Ajax and Feyenoord in the fifties.

Hato also attracted the interest of no other than Real Madrid. Los Blancos offered the goalkeeper a contract, and with a chance to play alongside the likes of Ferenc Puskás, Alfredo Di Stéfano and José María Zárraga, Hato remarkably turned Madrid down and stayed an amateur for the entirety of his career.

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You can understand why Hato turned Europe down… Via thestar.com

The Liga MCB 1st Division is the top flight on the idyllic island and sees ten teams competing. The CONCACAF Champions League awaits the winners, if they can negotiate their way through the preliminary CFU Club Championship; similar to the UEFA Champions League qualifiers.

CRKSV Jong Colombia put on the best showing for a Curaçaoan side in the competition, as The Sharks lost in the final in 1979 to Salvadoran side C.D. FAS.

Since then, no side from the country has got as far, and in a competition dominated by the big spending Mexican and American sides, the chances are that Liga MCB fans will have to wait a while for more continental success.

Curaçao welcome Guadeloupe to the Ergilio Hato Stadium on the 19th November, with Remko Bicentini’s men keen to continue their superb form and stay at the top of the Nations League.

To quote Fidel Castro: “Good athletes do not know what tiredness is. They do not know what discouragement is. Good athletes only know what victory is.”

His fellow Caribbean Islanders certainly epitomise this spirit.

Jack Douglas

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