Suriname, the tiny nation responsible for some of the greatest footballers of all time

Suriname, the tiny nation responsible for some of the greatest footballers of all time

At the in Doha, the Dutch national team are captained by the defender , while much of their tactical acumen comes from assistant manager Edgar Davids, who played for Ajax, , and both clubs.

The pair boast more than 120 Netherlands caps between them, yet, had the world been slightly different, they, along with many other glittering names, may have represented a different nation altogether.

In this imaginary world, they may have been joined by both the Dutch side’s current right-back and his USMNT counterpart , while , a likely substitute when those two countries meet in the World Cup last 16 this weekend, would also have been part of the fold.

These players all share in common familial links to Suriname, a small nation on the north eastern coast of South America. It has a population of around 600,000, is bordered by Brazil to the south and is sandwiched between French Guiana and Guyana to its east and west.

The identity of the country is complicated by a history of colonialism, most notably long-standing Dutch rule until Suriname achieved independence in 1975.

The flight time from Amsterdam to Suriname’s capital, Paramaribo, is over nine hours and the distance is almost 8,000km (around 5,000 miles). Yet in football, the contribution of those of Surinamese descent to the Dutch national team has been indispensable.

The most famous names include Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard, two stars of their 1988 European Championship win, while Davids, Rijkaard, Michael Reiziger, Winston Bogarde, Clarence Seedorf and Patrick Kluivert all contributed to Amsterdam club Ajax’s 1995 European Cup final glory. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, born in Suriname but a Dutch international, became an star at and , while Georginio Wijnaldum celebrated Liverpool’s 2019 Champions League victory by posing with a flag combining those of the Netherlands and Suriname.

Wijnaldum with the Dutch and Surinamese flags after winning the Champions League (Photo: VI Images via Getty Images)

Dest’s father Kenneth was born in Suriname, while his mother is a Dutchwoman of Surinamese origin. Kenneth moved to New York as a youngster, before serving in the U.S. army during the Vietnam War. When it came to a national-team decision, Dest’s choice was between the U.S., where his father served in the military for 25 years, and the Netherlands, where he himself grew up and came through the youth ranks at Ajax.

On the world stage, talent that owes so much to Suriname is never far away, yet that nation has never competed at a World Cup and, as of now, does not even have its own professional football league.

Yet in 2026, the World Cup will be staged by the the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) when the United States, Mexico and Canada co-host the tournament.

Suriname usually compete within CONCACAF for entry to the sport’s biggest tournament but in 2026 the three hosts will gain automatic entry to the World Cup, while the expanded 48-team format will mean more places in the competition for CONCACAF nations. This will mean renewed opportunity for countries such as Panama, Costa Rica and Honduras, while Caribbean nations such as Trinidad & Tobago, Curacao and Jamaica also sense opportunity.

Suriname did not make it beyond the first of three phases on the road to Qatar 2022, where eventual qualifiers topped their group, but they are hopeful a path may open up.

Ahead of this World Cup, The Athletic travelled to Suriname, to trace links to the Dutch national team and to hear how Suriname is plotting a path towards putting its own footprint on world football.

“2026 will be our easiest chance,” says John Krishnadath, who is serving his third term as president of the Suriname Football Association. “Since I can remember, it is all that our football community is talking about. We should be there. We should be part of this. For decades now, we have been dreaming of a place at a World Cup.”

It is nightfall outside a modest hotel in downtown Paramaribo and Henry Seedorf is recalling 1975, Suriname’s year of independence. Henry is the uncle of Clarence Seedorf, one of the most gifted technical midfielders of his generation. Seedorf won the with Ajax, and AC Milan. He also represented the Netherlands 87 times between 1994 and 2008.

Seedorf was born in Suriname the year after the country gained independence from Dutch rule. His uncle Henry, a senior member of the Surinamese police force, recalls how Clarence’s father left for a better life in the Netherlands following Surinamese independence. In Paramaribo, Henry explains, there were tensions between communities. Hundreds of thousands of Surinamese people went to the Netherlands, as they already spoke Dutch, as well as to evade a plight under a military government back home.

“We did not come from a rich family,” Henry explains. “We were from the lower classes. My father did everything, from agricultural work to selling fruits. He was a survivor. He has five brothers and four sisters. We played football together on the street, with footballs we made ourselves out of plastic, or sometimes with a tennis ball. I remember my sister moved to Holland and one of her first presents she sent to me was a proper football. It was a very exciting moment.”

Henry was a teenager when “Baby Clarence”, as he calls him, slept in between his legs at the home of his parents. At the age of two, Clarence and his mother joined his father in the Netherlands.

Seedorf became arguably the greatest midfielder of the 1990s but the law forbade him from representing his birth country, along with anyone else who had migrated. As such, it was never an option for these famous names. These include Rijkaard, whose own father played for Suriname, and Gullit, whose father had been a board member of the Suriname FA, according to current FA president Krishnadath. Rijkaard and Gullit represented the Netherlands instead.

Henry is asked what he believes his nephew would have chosen if the option had presented itself.

“It is difficult to give a yes or no answer,” he says. “But I think he would have made a choice for Suriname. Because of the mentality, in a sense of being certain to be proud of being from Suriname.”

Did he ever actually ask Seedorf this? “I don’t have to ask him,” he says. “I know he would have made a choice for Suriname.”

In the Dutch national team, adaptation was not straightforward. Gullit, for example, was coached at international level by Thijs Libregts, his former Feyenoord manager, who had previously been accused of racist remarks towards the player. The coach tried to explain it away as a “nickname”.

In 1996, Libregts was quoted in Prospect magazine as saying: “That’s an old story from when I was with Gullit in 1984. Remember in football, you have black people, tall people, short people and some with glasses. It’s normal to have nicknames, you say, ‘OK, Blackie, kick the ball, then’. And then we had some discussion and I said, ‘Blackie must run more because he’s a little bit lazy’. And they wrote down, ‘The coach said all black people are lazy’. And then all that started.”

At the 1996 Euros, Davids was sent home from the tournament following a disagreement with head coach Guus Hiddink, while Patrick Kluivert once said he would have felt more comfortable in a Suriname national team.

Henry says the black players in the Dutch team in the 1990s became known as the “Suriname Crew”.

Rijkaard, second left in the back row, and Gullit, second right in the back row, found it hard at times and suffered racism (Photo: Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images)

“It had to do with acceptance,” he reflects. “It’s a process. I can imagine here in Suriname that to accept someone with another background would take time. So in Europe, the first generation had to deal with that phenomenon of acceptance. But I look at that a positive way. Not necessarily negative. Of course, you have some people who are not with good intentions.”

Some of the media, he says, “brought it in a negative way”, the fact that the Surinamese players hung out together and also liked to eat food when with the national team such as brown beans, which is a Surinamese staple. “Some of them talked about it like it was a conspiracy,” he sighs, although his overall tone is forgiving.

Even for those players unable to represent Suriname, the bond remained strong. Those such as Seedorf, Kluivert and Davids visit on vacations and sometimes appeared in all-star matches to raise funds for local areas.

The country has faced significant political challenges, most notably the rule of former military leader Desire Bouterse, who was previously convicted of drug trafficking in the Netherlands in 1999 before being convicted in a Surinamese court of the murders of political opponents, but he has since appealed.

Suriname’s economy has also been badly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to spiralling inflation and unemployment. Seedorf is among those who has invested in the country, most notably a small stadium built in his name, and a youth programme that for several years sought to occupy youngsters.

His uncle Henry said: “There have to be facilities to move the kids from the streets. We had a programme where he and we had about almost a thousand kids. He provided the gear, everything, the transport. It was about instilling universal values into young people.”

In recent years, a choice has emerged for players of Surinamese descent who were born in or live in the Netherlands. A special sport passport has, at long last, been introduced which means the Surinamese national team is now able to draw upon a wider pool of players.

The Surinamese FA headquarters are a humble abode for the national game, with the president’s office a modest room joined to a small shop selling replica shirts. The president, John Krishnadath, says football is, by some way, the most popular sport here.

“And actually, number two is keeping birds,” he says, matter-of-factly.

Pardon? “Yes, keeping a singing bird. You have the matches between singing birds. Those things are very, very expensive.”

How do you win? “They have their methods in counting, in how many rhythms are made. I think if you go to the Independence Square on a Sunday, early in the morning, you will find this there.”

Plans are afoot to launch a new professional league, initially involving six teams.

The federation will cover the costs of security, paying referees and logistics for the inaugural season, with hopes of breaking even in the second or third. In the first season, supporters will be allowed to attend matches for free, the president says. These will all be played in the same stadium, diminishing the idea of home and away games.

“I have told them on several occasions,” Krishnadath says. “What I do not understand is most of the club owners are businessmen. But when it’s about football, their business mind doesn’t work. They are throwing now much more money on their players than it would be if you have contracted players. So besides the monthly stipend you currently agree on, you’ll also have to come with other things.

“One president was willing to give a moped to his players even though a lot of people that drive a moped die from accidents!”

The desire to develop Suriname’s domestic game is partly guided by a concern that the generation gap between those in the Netherlands with Surinamese roots is becoming larger over time, which may make it harder to attract players unfamiliar with the country.

Yet even as projects take shape to grow a domestic league, the Suriname FA encourages any talents aged 18 or over to pursue a career in Europe or the United States ,where their development will be enhanced.

Since the law change, the Suriname FA is on a recruitment drive for talent.

Nigel Hasselbaink, nephew of Jimmy Floyd, plays for Suriname and was most recently playing his club football in Israel, while the former defender Ryan Donk, who once turned out for the Dutch Under-21 side, also now represents the Suriname senior team.

A consultancy scouting group is working across the Netherlands to identify those with Surinamese roots who could be willing to play for the nation.

Nigel Hasselbaink in action for Suriname (Photo: David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Yet while the generation of the 1990s appeared to crave the opportunity to play for Suriname, the association is now realistic about the appeal.

In the most recent world rankings, Suriname are in 139th position, between Ethiopia and St Kitts & Nevis. The are eighth and a fixture at major tournaments.

As such, the Surinamese, managed by former Dutch international Aron Winter, accept they are likely to pick up only those in the Netherlands who have little chance of making the squad currently led by Louis van Gaal.

Krishnadath says: “We are aware that for a lot of these players, it’s more important to play in the Dutch national team than for a Surinamese team. All these players, don’t forget that they are businessmen. The added value when you are playing for the Dutch team is much more. We grasp that. If you have better prospects in playing for the Dutch team, then you should do that from a pure commercial perspective. That’s real life. (Football) is 11 businessmen running on the field.”

In the absence of Suriname at a World Cup, we might have presumed that supporters in Paramaribo instinctively support the Dutch players with Surinamese links.

“The Brazilian team is most popular. They are neighbours, and we like the way they play,” Krishnadath says.

“Then you have a group that supports the German team always. And I think the third option has always been the Dutch team. So if, let’s say, is out of the picture, then maybe the Dutch team will move to first place.”

Subscribe to The Athletic for in-depth coverage of your favorite players, teams, leagues and clubs. Try a week on us.