The Antilles get serious
© AFP

Unlike fellow influenced CONCACAF combatants Suriname, the Dutch Antilles are allowed to use their Netherlands-based players in the national team. And the islanders are taking full advantage of their connection to the Low Countries, too. With an entire starting 11 comprised of talented and sturdy professionals, the Caribbean islanders pulled off a shock by beating Nicaragua 1-0 away in Diriamba in their first leg last month.

Dutch coach Leen Looyen's men are understandably confident about finishing the job on Wednesday and moving on to the next round of qualifying, where they would meet reigning Caribbean champions Haiti.

The Netherlands Antilles - comprised mainly of the holiday island clusters of Curacao and Bonair (Aruba split in 1986 and now field their own team) - are an autonomous region of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. They played their first international back in 1941 (a 3-3 draw with Panama) and have had more success in the region than most casual observers would ever imagine.
In addition to finishing third in the old CONCACAF championship in both 1963 and 1969, the Antilles participated in the Olympics in Helsinki in 1952 (they only lost out 2-1 to Turkey in Finland) and they also won bronze at the 1955 Pan-American games in Mexico City. The e Selekshon were even coached by current Australia boss Pim Verbeek for several months in 2004.

Going Dutch
The hero in the first match was the dreadlocked Anton Jongsma, who made the difference by scoring the game's lone goal in the 15th minute. He plays his football for FC Zwolle, a club in the north-eastern part of the Netherlands currently in the second division (though they previously spent 12 seasons in the Dutch top flight). A quick glance at the squad list reveals that most of the Antillean side are plying their club trade in the Netherlands - some of those clubs are even well known throughout the world.

Captain Robin Nelisse is a former Feyenoord striker currently at FC Utrecht in the Eredivisie, and the win in Nicaragua was his first cap. Tyrone Loran also earned his first cap on the day, the NAC Breda man impressing at the centre-back position and helping to contain the wily Central Americans. Also from the Dutch top flight is VVV Venlo's Leon Kantelberg, who is a comparatively 'senior' member of the Dutch Antillean side with four caps since 2004.

Of the 18 players called in for the Nicaragua match on 6 February, 13 are living and playing professional football in Holland. And although most are playing in the tiers just below the top flight, the level of professionalism they have brought to the Caribbean team cannot be underestimated. Nine of the squad members, exactly half the side, earned their first caps for the Antilles in the game against Nicaragua, signifying a rich desire on the islands to make a real mark in this qualifying campaign.

Also earning his a cap against Nicaragua was Shelton Martis. The midfielder, currently plying his trade with West Bromwich Albion in England, could well become the first Antillean international to play in an FA Cup semi-final when West Brom meet Portsmouth at Wembley in early April.

England and the Netherlands are not the only high-power European countries represented either - Dyron Daal plays in Spain for CF Fuenlabrada. In fact, only two squad members play in the local amateur leagues, one of them being the side's caps leader (with 14) Marcello Pisas who plays for Antillean league leaders Barber.

Antilles expect
Currently ranked 163rd in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, the Antilles are a side on the rise. And with the contribution of their overseas pros the qualifying process for South Africa 2010 could well be a watershed moment. If they manage to hang on to their lead and get past Nicaragua, waiting opponents Haiti, who won their first-ever Caribbean crown last yea, might just be finding themselves in a spot of bother as the Antilles get into their groove.

Throngs of supporters turned up ahead of the Germany 2006 qualifiers against Honduras (which the Antilles lost 6-1) to roar on their boys last time around. This year, with a real chance of making a mark and possibly reaching the group stages in CONCACAF, an even more frenzied atmosphere is expected in Willemstad as the islanders aim high.