Unheralded CONCACAF minnows Suriname, tucked away in South America's north-eastern corner, have a little secret: they produce a line of talent to rival even giants such as Mexico and USA.
Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Ruud Gullit, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Frank Rijkaard, Aron Winter and 'the Suriname Diamond' Romeo Castelen are just some of the stars who were either born in or draw their bloodlines back to the steamy equatorial outpost. In addition to the aforementioned, there are nearly 150 lesser-known Surinamese players turning out in the Dutch professional leagues. However, much to the consternation of national team coach Kenneth Jaliens, none of the country's overseas professionals are eligible to represent Suriname.
"Players with hopes of making it in football usually leave early," said Jaliens, who is uncle to Suriname-born Dutch international and AZ Alkmaar defender Kew Jaliens. "If you leave here and go to Holland you can't play for our national team anymore, which is a domestic political decision and a real shame."
It is indeed a shame for the tiny football-mad nation, the smallest in South America with just under 500,000 citizens. If Suriname, like Netherlands Antilles and the entire Caribbean, were able to make use of the scores of its native sons playing professionally in Europe they could be more than merely competitive in the CONCACAF region, where they play in order to avoid being overwhelmed in South American qualifying.
Many have argued that Suriname, if unhindered, could be a major power in North, Central America and the Caribbean.
Suriname has a history of being overlooked and undervalued - not only in terms of its football. More often than not misspelled as Surinam, the country was a former Dutch colony populated through the centuries with African slaves forced to cultivate local crops like cocoa and coffee. After achieving limited self-rule in the 1950s and a turbulent independence in the 1970s, it has become a startlingly diverse jumble of cultures, languages and religions, and one that few people could actually pick out on a world map.
A third-world hinterland with more connection to the Caribbean than South America, Suriname's citizens often move to the Netherlands in search of greater opportunity.
As the country's best young players return to the old world in search of fortunes and glory, Suriname remains a football backwater. Without the ability to reclaim its prodigal sons in the Netherlands, like all nations in the Caribbean do with their professionals in England, Scotland and elsewhere, Suriname and coach Jaliens have to rely on local amateur players. Most of the national team is plucked from sides like SV Robinhood and SV Transvaal, who hold the distinction of being the only Surinamese outfit to have won the CONCACAF Champions Cup (in 1973 and 1981).
"Hopefully things will change in the future," Jaliens told FIFA.com. "Until then, though, we will just have to make do with the players we have. And we have some good ones too."
One famous name in the A-Selektie is Giovanni Drenthe, younger brother of Real Madrid's jet-heeled winger Royston Drenthe. Free-scoring Orlando Grootfaam and Trinidad-based Lorenzo Wiebers are also expected to excel.
With talent coming only from the country's loosely-organised amateur league, little is expected from Suriname in qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. But considering the raw talent available, a win over Caribbean bottom-feeders Montserrat in the first round is expected.
"We have no other choice than to go right at Montserrat with pace and attack in mind," Jaliens said ahead of the one-off qualifier to be played in Trinidad on 26 March.
Training his charges only three times a week, as full-time jobs and club commitments keep the players occupied, Jaliens sees a second-round date with neighbours Guyana - who take full advantage of their oversees professionals - as light at the end of the tunnel.
Guyana went 14 games without a loss last year and are currently
in better shape than at any time in their history. Moreover, when
the two sides met in the preliminary phase of the 2007 Caribbean
Selektie-A were on the wrong side of a 5-0 defeat.
Even so, Jaliens keeps the faith: "Once we beat Montserrat I think we will able to get at Guyana too," he says. "Why not?"