“That win was so important for us, for our whole country and for the football here,” head coach of Suriname’s national team Roberto Godeken told FIFA.com about the 2-1 victory over Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean qualifying rounds for the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup, the biennial competition that crowns the region’s top team. “For over 30 years, Trinidad and Tobago have been the boss over us on the pitch and to win that game, playing away from home in their country, meant the world. It was a special day.”
Life is often about perspective, and so is football. The value of a result varies widely depending on whether you’re looking up from the bottom or down from the top. Scores of national teams might consider a slim win over T&T a modest achievement at best. But for Suriname, the smallest country in South America, with no professional league and substantial barriers to international success, it’s a feat worth celebrating long and hard.
Only one Surinamese player, 22-year-old striker Dimitrie Apai, plays his football professionally. And it’s not in the Premier League, Serie A or La Liga, but in the relative anonymity of Trinidad and Tobago’s TT Pro League with club side W Connection. The rest of A-Selektie, as the Suriname national team is known, work day jobs and get together in the evenings when the odd international fixture hovers over on the horizon.
“The youngest boy in our team is 19,” Godeken added, referring to teenage sensation Serencio Juliaans. “He goes to school full-time, but the rest work jobs. They work hard all day and then we get together under the lights to train with whatever energy is left.”
It was enough energy for Suriname to pull off their historic result in Trinidad, but it wasn’t enough to see off Haiti two days later to book a play-off against Nicaragua for a place in the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup, which would have constituted an achievement beyond any reasonable expectation. “Considering the fact that we’re, basically, all-amateur, playing two games in one week was just too much for us,” Godeken said after the 4-2 loss in which his side were beaten, but not disgraced. “We couldn’t keep going and pushing like we did after playing 120 minutes against Trinidad. It just wasn’t possible.”
Suriname’s improved form, and the big result on the road in Couva, saw them shoot up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking as best-movers for the month of January. They rocketed from 150th to 122nd, still in the lower half of the global ladder but approaching their best-ever position of 104, achieved in 1994, and a good distance away from their worst perch of 191.
Godeken puts this momentous achievement down to a special combination of youth and hunger in his team. “Our main strength is that we’re very young. The players listen to what I tell them,” said the 42-year-old, who also coaches SV Nishan 42 in the 17-team Surinamese domestic league. To call the current side young is, in fact, an understatement with all but two players under the age of 28. “These young guys have the mindset to work hard for each other. They fight together in defence and also in attack. They work together in transition too, and this is a strength you can’t underestimate.”
* Glory days in the distance*
Despite a great many roadblocks, including a population of just over half a million, Suriname have a relatively proud history in the Caribbean sub-region, having won an early incarnation of the Caribbean Cup in 1977. They also finished runners-up two years later and fourth in 1994 and 1996. But those halcyon days shrink a little smaller in the rear-view mirror with every passing day.
A former colony of the Netherlands, Suriname is also well known for having produced some of the finest players in the history of Dutch football. Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Aron Winter are just some of the Dutch national team stars of the past who were either born in or draw their bloodlines back to the steamy equatorial outpost.
But a peculiarity in Suriname's governmental policy does not allow players who leave to play professional football in the Netherlands – estimated currently at over 100 - to return to play for the A-Selektie. "Players who want to make it in football leave Suriname early," said the coach. "If you leave and go to Holland you can't play for our national team anymore, which is a political decision between two countries and we can’t do anything about it."
But rather than dwelling on the negative or what could be, Godeken and his rag-tag squad of part-timers and big dreamers are looking ahead to a future built on togetherness and a belief bolstered by their recent boost up the global ranking. “We’re not the strongest, but we have a passion for the game here,” he concluded. “If we can bring in some coaches from overseas and learn some more lessons about tactical development, there’s no reason we can’t reach the Gold Cup in the future, and beyond that, who knows?”