SAN DIEGO, California -- Children growing up in the Caribbean nation of Curacao most often choose a baseball glove over a football.
Football, though, is not far behind. Curacao is producing more talent, which is spreading across the planet and strengthening the national team.
Curacao opens its first-ever CONCACAF Gold Cup on Sunday, when it faces Jamaica in Group C at Qualcomm Stadium. It is a rematch of the 2017 Scotiabank CFU Men’s Caribbean Cup final won by the Curacaoans on June 25.
An autonomous country that is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Curacao is a windward sliver of an island about 40 miles off the northern coast of Venezuela. At 171 square miles, it is about twice as large as Brooklyn, and with a population of about 150,000, it is a bit larger than Bridgeport, Connecticut. In football terms, it wants to become a colossus.
With players earning a living in some of the world’s top leagues, Curacao has quietly become a force in the Caribbean. It now wants to make a statement on the global stage. Players are sprinkled throughout European first, second and third division clubs, even some in Japan. Most play in the Netherlands, where they are eligible to compete for that country’s national team. But since Curacao is a FIFA sanctioned nation, it becomes an attractive choice to many.
“When you are young, you are always dreaming of playing in the national team of the country and I always watched the national team of the Netherlands because I was born there and most were 100-percent Dutch,” said Curacao striker Gino Van Kessel, who was the joint-top scorer in the Caribbean Cup with seven goals. “When I played in the youth system, there were some guys who got a call up to the junior teams, but they never called me up.”
“When I got a call from Curacao I said directly yes.”
Aston Villa standout Leandro Bacuna made the same choice and has become a key cog in the Curacao machine.
“If you look at the Dutch national team, maybe you can get more out of that, but if you look at us now, I think I made the right choice,” the 25-year-old said. “You meet great teams in different parts of the world. And in the Caribbean part, you go to beautiful places. It’s just different.”
Curacao became a different football nation even before the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles in 2010. Now, like Aruba, it accepts military protection from the Netherlands and its citizens still have access to Dutch universities and scholarships. That also helped lure players like Bacuna and van Kessel to play for the island national team.
“For us, it might be easier to get to a World Cup here with Curacao,” said Cuco Martina, who played last season for Southampton in England. “I still think we are not at out top level because it’s hard to play as you want to play here because every club has a different system different coaches and different players around styles. But our team is growing together. I think we are getting stronger every time. We're becoming a football nation not just baseball.”