Curacao seeking to make a name for itself at the Gold Cup
For years Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago have led the Caribbean charge within CONCACAF, but there is a new challenger within their midst: Curacao, which not only will be making its first Gold Cup appearance, but which also won a first-ever Caribbean Cup last month.
So, who are these guys?
First, some history. Curacao was one of six islands that competed as the Netherlands Antilles from 1954-2010. After the dissolution in 2010, Curacao took on the Netherlands Antilles' FIFA membership, and thus was the start of Curacao's soccer journey.
The pivotal moment for this tiny island nation came in March 2015, when former Netherlands international Patrick Kluivert, whose mother was born in Curacao, was hired as head coach. Kluivert implemented two key things that triggered unprecedented success.
First, he used his connections to tap into the nation's diaspora in Europe, convincing players like Southampton's Cuco Martina and Aston Villa's Leandro Bacuna to play internationally for Curacao. The second was the installation of a new system. Kluivert's Curacao teams shifted from a more defensive style to a fluid, attacking-based soccer.
However, it would be incorrect to say that Curacao's success is all Kluivert's doing. Current coach Remko Bicentini, a longtime assistant who took over in May 2016 after Kluivert left to lead Ajax's Under-19s, has put his own stamp on this team.
"We may not be the best players compared to other countries, but we are a very close group, a kind of family," Bicentini told ESPN FC. "Players know what they mean to me and to each other; that is our strength. I started here as assistant head coach 10 years ago, and so I saw a large number of boys grow. Now that I'm head coach, that's my advantage. I know the players I choose very well and know what I can expect from them."
The fruits of their labor bore out in last month's Caribbean Cup, when they topped Jamaica 2-1 in the final. Not only was it a historic achievement for Curacao soccer, but one that will be long remembered by the country's 159,000 inhabitants.
"I still can't describe that feeling," goalkeepers coach Etienne Stomp told ESPN FC. "It was chaos at the airport. With the support of the Curacao people, it's like we play with 12 players. They are all standing behind us."
There is no reason why Curacao, who are currently ranked 70th in the world by FIFA, cannot advance from its group at the Gold Cup. Reigning champions Mexico loom on the final day of Group C, but first Curacao face Jamaica and then El Salvador. It already knows what it takes to beat the Regge Boyz and, in the third round of 2018 World Cup qualifying, Curacao played El Salvador tight, losing 2-0 on aggregate.
There is optimism that four points can be had from the first two matches but for a side that is keen to test itself against the region's better teams, Curacao is also relishing the chance to face CONCACAF giants Mexico.
"Of course, we do not play against a world opponent like Mexico each week," Bicentini said. "We are well prepared for our opponents, including the great Mexico. Of course, this opponent is of a different caliber than we are used to, but we have also risen sharply and advanced with our way of playing. Our players realize that a small country like Curacao can be a tough opponent for Mexico."
El Tricolor would be wise to not overlook the July 16 clash in San Antonio. Eighteen of Curacao's 23-man roster play in Europe, mostly in the Netherlands' top two divisions. Even more remarkable is that this Curacao team could have been a lot stronger
Players like ADO Den Haag forward Guyon Fernandez, PSV winger Jurgen Locadia and Groningen midfielder Juninho Bacuna (younger brother of Leandro) are all eligible, yet are stuck at an international crossroads as they wait for a possible call to the Netherlands.
Still, Bicentini believes over time as Curacao continues to improve and feature at Caribbean Cups, Gold Cups and possibly another expanded Copa America, more players will choose Curacao.
"The future of our national team is very positive. We can now also build and choose more players for Curacao instead of [them] waiting for an invitation from the Dutch Elfal. If we can get these players, we only get stronger," Bicentini said.
A deep run at the Gold Cup would show the rest of the region that Curacao is here to stay.
Arch Bell is based in Austin, Texas and covers CONCACAF for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ArchBell .