Suriname is a country. That’s the first thing. It isn’t lost in the jungles of darkest Africa, hidden like a mischievous dwarf between two Asian supergiants, or nestled below Mexico. It’s not an island in the Caribbean or Indonesia, the Antilles or Oceania. It’s not an island at all. Take a look at a world map. Find South America and then point to Brazil. Trace your finger up its immense Atlantic coastline—Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, Fortaleza, Belém. At some point you reach French Guiana, a kind of overseas private club for wealthy Parisians. Continue along the arc of the Atlantic coastline, and you come to a spot that’s smaller than your fingertip. Suriname is the size of the state of Georgia. But it’s not a state; it’s a country. There’s plenty of evidence to prove it. There’s the Suriname River, Suriname Airways, the Suriname Soccer Federation, the Bank of Suriname, the map of Suriname at your fingertip, and a sanitation expert from the University of Suriname with dark skin and unkempt hair who at the moment is telling me, “Suriname is a beautiful country, but nobody knows about Suriname.” Not even the Surinamese.
She’s the first one I’ve ever met.
We’re in the renovated airport of Maiquetía, Venezuela, sitting in one corner of Gate 17 next to picture windows overlooking the runways. It’s nighttime. Outside only the outline of mountains and the white lights of aircraft. Inside the blare from multiple television sets is unbearable: a popular reggaeton, Shakira’s latest hit, the Caribbean twang of President Hugo Chávez intoning: These are my achievements—vote for me! To make herself heard over the racket Audrey must speak at the top of her voice. In English. She tells me not all Surinamese speak English, and almost none speak Spanish. “We’re part of South America, but, I’m sorry, we don’t seem South American,” she says.
Audrey arrived from an environmental conference in Lima, Peru, over ten hours ago and ever since has been awaiting her flight home, first to Port of Spain (on the island of Trinidad and Tobago) and then to Paramaribo, her country’s capital. It’s absurd that to fly from South America to South America you have to leave South America, but in a world where distances are measured from airport to airport, proximity on a map is mere coincidence. Only an expanse of ocean separates Suriname from the south coast of Miami, but there’s no flight from there, so its geographical immediacy is meaningless. And that’s the trouble with Suriname; you can’t fly there from much of anywhere. From Port of Spain, where Audrey is headed. Or from Belém in Brazil. Or from Amsterdam, the capital of the tiny European nation that claimed Suriname as one of its holdings until 1975. But be warned, once and for all, that you need a visa and a passport to enter Suriname, because it is not part of the Netherlands. Suriname is a country.
“Why are you going?” Audrey asks.
Her question is reasonable. Nobody goes to Suriname. Well, nobody may be a statistical exaggeration, but compare its hundred thousand visitors per year to neighboring Brazil’s six million. There are no famous Surinamese singers or movie stars, no Nobel laureates or best-selling authors. Not even a Miss World or a beach to show off on postcards. John Paul II, nicknamed the Traveling Pope, never traveled to Suriname. Even the Surinamese don’t go to Suriname; some three hundred fifty thousand—more than a quarter of the total population—spend their days in the Netherlands. And more wish they could leave.
I’m about to answer Audrey, when an employee of Aeropostal—the Venezuelan airline sadly renowned for its delays—interrupts our conversation by shouting that the flight to Port of Spain is running behind. In Spanish. Audrey doesn’t speak Spanish but suspects she catches the drift of what’s happening and, in a strange and unintelligible language, translates what she didn’t understand to a woman friend, a Surinamese waste-management specialist who looks at her in a daze. A flight delay, and they have no idea why. They don’t understand what people around them are saying. Nobody understands them. Nobody understands anybody.
“In Suriname we speak Sranan Tongo,” Audrey says, unable to conceal her annoyance at the delay.
“It seems like a hard language.”
“Not as hard as getting to Suriname seems to be.” She runs her hand through her hair, which has gone uncombed for hours, and gives me a harried look. “Why did you say you are going?”
I explain that few people are even aware that Suriname exists, yet, far away, kicking a ball about the firmament where the stars of European soccer shine, Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert, Clarence Seedorf, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard are famous names. They have Suriname in their past, but the jerseys they wear, or did wear, are Dutch. Suriname doesn’t have much, but the gods of today wear shorts, kick balls, and bask in the aura of the flat screen: Who in Europe hasn’t seen Davids, Kluivert, Seedorf, Gullit or Rijkaard on tv? There are countries twice the size of Suriname without half its number of celebrity names. Those who do know Suriname know it only because somewhere they heard its key legend: Suriname produces soccer players the way Venezuela produces oil.
The planet is a ball, I explain, and its movements are governed by strange laws. Why does Suriname produce brilliant soccer players? Why is there no professional soccer in Suriname? It’s hard to say. If the legend’s true, Suriname sires gods who are worshipped in the stadiums of Holland. However, the soccer back home is strictly amateur and no better known than Suriname itself. This could be the country’s greatest paradox: its prize exports kick soccer balls and carry Dutch passports. If these sons of Suriname were true ambassadors for their home country, the nation would shed its anonymity on the strength of what it no longer owns.
Audrey just nods. The flight is four hours late. She knows she’s already missed her connection in Port of Spain and must spend two days in Trinidad waiting for the next flight home. Suriname is hard to get to. Worse yet, it’s hard to get back to. Audrey points to a corner of Gate 17 where four people are laughing for no apparent reason. “They’re from Suriname, too,” she says. “The man in the hat is a VIP, the ex-transport minister.” The laughing man in the hat is wearing a dark green suit and two enormous gold bands on his left ring finger. He’s carrying a briefcase with documents that appear to be valuable. Given his appearance and language—deliberate but guttural Sranan Tongo—he could be taken by anyone in this South American airport for an African dignitary. His name, however, is Guno Castelen, the older brother of Romeo Castelen, “The Suriname Diamond,” who plays forward for Feyenoord in Holland.
Finally the flight to Port of Spain is called.
* * * *
There are eight Surinamese stranded in the Hotel Piarco in Port of Spain, laughing at their own bad luck. It’s noon Saturday in the sun-drenched capital of the island of Trinidad, and the hotel restaurant with its wooden tables, wooden bar, and windows that overlook a swimming pool would be empty except for the Surinamese whose bursts of hilarity are audible outside by the pool or in the second-floor hallways. “It’s the way we are in Suriname,” Guno Castelen tells me. The man, whom everyone addresses as Mr. Castelen, is wearing the same hat he wore yesterday at the airport and a white T-shirt with a Uruguayan flag.
“Is Uruguay close to Peru?” one of the Surinamese at the table asks me in English.
On the south end of the same continent, Uruguay is as far from Peru as Suriname. They laugh. The Surinamese make light of nearly everything, Mr. Castelen explains. The nonstop hilarity is not as strange as the fact that very few of those around the table had ever met before being stranded in Port of Spain, and now they seem best of friends. Mr. Castelen occupies one side of the table and is the person everyone turns to for leave to speak and tell jokes. Yesterday, just after our arrival at this island’s airport, Mr. Castelen called an impromptu meeting to determine what we should demand from Aeropostal for the delay. The meeting was held in Sranan Tongo to keep the airline personnel from understanding. Sranan Tongo is spoken in Suriname, Aruba, the Dutch Antilles, and pretty much nowhere else. It includes words from English, Spanish, Dutch, and other languages beyond decoding by the untrained ear. When they finally made their decision—having formed a circle I was allowed to join—Mr. Castelen was kind enough to ask me if I agreed. Yes. Thus it was that Aeropostal brought us to the Hotel Piarco, just five minutes from the airport. Not bad.
Their airport troubles over, for the time being they’re partying. They make fun of the climate (“We love the rain but only at outdoor parties”); of responsible fatherhood (“I have only three children . . . officially”); of their ages (“Once upon a time when Mr. Castelen was young . . .”); of my name (“Here sits the apostle Daniel”); of soccer in their country (“If you’re going to write about that, all you have to do is write in big letters in the middle of the page: THEY ALWAYS LOSE”). As a matter of fact, just a few weeks earlier they suffered a 5–0 loss to their neighbors from Guyana, their fellow South American dwarf with a lesser soccer legacy, shamefully confirming that no matter how badly things go they can always get worse.
“The first step is to become the best team in the Caribbean,” Mr. Castelen would tell me a few days later, sitting in his spacious office with air-conditioning and leather chairs in the Port of Paramaribo.
Mr. Castelen is an important politician who states his opinions about soccer like any other citizen. Only he has the prestige that comes from being the brother of a Feyenoord star. First, he says, you have to win in the Caribbean. According to FIFA, the omnipotent giant that rules soccer planet-wide, Suriname belongs to CONCACAF (the Confederation of North, Central American, and Caribbean Association Football) along with the United States, Mexico, and the Caribbean countries. So does Guyana, but the rest of South America competes in CONMEBOL (Confederación Sudamericana de Fútbol), which has its own championships and elimination rounds. If Suriname were in CONMEBOL, pitted against the deities of Argentina and Brazil, for example, it would be trounced like Little Leaguers wearing blindfolds. The strange thing (given its reputation as the birthplace of stars and the fact that it competes in CONCACAF—a decidedly lower level) is that it should lose 5–0 to its notoriously bad neighbor. But in Paramaribo there’s always room for optimism: Mr. Castelen thinks Suriname could qualify for World Cup play by 2010, and “the first step is to be the best team in the Caribbean.” That’s not easy.
“At least six players need to come from outside,” Mr. Castelen says.
Outside in Suriname can only mean Holland.
“If your brother Romeo could choose between playing for Holland or Suriname, which would he pick?” I ask.
“It’s hard to speak for him, but when he was here three years ago I asked him, and his answer was Suriname.”
I would learn that there are more Surinamese players in Holland than you can count on both hands. But the tragedy is that none of them can come and play for their country of origin—but they’ll explain the mysteries of emigration to me later. Now is the time to laugh, even at bad luck. The hotel in Trinidad explodes with laughter. Out come the fried chicken and rice, the ice-cold Coke and bottles of Stag beer. These virtuosos of humor are gastronomically impatient: they only quit laughing because they’re eating.
The fried chicken began disappearing from the plates. Also at the table were the sanitation expert Audrey and her friend, the solid-waste management specialist. Across from me sits a very slender man with the appearance of a Shaolin monk, who would later introduce himself as part of Suriname’s presidential security detail. “Another very important person,” according to Audrey. In a country whose population is a third of Manhattan’s it’s natural for everybody to know everybody else. People are on good terms with one another from the minute they meet—and when sitting at a table with “dignitaries,” having them remember your face can be useful. The woman seated next to Audrey is captain of the Port of Paramaribo. Her features are Asian. Though soft-spoken, she has a sense of humor that can penetrate the prevailing din. There’s a black attorney, the brother of a government minister, who wears a collared white shirt and dark Ray-Ban sunglasses; a very quiet Amerindian man; and a muscular engineer who carries a Dutch passport but was born in Paramaribo. The eight diners at the table may look to be from Africa, Asia, and even Europe, but they’re all Surinamese.
Don’t forget: Suriname is a country—but it’s a world apart from most of South America and inhabited by a surprising diversity of peoples. Those stranded here around this table amount to a cross-section of average citizens. In Suriname there are descendants of Hindustanis, which is what people from India are called; people of African descent, whom the Surinamese themselves divide into two groups: Creoles and Maroons; Javanese, as any Indonesian is called whether from Java or not; Chinese; Amerindian; and whites. Not only do they all speak Sranan Tongo, they also communicate in seventeen different languages. Why are they so different from other South Americans? When the Europeans were dividing up the world and winning and losing territories as if they were playing Monopoly, the Dutch traded New Amsterdam (present day Manhattan) for Suriname, which at the time was a lush green territory controlled by the Dutch navy. It was 1664, and while Spain and Portugal ruled the rest of the continent, Holland imported slaves to its new territory from its colonies in Africa. More than two hundred years later, once the black slaves stopped being slaves, the Dutch were forced to find labor elsewhere. Though it was not their intention, they created a place unlike any other on the planet: Surinamese television speaks Dutch, movies come from Bollywood, and Creole announcers pitch products from Java.
“You’re not going to understand a thing,” the muscular engineer with the Dutch passport tells me, “even though you’ll only need five minutes to get acquainted with everything.”
Someone asks Mr. Castelen about his roots. Those around the table expect him to say “Creole” or “Maroon,” but the ex-minister replies instead with a joke: “Can’t you see I’m Chinese?” There’s no recognizing a Surinamese by appearance—and Suriname is nothing like the rest of the continent it’s attached to.
The following night, on the plane taking us to Paramaribo, I strike up a conversation with the member of the presidential security detail. His name is Mario Sowidjojo. He’s of Javanese descent, and he speaks a bit of Spanish. He says he was in Venezuela for a congress on people and immigrant exchanges. I was reading a typical in-flight magazine with a partial map of the Caribbean.
“Look, Mario, the biggest island is Trinidad,” I say with a touch of nostalgia for the place we’ve left behind.
“No, man, Suriname,” Sowidjojo corrects me.
“But Suriname’s not an island.”
“Sure it is,” he says in Spanish, “except it’s stuck to South America.”
He couldn’t have explained it better in Sranan Tongo.
* * * *
From the outside, the stadium where the Suriname national team trains looks like an abandoned nail factory. The image of desolation—rusted metal beams encrusted like rotting teeth, urine-stained walls—speaks volumes. Here the mantra for Surinamese soccer (THEY ALWAYS LOSE) is self-evident. Mario Sowidjojo’s hair is cut short with spikes sticking up like the spines of a sea urchin. He’s wearing a blue shirt and a huge gold ring shaped in the form of two clasped hands. His black tie is emblazoned with colorful drawings of automobiles. He parks his car next to the stadium and orders me to take no pictures. “When you talk to the president of the Surinaamse Voetbal Bond, yes. Before, no. Not allowed,” he says. Sowidjojo’s clumsy Spanish, learned in Venezuela, has a certain Tarzanesque command quality: you do, you not do. In this instance, I cannot photograph the ruined stadium because he doesn’t feel like letting me. All our countries have their own woes, and at first I thought Sowidjojo didn’t want his country to get bad publicity. But it’s more likely that he’d been warped by his profession: being in the presidential security detail of a peaceful country must be very boring, and when it comes to plots and intrigues you’re on your own. (He’d later tell me: “If you photograph the military barracks, you go to jail, man.”) Sowidjojo is a good person, but he worries for no reason.
The Surinaamse Voetbal Bond is the name the Suriname Soccer Federation goes by. Its president is Louis Giskus, a slender, placid-looking man with gray hair. “Our soccer is amateur in spirit,” Mr. Giskus would tell me another day, an ingenuous attempt to explain away the lamentable state of local soccer. There’s no professional league in Suriname, and the few clubs there are—whose players hold day jobs to keep food on the table—organize a championship governed by ideals that go back to the origins of sport: to play for the sake of playing. That’s all well and good, but their wins and losses take them nowhere beyond their own borders. In the real world, they can’t beat anyone. Yet the president of the federation would assert that there are some one hundred fifty Surinamese playing in the Dutch professional divisions. One hundred fifty is a lot of people. How is it that in Holland the sons of Suriname score the goals so badly missing here?
Sowidjojo finally enters the stadium. He gazes about at the worn wooden grandstands with their peeling blue paint, at the bleachers that double as trash bins, at the poorly mown grass. It has the sad and unmistakable look of a place that’s been abandoned: as though all the soccer players got out of there the first chance they had.
“Where do you want to play?” I’d ask Giovani Drentha one night. He’s one of Suriname’s top under-seventeen soccer players; sixteen, black and slim as a shotgun.
“Outside,” was his instant reply.
Typical Third World angst: you have to get out to be somebody.
But now it’s one thirty on an October afternoon, and the heat is overpowering. The capital of Suriname is like a sauna or like purgatory, no place to be wearing long sleeves. Or to work. In Paramaribo you rarely find an office open after one, when the sun unleashes its full fury against humans. Sowidjojo decrees it’s lunchtime. “Javanese food, man.” His car negotiates the narrow streets of Paramaribo despite the absence of traffic signs. The only visible signs are the yellow street signs. zwartenhovenbrugstraat, schimmelpenninckstraat, onafhankelijkheidsplein. “It’s a very strange place with very strange people,” is how a Venezuelan journalist who had worked in Paramaribo for a few months described Suriname to me, several weeks before. The strange part is that it’s so close to Venezuela yet so different. Seen through South American eyes, Asia, Africa, and even North America seem worlds apart, but you expect to have something in common with a neighbor.
Sowidjojo was right: Suriname is an island.
On Keizerstraat, a major downtown thoroughfare, an enormous mosque sits next to a synagogue, but there’s no one on the corner in a bomb vest waiting to blow himself up. There are Hindu temples permanently under construction and Hindustani taxi-drivers listening to the music of Naks Kaseko—a mix of tropical guitars and African drums. The Hindustani speak Sarmani, a dialect of Hindustani. There are hundreds of jewelry stores run by Chinese who speak Chinese—Chan Chi Pin, Li Tak Sing, Lian Lung—and bazaars where you can buy anything from gold wigs to pirated Barcelona soccer jerseys, and pay euros. Most of the buildings are made of recycled, often unpainted, wooden planks. Others are uninhabited and look like haunted houses. “People leave, man.” Laughing all the while.
The sun scorches the uncobbled streets. Hundreds of unhelmeted motorcyclists race by at top speed; white buses packed with sweating passengers crawl through their own exhaust. The motorcyclists zigzag among the buses, whose drivers yell at them in Sranan Tongo. They pass leafy trees and dark-skinned pedestrians who clamber onto the crowded sidewalks to get out of the way. “Damn it, the blacks do a lot of walking,” Sowidjojo replies to a question whose answer on this street seems obvious: Most Surinamese are black, aren’t they? No, blacks are the ones who walk a lot. More than one person would tell me the same thing. The remark isn’t racist. The Javanese cook, the Hindustanis clean their teeth with their fingers, blacks walk, the Chinese sell jewelry, Arabs sell cloth, Brazilians prospect for gold, and any Surinamese feels obliged to let the foreigner in on this crucial information: every face belongs to a different race, and you need to know these things. Sowidjojo suddenly purses his lips and makes a humming sound as if someone put a piece of chocolate under his nose; he blows the horn three times: “Man, check that good-looking Hindustani girl.” She crosses in front of the car unfazed, numbed perhaps by the sun: thirty-six degrees Celsius or higher. In this infernal climate it’s common to see kids playing soccer in the street, kicking a ball of rags around a patch of dirt in Paramaribo.
* * * *
“Our players with Dutch citizenship can’t play for Suriname,” is the excuse Louis Giskus, the federation president, would offer for such obvious neglect.
With so many professional players in Holland, defeat is easy to explain. The Surinamese in Holland are forbidden to play for their home country. At last, the mysteries of emigration are explained. “The Government of Suriname doesn’t recognize double citizenship,” says Giskus, but double citizenship is recognized in Guyana and the rest of the Caribbean. The national team of Trinidad and Tobago, which qualified for the most recent World Cup in Germany, features players who carry English passports and play their soccer in England. The results speak for themselves. To those in the know, it’s clear: the future success of Surinamese soccer depends on emulating their neighbors. Of the one hundred fifty Surinamese players in Holland, “they couldn’t all make the Dutch national team, but we could sure use them in Suriname,” Giskus says wistfully. And why not?
“It’s a political decision,” he says.
Sportswriter Quaraisy Nagessersing, executive director of QN, the television network that bears his initials, told me the politicians are scared. “They’re afraid that if the rules change, people in Holland who belong to other parties would vote in Surinamese elections and the ruling party would lose.” The logic of power takes precedence over the stuff of dreams. The ancient Romans preached bread and circuses to appease the masses. Modern soccer is also a political tool, but in Suriname it seems to work backwards. “Our president dislikes sports,” Nagessersing told me. His thinking is logical, but it makes no sense. Soccer is like life: when you leave Suriname behind, you lose the right to your past. Saying “I have a brother in Suriname” is like saying “I have a Dutch relative who once went to Suriname.” One reason so few people even know Suriname exists could be that its main export—its people—pass through airports on a different passport.
Later, I return to the stadium to watch the national team practice. It’s now evening in Paramaribo, and thanks to a light breeze you can walk without sweating. The Surinamese players pursue the ball from one end of the field to the other under floodlights shining faintly from their towers, but they take no shots on goal. The first team wears yellow, the subs red. Coach Keeneth Jaliens is the uncle of Dutch soccer superstar Kew Jaliens, who was probably bored as he sat out the 2006 World Cup on the Dutch bench in Germany. The Surinamese coach is so thin he looks like a Kenyan runner, and his red jersey is too big for him. Today’s practice ends with no goals, and the Surinamese players kick back, clowning, laughing and throwing cups of water at each other. Three times a week, always at night, they gather on this field to practice for their championship tournament against several Caribbean islands.
Jaliens has taken a seat in one of the grandstands. He says soccer in his country won’t improve unless something is done about the way the game is structured. He’s not talking about the stadium—which goes without saying—but about how the sport is organized. “Without a professional league the players are disadvantaged,” he complains.
“What about your nephew?”
“My brother left when he was eighteen. Kew was born over there,” he says, as if something had escaped me.
Over there is the world. Here is a stadium that looks like an abandoned factory.
* * * *
“I haven’t seen any Chinese from Suriname playing for AC Milan,” says Johan Seedorf, father of Clarence Seedorf, who plays for AC Milan in Italy.
The remark is as crude as a punch to the stomach, but the elder Seedorf isn’t one to worry about political correctness. What’s more, in a country struggling with its national identity, a remark about physical differences among its citizens—coming from a black Surinamese—sounds as relevant as it is commonplace. Davids, Kluivert, Seedorf, et al., are the descendents of Africans. The good soccer players aren’t Chinese, Javanese, Hindustani, or Amerindian, Johan Seedorf says bluntly. “They’re black.” He sits relaxed beneath one of three gazebos built on the immense sports complex that bears the name of his most famous son.
To reach the Clarence Seedorf Sports Complex you take what amounts to a one-lane highway southeast from Paramaribo. Single-file you follow the Suriname River as it slithers like a brown chocolate snake toward a forested area dotted with homesites. To the right of the playing field, far from the city—though “far from Paramaribo” may mean a ride of fifteen minutes or less—is a locked gate in a white wall from which a poster hangs, the photograph of Clarence Seedorf. This is it. In the image overlooking his complex the Milan footballer has his right hand over his heart like a good patriot singing his national anthem.
Seedorf is Dutch. He was barely two years old when his father moved to Holland. Now, beneath the tropical sky of Paramaribo, he smiles out from his black-and-white photograph, his long braids combed back the way the way he wore them in the late nineties, when you could see them bobbing up and down as he played for Real Madrid. Also in the photo, Seedorf has a barely visible mustache and wears dark glasses that make it impossible to read the look on his face. Sometimes the way you read an expression leads to more questions. I asked Johan Seedorf if he shared the belief proclaimed by his most vocal and enthusiastic compatriots, that there’s something magic about their homeland, some blessing that makes it a talent factory for producing exceptional soccer players.
“There’s something biological about the people of Suriname,” the elder Seedorf says, “but I don’t think Suriname is the answer.”
In other words, whatever natural talent Suriname’s soccer stars may possess, it’s not nurtured in their home country. “Our soccer problem is mental,” Nagessersing, the sportswriter, told me. “If it’s cold out, Surinamese players say, no, we’re staying inside. They won’t practice.” The Surinamese standouts in Holland, like Seedorf, emigrated before they were old enough to expect the sun’s warmth or else they were born there after their parents had left in pursuit of the European dream. That’s the case of Patrick Kluivert, the top scorer in the history of Dutch soccer, and Frank Rijkaard, who now coaches Barcelona and international star Ronaldinho.
“My brother left Suriname when he was nine years old,” Mr. Castelen said about Romeo, the Suriname diamond.
The good ones leave young. It’s the rule for successful child migration. Giovani Drentha may know instantly where he wants to play (“Outside”), but at sixteen, he is almost too old to be dubbed the next Kluivert. Desney Romeo, a well-known sportscaster on Surinamese tv who was there to hear the answer—and translate it from Sranan Tongo to English—told me Drentha is very good but not good enough to succeed in Holland.
“Who do you want to be like?” I asked a youngster kicking a ball of rags against a wood wall near the headquarters of the Suriname telephone company.
“Like Clarence Seedorf,” came the reply through a perfect smile.
The word in Paramaribo is that Seedorf is the only Surinamese player in Europe who wants to invest in his homeland. Building a sports complex to nurture the soccer players of the future—and have them grow up with no need to gaze toward Holland—is a rare gift. Wanting to be like him in a country as poor as Suriname is almost like trying to grow up to be an astronaut or a superhero. Any way you look at it, they’re tough aspirations to realize.
Kids want to be like their idols. But the one hundred fifty Surinamese players in Holland have had little impact on the outside world. Even die-hard fans would have trouble naming them. Those who know them at all know them as Dutch. End of story. Suriname does not produce super soccer players. Davids, Kluivert, Gullit, and Rijkaard were soccer stars not because their roots were in Suriname but because they succeeded the way any citizen of the Low Countries might. The same applies to Seedorf, despite his father’s apparent concern with skin color. You have to leave early to become someone, and that’s the secret to success. When Suriname won its independence, some forty thousand Surinamese chose Dutch citizenship. The bottom line is that half the workforce fled the country. It sounds like today’s news, but it happened long ago.
“Some say Rijkaard brought the mestizo style to soccer. What does that mean?” a Spanish reporter asked the coach of Barcelona.
“Am I mestizo? Yes. My mother’s Dutch,” Rijkaard replied.
“Once and for all then, it was your father who came from Suriname. When did he come to Holland?”
“In the fifties.”
“Did he still have family back home?”
“Yes, but I only visited them once when we went there to play Ajax in the eighties.”
“So you didn’t learn to play in the street like the kids in Brazil or Suriname, for example?”
“Me? Yes, yes, in the streets of Amsterdam.”
A few minutes ago a downpour began falling in this other corner of the world, and Seedorf’s father—age forty-nine with gold Rolex, gold Caín, and gold rings on either hand—was forced to take cover under one of the sports complex’s gazebos. The Clarence Seedorf Sport Complex is more than a kilometer long, its far end lost amid stands of huge palms and fruit trees. A modern grandstand with seats for four hundred rises above the main field where a flock of long-necked white cattle egrets stands alone in the rain, apparently pecking grass seed from the turf. The grandstand, the adjacent locker rooms, and outbuildings are painted with the names of teams Clarence Seedorf played for—Ajax, Sampdoria, Real Madrid, Internazionale, AC Milan—in chronological order. The complex, according to Seedorf’s father, was built because his son’s dream is to come home to hear the children say, “I want to be like Clarence Seedorf.” “Clarence is an athlete,” his father says, “and the easiest way to help is through sports.” But it’s hard to ignore that the best sports facilities in the country were put up with money that came straight from Milan, and this complex, including the stadium, has yet to open its doors to the public. The family patriarch prefers not to discuss dates, but instead to view it as a symbol of the future.
“What kind of example do you think Seedorf sets by building a stadium?” I would ask federation president Giskus.
“That stadium at the moment is private,” is his laconic reply.
In the Third World, if it’s nongovernmental it works fine.
* * * *
Days later, on the way through Paramaribo in Sowidjojo’s car, the presidential security guard asked if I wanted to interview the country’s ex-president, Jules Wijdenbosch, “a man who gave sports a lot of support,” he says.
“Fine. Let’s call him.”
“No, let’s go look for him,” he suggested like someone thinking about paying an old friend an unannounced visit.
Except Wijdenbosch in not a friend of Sowidjojo’s, so the suggestion doesn’t sound like a very good idea. Who visits an ex-president unannounced? But there we were outside the house of Jules Wijdenbosch in Geyersvlyt, a wealthy district north of Paramaribo. In his garage are three luxury vehicles, one armored, plus a pickup with all-wheel drive. As president of Suriname from 1996 to 2000, Wijdenbosch seems to be remembered, above all, for two things: (1) He built the country’s longest bridge, which bears his name and spans the Suriname River from Paramaribo to the district of Commewijne; (2) He supported sports. There are also those who will say he stole, but even they first mention the bridge and the sports.
I don’t know why, but he agrees see us. I suppose this is how you requested interviews in the days when people could talk without so much bureaucracy. It’s as if Suriname had put time on pause. But it’s also partly the strangeness of Suriname; you just can’t expect an explanation for everything. You accept your good luck when you have it. “Come back in half an hour,” Sowidjojo is told, so we return half an hour later. We are ushered into a dimly lit room with air-conditioning and leather furniture. Dominating the room is a large yellow photo-collage of Wijdenbosch with the seal of Suriname (two indigenous people, an ocean ship, and a five-point star representing the five continents the country’s inhabitants came from) beside it. Wijdenbosch is of African descent, a tall, slow-moving man.
“Listen,” he says, upon seating himself at his desk with his back to the yellow collage, “as president of Suriname I supported sports because I believe they’re an important part of people’s lives and of the community.”
His words sound memorized as if he’s repeated them many times. Ex-president Wijdenbosch is wearing a checkered blue shirt and loose-fitting jeans. I’m a bit disappointed by his air of a retiree with lots of time on his hands. Maybe he was willing to see me because he was bored. “I was wanting to organize youth soccer for children under nine,” he says. Wijdenbosch speaks of unmet aspirations in the imperfect past tense. I was wanting. That is, he wanted to but couldn’t. The country’s problems overcame its possibilities: 80 percent of the population of Suriname lives below the poverty line, and children drop out of school as readily as other people take off their shoes. In the end, the country isn’t so different from its southern neighbors. “Developing countries” is the term used to hide more pressing woes.
But on the wet, abandoned soccer field, Johan Seedorf had offered a better explanation: “If a father’s off looking for food, he doesn’t have time for his children.” Much less to raise soccer stars. So why was his son so different?
“Clarence had talent,” the elder Seedorf offers, stepping out from under the gazebo as puddles begin to dissipate in the feeble sunlight, “and, who knows, maybe he did have talent because he was raised in Suriname.”
It’s a hopeful idea—that maybe you can still be born here and be dubbed the next Kluivert. Maybe the perfect, smiling children who want to be like Clarence Seedorf still could be one day. Maybe the future of soccer in Suriname need not be written in big letters proclaiming: THEY ALWAYS LOSE. Maybe they could become the best team in CONCACAF. Suri-name is a country, and when it stops acting like an island, who knows what might happen? It’s impossible to say.
A few minutes later it starts raining again—harder this time—and we run for cover.