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Global Jan 29, 2014

Stefano Rijssel, Seattle Sounders and the strange case of Surinamese soccer

Ruud Gullit. Frank Rijkaard. Clarence Seedorf. Edgar Davids. Patrick Kluivert. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. Aron Winter. Winston Bogarde.

They wore the famous orange of the Netherlands on the world stage, but a startling number of elite players in modern soccer history trace their roots to Suriname, the muggy South American outpost and former Dutch colony whose emigrant communities have contributed so much talent to Holland’s tradition of excellence over the past half-century.

Yet Suriname’s national team sits in 132nd place in the FIFA World Rankings, has never reached the World Cup and only three members of the current squad even play professional soccer beyond their country’s borders.

Such is the strange baggage Stefano Rijssel carries into the 2014 MLS preseason, as he attempts to earn a roster spot with the Seattle Sounders and mark another step forward in his country’s tortured relationship with the beautiful game.

“You have a lot of talent there, but they don’t get opportunity to go outside now,” said Rijssel, a 21-year-old winger/forward bursting with raw potential, in a conversation with at the MLS Player Combine in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. earlier this month. “All of them talent, they just play their football in Suriname, they don’t get through.”

Geographically South American but closely linked to the Caribbean by history and culture, Suriname is a hotbed at the grassroots level. A young, athletically-minded population is introduced to the game via a street soccer scene comparable to blacktop basketball in the United States, where skill, creativity and a brash spirit are highly valued – though the top end of the developmental pyramid leaves much to be desired.

“All them players like Seedorf just come out of there. We have a real lot of talent,” says Rijssel, “but they don’t give them footballers their respect. Them footballers have to go and work, [then] come and play football. Some of them just choose more for their work, because football really doesn’t pay in Suriname. If you play football in Suriname you have to love it.”

Surinam has been blessed with vast expanses of rainforest and mineral wealth, but wracked by political turmoil over much of its history. When fears over the small nation’s economic prospects sparked massive migration to the Netherlands in the leadup to independence in 1975 (a diasporic phenomenon which continues to this day), it provided the well-organized Dutch academy systems with a convenient talent pool that multiplied Die Oranje‘s power and helped coin the epochal era of “Total Football.”

But that exodus left a complex legacy back in Suriname.

“The talent sits in our genes,” says Rajesh Gayadien, editor of, a website devoted to Surinamese soccer. “The Dutch soccer system polished the rough talent into shining diamonds. These players also started at an early age with playing football on the streets.”

Those who depart in search of European opportunity are often perceived as turncoats to some extent: Neither country welcomes dual citizenship and Surinamese-Dutch players who have picked up a Netherlands passport – which, crucially, offers legal work status in almost any European league – are barred from selection to the national team, nicknamed Natio.

“It’s the government’s decision to not allow dual nationality,” explains Gayadien. “To get Surinamese nationality they have to live a few years in Suriname. For a professional player this would be a career-destructing choice, because Suriname doesn’t have a [fully] professional football competition. Maybe for a retiring player it would be an option.

“They [Surinamese politicians] say using players abroad is avoiding responsibility towards local talent,” he continues, “and some are convinced that the collaboration will badly influence the chances and development of local players.

“The mindset of some people is that those players in Holland are Dutch and not Surinamese.”

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So while the U.S. Men’s National Team enjoys a steady pipeline of German- and Mexican-Americans and teams from myriad other Caribbean and African countries rely on the children of their diaspora, Suriname falls back on, in Gayadien’s words, “a kind of nationalism that says that we are independent and are strong enough to achieve everything on our own.”

SVB logoUnfortunately this has rendered teams representing the Surinaamse Voetbal Bond (Surinamese Football Association) a forgotten also-ran even among CONCACAF’s relatively modest competition and – paradoxically – drastically limited the options available to homegrown players.

“The stigma is that players born in the Netherlands or grown in the Netherlands are not seen as ‘real’ Surinamese,” says Gayadien. “Fans are more eager to see local players go abroad, [like] Rijssel – someone who played in the local competition, Surinamese international, born and grown up in Suriname.”

Rijssel has already gained export status, having made his way to W Connection, the dominant team in Trinidad & Tobago’s professional league, after turning heads as a Surinamese youth international (which actually further complicates his hopes of securing a place with the Sounders, since they’ll have to arrange an exit from the final year of his contract with the Caribbean club). He’s met MLS opposition in CONCACAF Champions League and more than held his own.

But the winding trajectory of his young career stands in stark contrast to the machinelike efficiency with which Dutch clubs groom their local prospects of Surinamese descent.

“When Suriname players go to Holland to go and play, they can spend only one month,” he says, speaking English with a lilt clearly influenced by his time in Trinidad. “And in one month [on trial] you can’t show yourself – in another country you have to get accustomed to the weather and things. That time is too short for players sometimes. And from [Suriname] – from amateur you have to step up and go to professional football. That is too hard.”

Rijssel is an intriguing poster child for Surinamese soccer. Creative, rangy and quick, but mercurial, he wears the influence of street ball on his sleeve.

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“On the wing [or] striker,” he says when asked about his preferred position. “I am a player, I like to move. I don’t like to play with them footballers upon one position, I like to move plenty, anywhere – like a free player.”

Despite him being under contract with W Connection, the SVB nominated him to participate in the inaugural MLS Caribbean Combine held by the Caribbean Football Union at the start of the year in the hopes that it would expose his talents to a wider audience, and that gambit has worked well enough so far.

It has not escaped his notice that young prospects from his region (mainly Jamaicans and Trinidadians thus far) are finding it increasingly easier to advance their careers in the United States and Canada, as opposed to richer but more distant destinations in Europe.

“I feel more Caribbean players can get more opportunities to play more in the USA,” notes Rijssel, who showed well in a trial stint at Belgian club Germinal Beerschot in 2011, but was handicapped by a UEFA rule which requires non-European Union players to be paid a minimum wage of around €400,000 per year.

“Because in Europe it’s HARD to get contracts – I used to play in Belgium, but I [found it] hard to get a contract there, because the work permit and things. They had to pay plenty of money for me, so it was better they just chose from Brazilians and Africans, you understand?”

Gayadien estimates that there are some 150 pros of Surinamese descent plying their trade across Europe, though discussions about welcoming them back into the fold invariably veer into old arguments about the heavy legacy of colonialism.

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“For years the Surinamese FA is requesting the government to make dual nationality possible,” he notes. “Dual nationality is a sensitive discussion, because that would mean that the 350,000 Surinamese in the Netherlands may be able to vote, vs. 500,000 Surinamese in Suriname. So they may influence elections a lot. And some think dual nationality can cause problems, for example with taxes.

“There are also talented Brazilians or re-migrated Dutch living in Suriname who don’t want to lose their nationality in exchange for the Surinamese nationality. For that reason Suriname can’t even use talents living in Suriname. This is a sad situation for young players who are not selected for the national teams and might be better than their friends.”

Suriname flag

Gayadien is working to craft legislation that could help transform the landscape for De Natio and players both home and abroad.

“Almost all football fans support the idea of Surinamese-Dutch players having dual nationality and representing Suriname. Even players from the national teams are supportive, who might lose their position in the team when the pros may play,” he says.

“Together with some law specialists I am writing a law to automatically give specific citizens of Suriname who don’t have Surinamese nationality, or persons of Surinamese origin, the Surinamese nationality in case of national interest. This should happen when that person is appointed for a certain function, in our case a national athlete.

“Because the nationality will be automatically received by the player, he won’t have to drop his Dutch nationality and in this way dual nationality arises.”

In the meantime, players like Rijssel will watch, wait and work, hoping that they can continue their country’s proud footballing tradition without surrendering a chunk of their motherland’s identity.

“Them Suriname people have to step up, they have give them players more respect, and to respect the game more,” says Rijssel as the warm South Florida sun sets over day one of the Combine. “And then we will go and make it.”