From Ajax to Curaçao: The legacy of Patrick Kluivert

Patrick Kluivert. The talented, ill-fated enigma seemingly searching for belonging. Did he find it as the head coach of Curacao?

“I keep going back as if I’m looking for something I have lost. Back to the motherland, sisterland, fatherland. Back to the beacon, the breast, the smell and taste of the breeze, and the singing of the rain”

– Bermudian poet Heather Nova

Perhaps Patrick Kluivert was looking for something he had lost when he decided to take up a role as Head Coach in Curaçao, a tiny Dutch island in the Caribbean, in early 2015. Something missing, an inherent desire to return to his motherland and promote a cause. In the modern game of football, his move was a rarity. Instead of climbing up the European coaching ladder and taking a lucrative position, he voyaged to the land where his mother was born, on a noble quest to deliver the impossible: a spot at the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

“My mother is from the island and I really want to give something back to it – that is why I am here” were the first words he uttered to the media who were questioning why he would go from his last role, assistant coach of the Netherlands during the 2014 World Cup, to coaching a minnow, a team far away from the footballing radar. Aged only 38 at the time of taking the role, Curaçao, with its population of 158,000, offered an opportunity for Kluivert, one of Netherland’s most prolific strikers, to stand on his own managerial feet, but in an environment with less pressure than those found in Europe. It offered him a chance to develop his craft away from the eye of the footballing globe which tends to centralise itself in Europe.

Kluivert himself is one of the game’s most talented strikers. Part of Ajax’s famed Champions League winning side of 1995 alongside Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf and Edwin Van der Saar, he scored the winner vs AC Milan in the final aged only 18.  A tall, imposing striker with an amazingly exquisite touch, he was the quintessential Dutch player, a product of the Cruyff philosophy embedded two decades earlier into the fabric of Dutch culture.

19 year-old Kluivert scored the winner as Ajax won the Champions League in 1995
18 year-old Patrick Kluivert scored the winner as Ajax won the Champions League in 1995

However, 1995 was also significant for the teenager for different reasons. He was involved in an accident which tragically saw him crash into another car and leave one person dead. Kluivert was found guilty of speeding and he would say in the immediate aftermath that “Something inside me is broken, I can never be fully happy again. The child in me has been killed” followed with a telling statement that “only when I am on the field can I be myself and feel completely free” –  perhaps explaining why Kluivert would continue to play at the highest level and perform for the next few years. Yet the tragedy would create a vulnerability in Kluivert, a darkness that lingered throughout his career and gave him a clear weakness. In the games following the incident, away fans would chant “murderer” at him and the player himself went into depression. It was decided he needed a fresh start, and so he left Holland in 1996, away from the glare, a theme that we will return to later on in his life.

A stint at AC Milan was followed by his most notable spell as a player: at Barcelona, where he scored 1 goal every 2 games over the course of six seasons at the Catalan club, winning La Liga in 1999. At Euro 2000 he was at his brilliant best, scoring a hat-trick in the quarter finals as the Netherlands defeated Yugoslavia 6-1 before being eliminated in the semi-finals. Yet for all his talent, he was seen as a disruptive player who lacked discipline. The 1998 World Cup was Kluivert in a nutshell – sent off in group stages for a reckless elbow, he returned in the knockout rounds and scored in the semi-finals vs Brazil to take the game to extra time. Kluivert the enigma.

Patrick Kluivert

Injuries would subsequently hinder his club career, and consequent spells at Newcastle United, Valencia, PSV and Lille would see Kluivert look like a shadow of his former self. 2008 saw his premature retirement at the age of 32, and there was a sense, that despite his prolific spells at Ajax and Barcelona, he was a player capable of more, that he did not ever truly maximise his unbelievable level of talent, hindered by his notable temperament and consistent injuries.

It was at Ajax in the mid-90s, and then at Barcelona, that he would work under the coach who defined his career both as a player and manager: Louis Van Gaal. The man who got the most out of Kluivert and nurtured him, it was Van Gaal who made the phone call to Kluivert in 2012 and offered him a role as assistant coach of the Dutch National team. Together they forged an attacking brand of football for the Dutch and stuck to a 4-3-3 system with unwavering belief. This avoidance of “reactive” tactics and a firm belief in an attacking system is something that Kluivert would implement in his role as a Head Coach in the Caribbean. Indeed, there were initially rumours Kluivert would join LVG at Man Utd, but Kluivert would later state that his mentor told him it was time for him to fly on his own feet and take a management role, a statement of belief from his mentor that would prove to be utterly correct. The Caribbean journey would begin.

Patrick Kluivert

Curaçao is a beautiful island, with its blue seas and white sands surrounded by colourful colonial buildings that make it look like a place which has jumped straight out of a filtered Instagram picture. With no professional league, Curacao itself has only had its own independent football team since 2010; before then it was part of the Netherlands Antilles football team which at one point in time also contained Dutch Caribbean islands Aruba and Bonaire.

With only a few weeks before the first 2018 World Cup qualifiers against Montserrat in March 2015, Kluivert tapped into his contacts book: as a Dutch legend, his name alone could attract players in Holland who had parents from Curaçao, so in came Southampton’s Cuco Martina and Aston Villa’s left-back Leandro Bacuna, as Kluivert sought to hastily assemble a side based in Europe who could get through the first round of qualifying, which consisted of two legs.

The first leg in Curaçao’s Ergillo Hato Stadium was a scrappy affair, with Kluivert’s side earning a 2-1 win thanks to goals from their Dutch-based players Vidarrell Merencia and Felitciano Zschusschen. The second leg, held in Montserrat, with only 500 fans in attendance on the small island which itself has been savaged by volcanoes since the 90s, almost saw a swift end to Kluivert’s dream. Montserrat took a 2-1 lead and the game was heading to extra-time before a last minute goal from winger Charlton Vicento saw Curacao progress to the second round by the skin of their teeth.

Drawing on the vast diaspora, Kluivert assembled a team with big dreams. In the second round they pulled off a stunning upset over Caribbean powerhouses Cuba, in a gritty game which was a one point halted due to the savage thunderstorms in Havana and had to re-start four hours later. Emerging victorious on away goals, Kluivert had already achieved unheard of success for the island; they had earned a reputation as a resilient side with masses of potential.

Unfortunately the third round saw the island eliminated to Central American side El Salvador, losing 2-0 over the course of two legs. It was no embarrassment for Curaçao, but would have definitely hurt the competitive Kluivert. Perhaps that explains his next surprising move: despite initially suggesting he would be coach only for the duration of their World Cup campaign, Kluivert announced he would remain in charge of the side for their CONCACAF Gold Cup qualifiers in 2016.

There is no doubt that the connection he forged with the island and its people would have left a mark on Kluivert, and the temptation of helping the side qualify for their first ever major tournament as an independent side was too much to resist for the young coach.  Now settled into the role, he begun to forge an identity for the side;  they were to play an attacking brand of football, relying on pace and passing fluidity, whilst remaining steady in defence. A 1-0 loss to Barbados in their first qualifier served as a wake-up call to the team, and after that they went on the rampage, scoring a remarkable 14 goals in their next three games and conceding only three times, with former Ajax player Gino Van Kessel proving to be prolific, netting six of those goals.

The 23 year old forward perhaps best reflected the rapid rise of football on the island, ‘’My mother was born in Curaçao. When I was young I never heard about the Curaçao national team, now I talk to my fellow Curacaoan teammates on a regular basis in a group chat and all we talk about is participation in this big tournament come the summer of 2017.’’

Curaçao were riding a wave of momentum; by June 2016 they had progressed to the final round of qualifiers. Then came an announcement that many had felt was inevitable – Kluivert was leaving to become the director of football at PSG. Yet the foundation of the team which Kluivert had built would continue to excel under new Head Coach, Remko Bicentini, who served as assistant under Kluivert. Wins in October over Antigua and Puerto Rico ensured the island made history – qualifying for their first ever CONCACAF Gold Cup as a solo nation where they will face the Mexico, Jamaica and El Salvador in the USA this summer.

Kluivert’s own history, the tragedy and need to hide from the spotlight, could explain why, when told by his mentor Louis Van Gaal to find a Head Coach role, he opted for a job away from the glare of the spotlight, a role that would receive little public attention. It would explain why he afterwards took a role high up in the boardroom of PSG and not on the touchline of a European club as expected, he is somebody who has seen the perils of being centre stage. As somebody who left the Netherlands in his teens  due to the public outcry against him, Kluivert may truly have been searching for a place to belong when he took the Curaçao role.

Fellow Dutch players Ruud Gullit, Edgar Davids and Clarence Seedorf have yet to return to their ancestral homeland of Suriname in a coaching capacity despite their credentials for reasons we do not know, but it would be an amazing after-effect of Kluivert’s reign if players were to now consider this side of the world as somewhere to develop their coaching craft and also, more importantly, make a difference to a nation in ways only a few can.

Kluivert remains involved with the Curaçao set-up. He serves as an advisor and it will not be a surprise if we see him with the squad this summer in the Gold Cup where Curaçao will be watched by millions. For an island that remains hidden on the global stage, this summer will see them step out into the limelight, and that will forever be the legacy that Kluivert, a man so keen to avoid the limelight himself, has left in the Caribbean.

Santokie Nagulendran

Writes about football across the globe, which provides a therapeutic release from the emotional turmoil of supporting Tottenham Hotspur