Curacao crowned Caribbean champions at U-15 level

Here I report on Curacao’s title success at the inaugural CFU U-15 tournament and take a broader look at the youth development work being done on the island, referencing two key initiatives…

Curacaoan football is in a good moment. At a time when the senior team is preparing for a third round World Cup qualifier against El Salvador next month, the island’s up-and-coming youngsters are returning home with silverware having played in and won the inaugural Caribbean Football Union (CFU) U-15 tournament held in St Maarten and Anguilla from 8-16 August. The CFU decided to create this 12-team competition to fill a void left by the postponement of the originally planned CONCACAF Boys’ U-15 Championship, which was to be held in the Cayman Islands, but abandoned following Jeffrey Webb’s involvement in the FIFA corruption scandal.

Competing in Group 3, Curacao convincingly won their opener 4-1 over Antigua & Barbuda, then put seven past St Vincent & the Grenadines without conceding before wrapping up maximum points with a 4-0 victory against St Maarten. They finished top of the group and let in just one goal across the three games, scoring 15. This rich vein of form continued into the last eight where co-hosts Anguilla were their opponents, and a resounding 7-0 result in Curacao’s favour sent out a clear message of intent. This was a team right on top of their game, ruthless and exploitative in front of goal. They beat St Lucia in the semi-final, 2-1, so there was only one more match to play: the final against Dominican Republic. Curacao maintained their scoring streak to register four goals which comfortably outweighed the two they conceded and be named this year’s champions. Much-deserved champions too.

One player who made a particularly important contribution to his side’s success was 15-year-old striker Nathan Bernadina. His all-round play, speed and crucially goals (11) earned him the Most Valuable Player (MVP) and Top Goalscorer awards. Shortly after the tournament’s closure he joined Dutch club PEC Zwolle from Excellence Voetbalschool, one of two key youth football organisations that exist in Curacao.

Indeed, the Dutch-speaking nation’s success at the tournament was certainly no accident. Several years of hard work and focus on youth development manifested itself on the field and culminated in silverware. The Curacao FA (FFK) have been investing plenty of time, effort and resources into honing the skills of the island’s budding footballers. There are two particular initiatives that should be talked about – the Excellence Voetbalschool and Curacao Soccer Academy (CSA). The Voetbalschool is directed by Etienne Siliee, technical director of the FFK and a coaching license instructor for CONCACAF. It is sustained by sponsorship and monthly payments from parents of the players. The CSA, meanwhile, is directed by Gregory Elias, a millionaire who owns the United Trust Company N.V. His foundation, the United Trust, covers most of the expenses although parents make financial contributions to send their children there. Both of these academies are separate in their own right but they’re doing seemingly excellent work at incentivising and improving Curacao’s youngsters not only on the football pitch but off it too. The Voetbalschool teaches kids up to 15 at which point they hope to sign deals with professional clubs overseas. This doesn’t always happen, of course, but this month the school has had four of its players join clubs abroad, all in Holland. Excellence product Bernadina is one of them while pair Tyrone Zuidgeest and Quincy Hogesteger have signed for FC Dordrecht. 10-year-old Nazjir Hero has signed a contract with FC Utrecht after impressing their scout Henny Lee. Five Excellence players – including Bernadina, goalkeeper Kevin Juliana and defender Quinton Burk – made up Curacao’s U-15 squad that travelled to St Maarten and Anguilla. Even Ayodele Kwidama, a defensive-minded player with the Feyenoord Youth Academy, was called up which is testament to the squad’s quality and technical level.

The CSA, which started in February 2012, trains children up to 14. There are three age categories (U-10, U-12, U-14) and players train four times a week at the Academy. While the Voetbalschool is an actual club itself, the CSA players represent their own clubs elsewhere. They play for the Academy on top. According to the website, the children are picked up from school, given a well-balanced meal composed by a dietitian, complete their homework under the guidance of qualified teachers and work on social education before football practice starts. What is really impressive is the emphasis and stress on schooling, education and social elements; recognition that football isn’t the absolute priority and the child’s academic studies take precedence. That is the right mindset and approach to have, it’s all about balance. Hans van Elden is in charge of day-to-day structure and organisation at the CSA with a team of coaches and mentors present to offer support. The Academy works closely with the Dutch FA (KNVB) and coaches from Holland visit the CSA for internships. It’s the same with the Voetbalschool. Errol St Jago is an instructor for the KNVB and regularly leads sessions and workshops on the island, teaching basic principles and techniques of coaching and mentoring.

An extract from the CSA website explaining their structural approach to developing talent. (pic credit: Curacao Soccer Academy)

Clearly the work of the Voetbalschool and CSA is bearing fruit for Curacaoan football. The latter has only been going for three years yet the impact has been great. The core philosophy behind both organisations is that developing the child’s talent on the football field is a priority, but investing time and effort into their school discipline, social skills and all-round health is more of a priority. With this type of method and environment the youngsters stand a better chance of growing up more level-headed and focused. It will be both interesting and exciting to see how the current crop of Curacaoan U-15 players do in the next few cycles as they head into U-17, U-20 and U-23 selections. And how they do on a personal level with their new career paths. Will Nathan Bernadina benefit from experiencing a foreign club’s youth system in PEC Zwolle? And what of Nazjir Hero’s developmental process, at the ever so tender age of 10, how will he cope? He still has some years left before getting the chance of graduate into the U-15 setup, of course.

The U-15 victory is a strong building block for future success. Hans van Elden insists: “There is an incredible amount of talent out there [in Curacao], we would like to explore them.” It’s true that there’s lots of raw ability in the region as a whole. As the Kingston-based sports business consultancy Prime Time Sports told me this week: “It is indisputable that the talent is there. The issue is we don’t have structures that maximise that talent.”

Curacao are showing that with the right structures in place, that talent can be maximised.

By Nathan Carr

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Thank you for reading! Feel free to leave any constructive feedback in the comments box below. A special mention to Rienngelo Albertus who provided useful information for this article. Meanwhile, you can get in touch with me on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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