Netherlands Antilles, we hardly knew ye

Real Madrid 1960, Brazil 1970, Ajax 1972.  Is it time to add another name to that list?  Welcome to IBWM Paul Brown.

The minnow is the staple of many a great footballing story, and in international football there were few minnows as miniscule at the Netherlands Antilles. With a population of just 175,000 – around 250 times smaller than that of world champions Spain – these Caribbean islands were mere tiddlers nibbling at the tails of football’s bigger fish. But the country was dissolved in October 2010, and earlier this month its football team ceased to exist. So why should we care? Because, for four days in the early 1960’s, the Netherlands Antilles were the best team in the world.

It happened at the CONCACAF Cup tournament in El Salvador in March 1963. CONCACAF had only recently formed, and the Netherlands Antilles had beaten Haiti over two legs to qualify for the confederation’s inaugural competition. This was the opening fixture, and their opponents were Mexico, one of the biggest countries in the world, covering a geographic area some 2,500 times bigger than the Netherlands Antilles. They were pretty big in the football world, too. In fact, Mexico were the reigning unofficial football world champions.

If the concept of the Unofficial Football World Championships (UFWC) is unfamiliar, it’s a perpetual tournament based on a lineage of title matches running back to the very first international fixture in 1872. The winner of each title match is named unofficial champion, and carries that title into their next match. (The current UFWC champions, by the way, are Japan – you can find out more here)

But back to the Netherlands Antilles, which consisted of two strings of southern Caribbean islands – part of the wider Antilles islands chain. They were conquered by the Dutch East India Company in the 1600s, and remained a Dutch colony until the 1950s when the islands became an autonomous country. Its national anthem was called ‘Anthem without a Title’. The fact that this humbly-named ditty will never again be sung before a football match is surely reason enough to mourn this nation’s passing.

Principally, the Netherlands Antilles team represented the ‘ABC islands’ of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao, part of the Lesser Antilles, off the coast of Venezuela. Curaçao – the largest of the islands, and home to the capital city of Willemstad – had been playing international football independently since 1934. So the team that took on Mexico in the opening round of the 1963 CONCACAF Cup was representative of three tiny gems in the sea, as the ‘Anthem without a Title’ describes the islands.

The Netherlands Antilles, managed by Brazilian Pedro da Cunha, had recently returned from a tour of Europe, where they’d been beaten 8-0 by the proper Netherlands and 3-1 by Denmark. Mexico had a new coach in Hungarian Arpad Fekete, who had made something of a name for himself in Mexican club football. The match against the Netherlands Antilles was Fekete’s first as national coach. He would be back in club football within a fortnight.

The Netherlands Antilles struck first in the match. Ronald De Lanoy gave the underdogs a shock 12th minute lead, but Mexico bounced back and Guillermo Ortíz equalised to make it 1-1 at half-time. The second half was pretty even, and the game ended up being settled by an own goal. With 10 minutes left to play, Mexican defender Jesús del Muro, of Club Atlas, put through his net to give the Netherlands Antilles a 2-1 victory.

It should have been a famous victory, but it wasn’t. The Netherlands Antilles qualified for the final round of the CONCACAF Cup at the expense of Mexico, eventually finishing third. Much more importantly, the Netherlands Antilles became the unofficial football world champions – for all of four days. Then they lost the unofficial title to Costa Rica in a 1-0 defeat. And after that football pretty much forgot about the Netherlands Antilles and their greatest ever win.

However, despite their extremely brief reign as unofficial champions, the Netherlands Antilles have become something of a cult team for followers of the Unofficial Football World Championships, being by far the smallest nation ever to have held the UFWC title. In one corner of the internet, at least, the legend of the men from the tiny gems in the sea lives on.

An odd postscript to the story is that just a few years later, in 1968, plans were made for the Netherlands Antilles to participate for a season in the Surrey Senior League in England in order to improve their game. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the plans came to nothing. In the following year, the team again finished third in the CONCACAF Cup. They finished 6th in 1973, and never participated in any other major tournament (nor any other English lower tier league).

Aruba gained independence in 1986, and registered its own football association with FIFA, making the Netherlands Antilles an even smaller nation. And then, on 10 October 2010, the Netherlands Antilles was dissolved, with Curaçao becoming a constituent country, and Bonaire becoming a ‘special municipality’ of the Netherlands.

On 6 February, the Nederlands Antilliaanse Voetbal Unie (NAVU) held a General Assembly to change its name to Federashon Futbol Korsou (FKK). The new Federation only represents Curaçao. Bonaire is not registered with FIFA or CONCACAF, with the implication being that Bonaire-born players will now be eligible to play for the Netherlands. (Two English-based former Netherlands Antilles internationals, Shelton Martis of Doncaster and Tim Cathalina of Tranmere, were both born in Curaçao.)

The process has, of course, created an even smaller minnow – Curaçao as an individual country has a population of just over 140,000. Can Curaçao one day become unofficial football world champions? It’s highly unlikely, but the story of the Netherlands Antilles reminds us that in football pretty much anything is possible.

With thanks to David Holden.

You can find Paul on Twitter @realpaulbrown

Paul's excellent book, Unofficial Football World Champions, is an alternative history of the sport and a MUST read for any football fan.  You can pick up a copy right here.