“That’s it. I’m dead.”
These were the chilling last words from the cockpit picked up by the black box recorder of Surinam Airways Flight 764 moments before the DC-8 crashed, en route to Paramaribo-Zanderij from Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, into the jungle roughly a mile from its destination. 176 of the 187 passengers on board on 7 June 1989 were killed, among them most of the ‘Kleurrijk Elftal’, or ‘Colourful Eleven’, a party of footballers of Surinamese origin plying their trade in the Netherlands’ top two divisions.
The Surinam Airways disaster, which marks its 25th anniversary this week, is football’s forgotten tragedy. While the terrible events of Superga in 1949, Munich in 1958 and off the coast of Libreville in 1993 have been written about extensively, the story of the Colourful Team remains relatively untold.
The players had been on their way to play in a charity tournament against local sides Robin Hood, Boxel and SV Transvaal. The games were part of a longstanding project devised by Amsterdam social worker Sonny Hasnoe, who worked in some of the most deprived areas of the Dutch capital, many of which contained a high proportion of Surinamese immigrants and their families. Hasnoe, himself Dutch-Surinamese, had noticed that the youngsters in these areas who joined football teams became better behaved, and started to integrate more with the rest of society. He believed that the growing number of Surinamese players in the upper echelons of the Dutch game represented positive role models for youths in desperately poor districts such as the Bijlmer. He began to contact players of Surinamese origin to take part in summer friendlies, the first being played between the Colourful Team and Robin Hood in Amsterdam in 1986, the second at Fanny Blankers-Koen Stadium, Hengelo a year later, featuring the likes of Ken Monkou and Regi Blinker.
1989 was to be the first time the Colourful Team ventured to Suriname, a country with considerable social problems of its own, still coming to terms with the loss of around half its workforce after an estimated 200,000 upped sticks to the Netherlands after Suriname was granted independence in 1975. The tournament’s organisers had hoped to send some big names to Paramaribo, with Holland’s triumph in the 1988 European Championships – spearheaded by Dutch-Surinamese players like Gullit, Rijkaard and Vanenburg – still fresh in the memory. Yet club commitments prevented the stars from making the trip, and the only ‘name’ who did go – Suriname-born Ajax goalkeeper Stanley Menzo – defied club orders to do so, making his own way to South America on an earlier flight to the rest of the group.
It was, therefore, a lower-profile collection of players who boarded the DC-8, nicknamed ‘the Anthony Nesty’ after Suriname’s Olympic champion swimmer, at Amsterdam Schiphol. Nevertheless, there was still an abundance of talent and charisma within the group. There was goalkeeper Lloyd ‘the cat’ Doesburg, Menzo’s friend and understudy at Ajax, who had found himself without a club until Johan Cruyff called him personally and asked him to join the Amsterdam giants. Steve van Dorpel – ‘the pearl of the Bijlmer’ – was an exciting young forward at Volendam, full of pace and power and the possessor of a seemingly bottomless bag of tricks. After a fine season in which he’d finished the club’s top scorer and been lauded for a breathtaking backheel goal against Willem II, he was poised for a taste of European football with a move to Roda JC. While representing the Colourful Team, van Dorpel hoped to meet the father he’d never known, a former goalkeeper for Robin Hood. He never got the chance.
Andro Knel was another rising star, a marauding left back with Gullit-esque dreadlocks who had turned in consistently strong showings for hometown club Sparta and NAC Breda. A bright, perpetually cheerful character, Knel was beloved by fans and team mates alike, known for his love of reggae and his eccentricities – his lack of a driving licence meant he could often be seen roller-skating to training. Zwolle’s Fred Patrick, meanwhile, was another dangerous forward, part of the club’s ‘magic triangle’ of attackers. He loved to liven up the dressing room with his incredible impersonation of Stevie Wonder.
Perhaps the highest-profile member of the travelling party was defender Andy Scharmin of Twente, who had captained the Dutch under-21s. Quick, strong and a fine reader of the game, Scharmin was also a notorious prankster, and before one U-21 game between the Netherlands and Germany, he managed to get hold of a stadium official’s uniform and proceeded to prevent Franz Beckenbauer from entering the ground, demanding to see his ticket – to Der Kaiser’s unbridled fury. Scharmin was supposed to represent the Oranje at the Toulon Tournament in June 1989, but his mother had long wanted to revisit the homeland she had not seen for 40 years, and so Scharmin instead opted to go with the Colourful XI and bring her and his aunt along for the ride. All three perished.
Intuition is considered hugely important in Surinamese culture, and in the weeks leading up to the trip, various members of the squad appear to have expressed feelings of foreboding. As the Dutch journalist Iwan Tol records in his book Destination Zanderij, which remains the definitive account of the Colourful XI and the crash, Knel’s mother recalled that as he was leaving he made her boyfriend promise to take care of her and his sisters. The wife of Nick Stienstra, the team’s coach, struggled to sleep in the days before 7 June, while his young daughter clung to his leg and begged him not to go. A lengthy delay on the day only heightened the feelings of unease.
When SLM-764 did finally take to the skies, much of its 10-hour flight time was uneventful. However, as the plane approached Parimaribo-Zanderij, it was met by thick fog. Captain Will Rogers, at the age of 66, was an experienced pilot, but also one who had recently been suspended for landing a plane on the wrong runway, and was not authorised to fly a DC-8. Visibility was poor, and three attempted landings were aborted. There were problems with the Instrument Landing System (ILS) equipment at Zanderij airport, something the flight crew themselves are heard to acknowledge during the fateful fourth attempt (“I don’t trust that ILS”), but Rogers opted to use it regardless, ignoring numerous audio and visual warnings that were triggered as the plane came in too low. First, one of the plane’s engines struck a tree, the right wing then hit another tree, rolling the aircraft, which crashed upside down at around 4:30am.
Only three members of the Colourful XI survived. Sigi Lens, Fortuna Sittard’s perennial top scorer, never played again as a result of the pelvic fracture he sustained. Vitesse star Edu Nandlal was rendered quadriplegic. Telstar youngster Radjin de Haan, who saved a child as he escaped from the wreckage, did make a comeback, despite breaking a vertebra, but was unable to play to the same level and retired in his mid-20s.
News filtered back to a horrified Netherlands in fits and starts, with relatives struggling to ascertain the fate of their loved ones. Knel’s mother watched the news and saw body bags being laid out at the crash site. She recognised her son’s tracksuit bottoms sticking out from one of them. Ortwin Linger of HFC Haarlem initially survived the crash, but his injuries had left him virtually unrecognisable, and when he succumbed to them three days later, Menzo had to identify him by his jawline. Dutch football was in a state of shock. The KNVB cancelled its centenary celebrations. Silences were held at the play-off games that took place three days later. Memorial services took place and benefit games were played for the families of the victims in the weeks, months and years that followed.
If there has been even the faintest glimmer of a silver lining in the face of such a terrible tragedy, it has taken the form of the warm and lasting tributes paid to the dead. Van Dorpel’s memory was honoured with a statue in Suriname and a hall named after him at Volendam. RBC named their supporters’ club and Player of the Year award after young striker Wendel Fräser. In 2007, Zwolle fans voted to name a stand of the under-construction Ijsseldelta Stadion after Fred Patrick.
Most heartwarming of all is the extraordinary bond that developed between Knel’s two clubs, Sparta and NAC Breda, which endures to this day. In the wake of his passing, supporters of the two clubs came together to fund a temporary monument where fans could pay their respects, and jointly produced a fanzine in celebration of his life. Even today, every meeting between the sides is preceded by a fans’ match to claim the Andro Knel Trophy – a quirky tribute of which the man himself would surely be proud.
The survivors were gradually able to rebuild their lives. Nandlal would walk again. Lens became a successful agent, representing stars such as Andre Ooijer, George Boateng and Geovanni Van Bronckhorst. Hasnoe’s project was also revitalised, as from its ashes rose Menzo’s Suriprofs, a team of Surinamese stars who, between 1993 and 2012 played an annual charity game at the Amsterdam Olympic Stadium against the champions of the Dutch second division. The Suriprofs have been represented by a who’s-who of Surinamese and Dutch-Surinamese stars, from Davids and Seedorf to adopted Yorkshiremen Clive Wijnhard and Dean Gorrè. The games have helped to raise hundreds of thousands in profits for charities in the Netherlands and Suriname.
A quarter of a century later, awareness of this lost generation of Dutch-Surinamese footballers is still relatively low outside the Netherlands. But the impact made by those footballers during their short lives continues to be appreciated and cherished by their fans to this day.
Players killed at Paramaribo-Zanderij, 7 June 1989:
Ruud Degenaar, 25, Heracles Almelo
Lloyd Doesburg, 29, AFC Ajax
Steve van Dorpel, 23, FC Volendam
Wendel Fräser, 22, RBC Roosendaal
Frits Goodings, 25, FC Wageningen
Jerry Haatrecht, 25, Neerlandia,
Virgall Joemankhan, 20, Cercle Brugge
Andro Knel, 21, NAC Breda
Ruben Kogeldans, 22, Willem II Tilburg
Ortwin Linger, 21, HFC Haarlem,
Andy Scharmin, 21, FC Twente
Elfried Veldman, 23, De Graafschap
Florian Vijent, 27, Telstar
Nick Stienstra, 33, RC Heemstede (coach)
Rob is on Twitter @ChiefDelilah.