TUKWILA – For Sounders right back Kelvin Leerdam, this winter brought the rare opportunity to help forge a nation’s soccer history while completing unfinished business from his family’s sports past.
On the eve of the MLS Cup victory over Toronto last November, Leerdam, 29, who scored the game’s opening goal, learned of a landmark government decision in his native Suriname removing barriers for overseas professionals to join its national team. The news caused Leerdam to skip the Sounders’ championship victory parade and return to his South American birthplace, where, just eight days later, he was on hand as Suriname registered its biggest soccer triumph in a generation by qualifying for its first CONCACAF Gold Cup.
It’s been said Suriname, a former Dutch colony of only 563,000 people that gained independence in 1975, is the greatest soccer power nobody’s ever heard of. And now, with international pros finally permitted into its fold, it can start proving it.
“There’s a change coming now, finally,’’ Leerdam said Saturday, as the Sounders wrapped up local training ahead of a second preseason phase in California. “And it’s a good thing. Because we have a lot of players that play in Europe that everybody knows. But there are also a lot of guys that don’t make the Dutch national team that are very good players. And now, those guys can play for Suriname.’’
Players of Surinamese descent have long been some of the world’s strongest, including Dutch legends Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, Patrick Kluivert, Clarence Seedhorf and current stars Georginio Wijnaldum – Leerdam’s cousin – Virgil van Dijk and Ryan Babel.
“I don’t know what it is,’’ Leerdam said. “We’ve just got talent to be very good at soccer.’’
But Suriname has also spent four decades in economic and political turmoil mostly under onetime dictator and current President Desi Bouterse — a convicted murderer and drug trafficker who keeps getting re-elected and is expected to win another five-year term this May if he avoids prison first.
Bouterse in 1980 led the first of a series of coups, followed by civil war and alleged atrocities that sent more than 200,000 nationals fleeing into a global Surinamese diaspora focused largely in The Netherlands.
Leerdam’s father, Marlon Grando, had been a member of Suriname’s national team in the late 1970s, which nearly went to the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow before the post-coup government declined to attend.
“It was very hard,’’ Grando told The Seattle Times in 2017. “Because it would be the first time that (independent) Suriname would participate in an Olympic event and show the world what we had. I was very disappointed about that.’’
And Grando never got another chance on a grand soccer stage.
In 1982, FIFA vice president Andre Kamperveen was one of 15 political opponents of Bouterse to be summarily executed in the country’s so-called “December murders’’ — causing Suriname to become somewhat of an international pariah. It eventually resumed competing, but never as a significant soccer force.
Hampering efforts was an “anti-colonial” stance by government officials banning dual citizenship and preventing pros of Surinamese descent overseas from returning to play.
Grando left for The Netherlands soon after another successful 1990 coup by Bouterse. Leerdam’s mother followed a year later, leaving their infant son, Kelvin, behind in Suriname with his grandparents until he was 9.
It wasn’t until reunited with his parents overseas that Leerdam took up soccer. But he’d returned to visit Suriname, hoping longstanding rumors of a loosening of its soccer restrictions would happen.
Now — with the country’s introduction of a so-called “sports passport’’ for foreign athletes – it finally has.
“The expectations are very high,’’ Leerdam said.
Leerdam stayed with his grandfather near the capital Paramaribo while partaking in the national team’s training. The changes weren’t quick enough for European pros to join this time, but they are expected to eventually come in droves.
“All of the other guys are born in Europe and have parents from Suriname, so they can play,’’ Leerdam said. “But I’m the only one who was born and went to school there, so for me it’s very important to let kids know over there that there’s always a chance if you believe.
“And if you get a chance, you grab it with both hands.’’
Suriname did that in CONCACAF Nations League play, despite a lineup of still mostly amateur players. It defeated Dominica 4-0 on Nov. 15 – five days after the Sounders beat Toronto – and upended Nicaragua 2-1 on the road Nov. 18 to qualify for next year’s Gold Cup and its first CONCACAF tournament since 1986.
One week later, Bouterse, the country’s president, was convicted of ordering the 1982 slayings of FIFA executive Kamperveen and 14 others and sentenced to 20 years in prison. But Bouterse remains free and in charge and on Wednesday goes to court to appeal the verdict.
Leerdam still feels Suriname is “a very sweet country” he calls home. He said residents are optimistic “things will get better’’ and hopes the soccer team, bolstered by pros and having qualified for the type of major international tournament his father once dreamed of, provides good things to focus on.
“We have a very good team and we’re looking forward to the future,’’ he said. “It’s going to be a nice future, bright future and it’s good for the country to get known better in the region.’’