How reggaeton, school buses and the Dutch connection are helping Curacao hang with Concacaf's big boys

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Curacao Gold Cup
Katharine Lotze
Remko Bicentini has continued a project started by Patrick Kluivert, emphasizing beautiful football but also a good time during international breaks

The windows are open and the speakers are blasting music from this retrofitted school bus. Classic reggae, the newest reggaeton track, anything with a beat.

Brightly painted school buses pumping out tunes aren't that uncommon to see around Curacao, an island around 40 miles north of Venezuela. Cruise ships dump tourists at the terminal, and they board the buses for day trips to various hot spots for diving, snorkeling or just sightseeing.

This bus, however, gets locals to turn their head. This bus carries the Curacao national team.

Curacao bus long view

The Curacao national team aboard its bus

Buses have become unlikely stars in the world of international soccer. Footage went viral Wednesday of Flamengo fans mobbing their team's transport as it crawled toward the airport en route to the 2019 Copa Libertadores final. That was a better scene than last year's Libertadores final when footage of River Plate fans lobbing objects at Boca Juniors' bus was examined and the entire game had to be moved in the fallout from a substance getting in through a broken window. 

The vibes are much more mellow here, and that's how Curacao manager Remko Bicentini wants it to be. The 51-year-old needs to foster an environment that makes his largely Netherlands-based players excited about using their international break to fly across the Atlantic, then across the Caribbean to play in the Concacaf Nations League when they could otherwise stay with their club teams and have a few days of rest.

Curacao team bus front view

The custom-painted bus features a nod to the two stars on the Curacao flag as riders climb the stairs to board the bus 

Instead of comfort, however, Bicentini maximizes joy. So, even with the federation offering to pony up for the more traditional charter buses other teams use, the coach is sticking with the custom blue bus for now.

"Every team that comes to play here, they say they’re jealous of the bus. It’s different to play against us, and it’s actually very difficult to get a bus like this," he told Goal through a translator, and with his omnipresent grin stretched across his face. "We want the players to enjoy, and the bus is part of that.

"Sometimes they ask me if I want a big, fancy-looking bus with air conditioning and everything. But the players like this one. We like this one, and we’re winning."

Improbably, Curacao is winning, though it fell 2-1 to Costa Rica last week to miss out on making the Concacaf Nations League Final Four. The Ticos' draw with Haiti on Tuesday meant Curacao punched its ticket to a third consecutive Gold Cup. Curacao topped Honduras in the previous edition and fell just 1-0 to the United States in the quarterfinals. The result also means Curacao will remain in League A next Nations League.

That means more big-ticket games on the island home to around 160,000 people, and more trips in the bus from the airport, to the hotel, to the stadium, and to events where they mingle with fans.

Curacao island buses

Despite their vibrant color schemes, few buses on the island of Curacao turn heads like the national team's ride

For Curacao's new core of stars, that's no problem.

"It’s like a party bus!" goalkeeper Eloy Room says. "I think we’re a big family. We’ve known each other so long. When we come together, it’s like family. I think that’s the most important thing."

Room, like the majority of the roster, was born in the Netherlands but grew up hearing stories about the island from a parent and visiting on holidays. Curacao has its own government and largely makes its own decisions but is still a country in the Dutch kingdom, meaning residents have Dutch passports. That makes it easy for Curacao natives like Room's father to emigrate to the Netherlands, where their job prospects often are much better. Still, the bond with Curacao is drilled in from an early age.

“I told him a lot about Curacao,” Room’s father Lesley said last week as he watched his son train at Ergilio Hato Stadium. “When he joined the national team, he really liked it.

“He said, ‘This is my country.’”

That feeling of ownership permeates throughout the group, with both the country and the national team feeling very much like their own.

"My mom and dad were both born here and because of the circumstances they went to Europe, and I was born over there," midfielder Leandro Bacuna said. "In my heart, I’m still very, very proud to play for this island. I will do whatever is in my power to get us as far as we can."

Most players are relatively new to the project, with Room one of the early adopters who came on when Barcelona and Netherlands legend Patrick Kluivert convinced them to join the team he started managing in 2015. Cardiff City midfielder Bacuna joined the next year, and more and more players with Curacao heritage have followed. Bacuna's brother Juninho is one of the most recent recruits - meaning he had to break out a dance on the bus during the new player initiation, another element of the loose feel around the team.

Leandro Bacuna Curacao

Leandro Bacuna shows off his Curacao flag-inspired hairstyle

It also helps that it's a young national team - and not just because nine players on the last squad are under 25. Curacao played international football under the Territory of Curacao name between 1921 and 1958 but with the creation of the Netherlands Antilles in 1954, they began playing under that banner. With the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles earlier this decade, Curacao once again began to play as its own team (as did Bonaire and Sint Maarten, though unlike Curacao they are not FIFA members). These players are starting traditions that will be in place for years to come.

It's likely that the best players with connections to Curacao, like Willemstad-born rising star Tahith Chong of Manchester United, will continue to represent the Netherlands on the international stage. But those who aren't part of the Oranje's core group know they have a home in Curacao.

"Every guy in Holland wants to play for the Dutch team. I was close to being there, but now I’m proud to be part of this journey," said Room, who played for the Netherlands at the youth level.

Those influences can still be seen in the way Curacao plays. Unlike many Caribbean nations, who look to soak up pressure and hit on a counter-attack to grind out a result, Curacao wants to keep the ball, win with possession and create goals with long passing moves.

"I like playing nice football. We have very good players who can play in the system and who like to play in this kind of system," Bicentini said. "What we’re doing now is making it better, to try and perfect the system and to keep going."

The wink at the Dutch style started with Kluivert but has been continued by Bicentini. The coach said he was never nervous to step into Kluivert's shoes after Kluivert left Curacao to become Paris Saint-Germain's director of football, but has looked to add his own twist to the project.

"Basically all the players over here have Dutch academy experience. It’s a bit similar to the Dutch team, to be honest," Bacuna said. "(Bicentini) brings his own swing to it. We want to try and play out of the back and be creative ourselves, not sit back and defend."

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Simply put, playing for Curacao is fun. Tactical dexterity, and a growing player pool as more and more players come into the fold, have been big keys to their success representing an island more known for its production of baseball players than churning out soccer stars. But don't overlook how much the atmosphere around the team and on that bus have contributed to Curacao holding its own against some of the top teams in the region.

The school bus may not make it off the island for away games, and Curacao may have more conventional transportation around the United States in the summer of 2021.

Still, for the bus's happy passengers, it's next stop, Gold Cup.