Who are Curacao and what is Guus Hiddink doing there?

Tiny island nation head into Gold Cup in good spirits despite missing out on World Cup dream.

Guus Hiddink has managed European giants such as PSV, Valencia, Real Madrid and Chelsea, and twice led the Netherlands national team, so there was some surprise when he was named manager of Curacao - an island more noted for baseball than soccer.

And there was no one more shocked than their manager at the time, Remko Bicentini.

Bicentini had picked up the reins from Patrick Kluivert in 2016, guiding the tiny island nation to their first Caribbean Cup success in 2017 and the quarter-final of the 2019 Gold Cup.

A 1-0 last-eight defeat to the USA showed Curacao - population 160,000 - could compete with the region's big guns. However, with the qualification stages for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar on the horizon, the Curacao Football Federation decided a change was needed.

Former Curacao  coach Remko Bicentini
Former Curacao coach Remko Bicentini

Unfortunately, they failed to tell Bicentini, who only found out when his daughter got in touch to say she had seen Hiddink being interviewed about his new role.

"I am very disappointed in Guus Hiddink," said Bicentini.

The move was not well received by the players, either, with Perth Glory centre-back Darryl Lachman one of a number to voice their disapproval at the way the situation was managed.

For Hiddink, however, it was another potential underdog story to add to his incredible World Cup history.

Having guided both the unfancied South Korea and Russia to the last four of the competition and overseen Australia's first qualification in 32 years, the chance to take the 80th-ranked side to Qatar was an opportunity too good to turn down.

Hiddink said: "It may not be obvious, but it was difficult to say 'no'.

"Curacao has made good steps in recent years.

"I would like to help the players and staff to get one step higher in the international ladder."

Guus Hiddink celebrates after guiding Russia to the last four of the 2008 World Cup
Guus Hiddink celebrates after guiding Russia to the last four of the 2008 World Cup

Hiddink's reign began impressively with a 5-0 win over St Vincent and the Grenadines, which was quickly followed by a 2-1 success over Cuba.

Huddersfield Town's Juninho Bacuna scored his first two goals for Curacao in the win over St Vincent and was joined in the side by older brother Leandro, who is currently at Cardiff City.

Coventry City's Gervane Kastaneer is also part of the squad, while Hiddink has set his sights on persuading a number of Dutch players to switch their allegiances to a country which was only formed in 2011 after the Greater Antilles were dissolved.

Curacao midfielder Leandro Bacuna with Bicentini
Curacao midfielder Leandro Bacuna with Bicentini

A FIFA rule change means a player who has earned up to three caps before the age of 21 can switch allegiances. It has allowed Hiddink to call on the services of RKC Waalwijk's former Newcastle United defensive midfielder Vurnon Anita, who was born in the capital, Willemstad.

Manchester United winger Tahith Chong, also born in Willemstad, is another earmarked for a call-up, as is Vitesse Arnhem's Riechedly Bazoer.

However, 24-year-old Bazoer has so far resisted, insisting a recall to the Oranje squad is his primary focus.

Speaking about the possibility of bolstering his side with players who have family ties to the island, Hiddink said: "A career could go wrong for a while, or there will be a new policy and then you can be disqualified as a player. This is a shame when you are so young. Now the boys still have the opportunity to build an international career."

The Dutch links are not just restricted to the personnel side either, with Curacao employing a style of soccer borne out of Kluivert's schooling at Ajax and in direct contrast to the negative tactics of some of their Caribbean rivals.

Neat possession-based soccer allowed them to thrash the British Virgin Islands 8-0 and draw with Guatemala to top their group and move one step closer to Qatar. However, it was Kluivert at the helm again on a temporary basis after Hiddink contracted COVID.

The Dutch legend was allowed leave from his academy director role at Barcelona but was unable to prevent Los Azules bowing out on aggregate at the hands of Panama.

A 2-1 away defeat was followed by a 0-0 draw in Willemstad to end the World Cup dream, despite an impassioned pre-match message from Hiddink. A Jarchinio Antonia shot which hit the bar was as close as the hosts got to levelling, although they had to be thankful for a Eloy Room penalty save just after half-time for keeping them in the game.

Despite the exit, Kluivert is set to continue in his interim role through the Gold Cup, with Hiddink still not well enough to return to his post.

El Salvador, Mexico and Trinidad and Tobago make up their group and there is a quiet confidence among Curacaoans that an escape from the group is possible - even without Hiddink working his qualification magic.

The CONCACAF Gold Cup kicks off on Saturday, July 10 (10pm) with El Salvador vs Curacao

Matches are being shown live on Premier Sports