Interpol, bribery claims, Suriname’s ‘Robin Hood’ and the incredible story that has shaken CONCACAF

The nation’s 60-year-old vice-president made a shock cameo against Olimpia, but the scandal comes at a time when the game is on the up in Suriname

Introduced in 2016 as a second-tier club competition for North and Central America behind the Champions League, the CONCACAF League rarely makes the headlines outside its competing nations.

Last week, though, news of Inter Moengotapoe’s home last-16 clash against Olimpia in Suriname’s capital Paramaribo travelled across the world due to one of the most bizarre episodes in recent football history.

And at the heart of the story is a man who seems himself to have jumped straight off a movie script, the club’s 60-year-old owner who chose to make his debut against the Hondurans.

Ronnie Brunswijk is not your average football club president. A former commando, bodyguard, rebel guerrilla leader – during which time he earned the nickname of ‘Suriname’s Robin Hood’ after being convicted of robbing a bank and distributing the bounty to local village communities – and gold mining magnate, the sexagenarian midfielder is also Suriname’s vice-president, a post he has held since July 2020.

He is also wanted by Interpol, who seek his arrest in order to complete two prison sentences for drug trafficking handed down in France and Netherlands, and thus cannot leave Suriname without risking detention.

In 2005, he similarly fell foul of Surinamese football authorities for allegedly threatening players with a handgun, although his five-year ban was later overturned.

Brunswijk is a larger than life character in every sense, loved by many of his constituents for his acts of largesse – including on one occasion famously showering a village with money thrown from a helicopter – and commitment to social reform and opportunities, in particular for the nation’s disadvantaged Maroon minority, of which he is a part.

“Everything I have, I give it to the people,” he told the New York Times in a 2021 interview. “Ever since I was a child, I wanted to help others. I now have the chance to help the whole country.”

Inter at least, though, received few favours from the vice-president’s shock CONCACAF League inclusion. Brunswijk named himself captain and played almost an hour in centre midfield before coming off, by which time Olimpia had already established a 3-0 lead.

Alongside him was 21-year-old son Damian Brunswijk, a former Under-20 international and one of the 50 children he has reportedly fathered over the course of his eventful six decades so far on this earth.

The Suriname side’s fortunes did not improve after his substitution, admittedly. Further goals from ex-Real Sociedad striker Diego Reyes and his Honduras international team-mate Eddie Hernandez, who netted a double, meant the visitors ran out 6-0 winners, an almost unassailable advantage after the first 90 minutes.

But there was still time for one more incredible twist in the tale, when the (presumably rather exhausted) vice-president paid a visit to the away dressing room.

“When I saw him come in, he had come to congratulate us, to ask for a shirt. Then he took out cash, he said he wanted to make this gift and started to hand it out,” Olimpia’s Argentine coach Pedro Troglio explained to IP, in reference to a scandalous video which showed Brunswijk giving $100 bills to his players. “Outside the stadium he continued to hand out cash to people.

“There’s nothing improper here. It was a funny turn of events. There are some players who are not well-off economically. Logically, they see $100 and some grab it. I can’t say whether it’s right or wrong because everyone has skeletons in their closet.”

Brunswijk, too, moved to defend his actions, telling reporters: “Because of Covid we have not been able to hold any matches for almost a year-and-a-half, and I am grateful that Olimpia wanted to come to Suriname.

“I have shown my gratitude. I don’t know who filmed the video and posted it on social media.”

Unsurprisingly, once CONCACAF got wind of the situation it was not impressed. Both Inter and Olimpia were dumped out of the competition, describing the situation as “serious breaches of integrity rules.” Brunswijk, meanwhile, has been banned from CONCACAF competition for three years, while over in Honduras, Troglio has tendered his resignation from the club, who in turn have apologised for their actions in receiving the money and plan to donate it to a local children’s cancer charity.

It is far from the kind of exposure Suriname would wish for on the world stage. While the nation is geographically part of South America, like neigbouring Guyana and French Guiana it enjoys far closer historical and cultural ties to the Caribbean region, hence its association with CONCACAF rather than CONMEBOL.

Suriname, in fact, enjoys a football heritage far richer than its lowly position – they are currently 139th in FIFA’s men’s rankings and have never qualified for a World Cup – would suggest.

Netherlands legends Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Edgar Davids and Clarence Seedorf were all born in the former Dutch colony and emigrated at an early age, while many others, including Franck Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and current Oranje stars Virgil van Dijk and Georginio Wijnaldum are of Surinamese descent.

The national team may have made much more of an impact over the years were it not for restrictive local laws against dual nationalities, which essentially forced individuals to choose between Dutch or Surinamese citizenship, and as a result limited player selection to the local leagues.

In recent years, though, there has been a relaxing of those rules, including the introduction of a ‘sports passport’ in 2019, opening the door for more Netherlands-born players to make the switch.

One of the beneficiaries is none other than Hasselbaink’s nephew Nigel, whose wandering career has included, among other destinations, a lengthy, successful spell in Scottish football with St. Johnstone, St. Mirren and Hamilton Academical.

The 30-year-old striker scored back-to-back hat-tricks this year as Suriname came close to advancing from the first round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, losing out only to Canada after recording huge wins over Cayman Islands, Aruba and Bermuda.

The nation also battled through to their first-ever Gold Cup appearance in 2021, going down to Jamaica and Costa Rica before recording a thrilling victory over Guadeloupe thanks to yet another Hasselbaink goal.

The future, then, might just be brighter for Suriname than their flamboyant vice-president’s antics might suggest. The advent of the CONCACAF Nations League guarantees more high-level competition for the region’s smaller associations, which can only increase playing levels; while the almost simultaneous introduction of foreign-based players is also paying immediate dividends with a noticeable upturn in both performances and results.

Another of those new stars is Ridgeciano Haps, a former Ajax academy scholar now playing for Venezia in Serie A, who believes that the sky is the limit.

“We have a nice team forming. We have a lot of European-based players now. The quality is there,” the left-back told FIFA’s official website earlier this year.

“We have a lot of speed and strength. We have everything in our group. We’ve been training for a week and every training session gets better and better, so I’m really happy with the team.

“I know a lot of people are surprised about Suriname, but now we have to show it. We are ready for that.”

In short, you can expect to hear much more about the nation in the coming years on the football pitch – and hopefully not because of misadventures like last week’s Hollywood-esque story.

Author: Keith Hughes