The 2017 Gold Cup has been rocked by a match between the tiny South American-based territory of French Guiana, who is not even recognized by FIFA, and Honduras, a 2014 World Cup participant. It has all the details of a story that makes CONCACAF so very… CONCACAF-y; a World Cup star, vague non-sensible rules, a possibly forfeited match that could affect who goes through to the knockout stage of the tournament. It’s pretty much par for the course for an organization that was home to the late Chuck Blazer and Jack Warner, two of the largest figures in FIFA’s recent massive corruption scandal, and faces near constant criticism for dubious refereeing and allegations of match fixing.
It all stems from French Guiana’s decision to play Florent Malouda in their second group game of the tournament. If that name sounds familiar to you, it should. Malouda was a star for Chelsea and for the French national team from 2004-12. During that time he played in the 2006 and 2010 World Cup, as well as EURO 2008 and 2012.
So what on earth is he doing playing in CONCACAF’s highest regional tournament?
Well, Malouda was born in Cayenne, the capital city of French Guiana, which is considered an overseas department of France. Because of this, French Guiana is not a member of FIFA since it’s a part of the European nation. However, when it comes to regional tournaments, French Guiana is one of several French territories that participates as a member of CONCACAF, and those national teams are allowed to use players born in their territory, regardless of if they play for a recognized FIFA nation.
So where does the controversy come in? Malouda played three times for French Guiana, the place of his birth, earlier this year, in a friendly against Barbados, as well as in the 2017 Caribbean Cup final tournament in June against Jamaica and Martinique (another overseas department of France). As a result of the team’s third place finish, French Guiana qualified for the Gold Cup, which pits qualifying teams from North America, Central America and the Caribbean against each other every two years. However, CONCACAF officials notified French Guiana about a vague rule that had been added to the Gold Cup tournament. Section XV, Clause A states, “Each participating member association shall select its national representative team from the best players who are nationals of its country and under its jurisdiction, and are eligible for selection in accordance with the provisions of the applicable FIFA regulations.”
Days before the Gold Cup began, with Malouda having already been named to French Guiana’s 23-man roster, CONCACAF officials specifically warned the team that they considered Malouda ineligible for the tournament. Typically, a match involving an illegal player is considered forfeited and a team is given a 3-0 loss, but CONCACAF also went so far as to threaten fines and other possible punishments if French Guiana used an “ineligible” player. While they looked into the situation, Malouda did not appear in his side’s opening game, a 4-2 loss to Canada. But a couple days later, not only did Malouda start the second match, but French Guiana even named him captain, as French Guiana nearly came up with a famous victory, but ultimately settled for a 0-0 draw.
The die was cast and now we wait to see what the results will be.
And while you can read plenty of hastily put together, error-filled blog posts about the match (like here and here), here are some facts about the situation. French Guiana haven’t “defied a FIFA ruling” by playing Malouda. FIFA has given no ruling on the situation, and neither for that matter, has CONCACAF. This isn’t an “automatic” 3-0 win for Honduras. Like in any situation, a panel will be convened to make a ruling on the player’s status. Until that happens, this counts as a 0-0 draw. French Guiana also aren’t “making a statement” by fielding Malouda in the side. As national team manager Jaïr Karam mentioned in interviews, “This time we read the rules and we are sure of our case and we will win it.” This was a decision made that they were within the rules to use their player and they would take their chances on a battle with the disciplinary committee, not a match that they were throwing away to try and make a point or win a moral victory by playing well. Following the Honduras match Karam threw his full weight behind his team’s case. “We made the decision from within. I didn’t want to take the risk (against Canada). Now we’re sure about our legal situation, we’ve decided to go fight, and it’s a fight we’re going to win,” Karam said.
And it’s definitely a case that French Guiana can make. Even the wording of the rule from CONCACAF is horribly vague and unclear. The last phrase in that sentence, “are eligible for selection in accordance with the provisions of the applicable FIFA regulations,” really doesn’t make sense in this scenario. Yes, FIFA cap ties players to a country once they appear in an official FIFA competition match (so only appearing in a friendly would not count), but these French territory teams aren’t FIFA members and could never have participated in an official FIFA competition anyway in order to cap-tie a player. You can’t even discuss things like FIFA’s one-time transfer of international football eligibility, or FIFA’s ruling on allowing eligible players to switch to newly admitted members like what is happening now with Kosovo, because again, these teams aren’t members of FIFA! Plus, for what it’s worth, Malouda and French Guiana received permission from the France FA for Malouda to be in the squad.
The rules didn’t used to be like this previously. Just look back at the 2007 Gold Cup, when another former French international, Jocelyn Angloma, a native of Guadeloupe, helped his home island nation qualify for the Gold Cup and make a Cinderella run to the tournament semifinals, where they finished a goal away from upsetting mighty Mexico. Back then, former international players from official national teams were fine, as long as it had been five years since their last international match for that country (something that would also apply to Malouda’s case here having last played for France in 2012). Angloma had played 37 times for Les Bleus, but it barely registered headlines at the time that he was competing for a national team besides France. What was bigger news in 2007 was that he was 41 years old and still playing international soccer, and scoring magnificent goals like this one.
For reasons unknown the Gold Cup’s rules changed to bring it more in-line with FIFA regulations, but why should it? CONCACAF is a region with several non-FIFA members. If a player from Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Martinique, and other French territories becomes good enough that they can compete on the world stage, they have to do it through the French national team. Their tiny home territories in the Caribbean and northeastern South America aren’t given a chance to qualify for the World Cup. And before anyone calls foul about the idea of a French international superstar representing both the European nation and their CONCACAF national team at the same time, the issue is a non-starter. Any player good enough to play regularly for the French national team (like say, Florent Malouda) is not going to be also skipping around in the summer at the Caribbean Cup. It just wouldn’t make sense for their career, especially considering they’d almost certainly be playing high-level club football at the same time.
In fact, since French Guiana, and other territories like Guadeloupe and Martinique aren’t FIFA members, club teams are under no obligation to release players to be available for their international matches, something they have to do if requested by a recognized national team. This can make it very difficult to put together your best team or even have adequate time to prepare for something like the Gold Cup tournament, where a Caribbean participant is usually a huge underdog. It’s just another example of how CONCACAF has botched this. You simply can’t pick and choose rules to apply in a situation like this. It’s the proverbial square peg in a round hole.
Again, Karam raised a good point about his team’s situation, stating, “So, what we’re asking for simply, is to have the same rights as the rest of the world. Either we’re completely in FIFA, and as such, we would have permission to get players from professional clubs, or we aren’t in FIFA, and that allows us to use former players from our related national teams.”
This most likely won’t be a constant occurrence. The only time we’ll see situations like this, that call the rule into question, are when we have either an older player, like Malouda or Angloma, whose career is winding down and days of international glory are behind them. They may have the skill to warrant a place on their native national side roster, but comparing it to having them play in their prime is like trying to compare apples and oranges. You could also have a player who got a short stint with the national team but didn’t become a regular player, and while they’re certainly cap tied to France, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to play now for their team in the Gold Cup.
Look at this situation from another way. Let’s say during the last World Cup cycle for the U.S. national team under Jurgen Klinsmann, when the stars and stripes qualified for Brazil using Jermain Jones, John Brooks, Julian Green, and other German-born players who held U.S. citizenship, only for FIFA to decide before the World Cup started that teams could only use players born in their home countries. There would be outrage at that! How could FIFA decide to change the rules in between the qualifying stage and the final tournament, to force a country to leave behind key players who helped them reach the World Cup in the first place?! The op-ed pieces from soccer journalists in this country would be unceasing, and rightly so.
Yet that is exactly the scenario that we have here. Malouda was able to represent French Guiana in the 2017 Caribbean Cup, which determined which teams qualified for the Gold Cup final tournament. Was it a one-off approval situation? No, it was totally within the rules of the tournament for French Guiana, a French territory, to use a player born in French Guiana! (It’s also worth pointing out that French Guiana had already qualified for the Gold Cup by the time Malouda started playing for the team in the 2017 Caribbean Cup, so it’s not like he’s the reason they made it.) And yet the Gold Cup tournament organizers decided to insert a rule about following FIFA’s eligibility rules for the tournament, basically acting like the spoiled kid on the playground who changes the rules to their liking midway through the game.
So again, we wait.
If everything were just in the world, French Guiana would win their case and their result would stand. It may not even change anything in the long run. The Guianans need a result, and most likely a win in their last group stage match against Costa Rica to have a chance of making the knockout round anyway. But the point has already been made by the results on the field for Les Yana Dokos. They’ve played entertaining football, scored some great goals, and held one of the strongest teams in the region to a stalemate in their first ever Gold Cup appearance.
And for his part, Malouda really seems to want to play for the right reasons, saying after the match, “It’s a great honor for me to wear the armband and represent French Guiana in this level of competition, and that’s very important for the people in my country as well, and so it’s great to be out there.”
Don’t expect this to be the end of the matter either. This is only going to get more interesting over the next couple days. Especially, if French Guiana doubles down and plays Malouda in their next match as well.