Island mentality

Football is popular in France’s former colonies but geography and politics provide a number of challenges. Steve Menary explains

French Guiana is probably best known as home to the European Space Centre, or the infamous island prison that once housed Henri Charrière – better known as Papillon – but not football. That is hardly surprising, as the country’s footballers face hindrances that few others could imagine.

French Guiana, population 230,000, is one of four départements d’outre-mer (DOM) along with Guadeloupe and Martinique, which are all in the Concacaf regional body, plus Réunion, which is part of the Confederation of African Football (CAF). As French DOMs, this quartet can only be associate members of these confederations, so are ineligible for FIFA and the $1 million (£620,000) brought every four years by membership of the world body. Martinique hosted the 2010 Digicel Caribbean Championship. French Guiana could not even afford to enter the qualifiers.

“We’re not in the Digicel because of the money, the travel is very expensive and the distance was too long,” explains French Guiana manager Ghislain Zulemaro. “We are just not big enough to have any influence.” French Guiana manages only a handful of matches a year. In 2009, Zulemaro’s team did make the shorter overland journey to neighbouring Surinam for a three-team tournament that brought a 4-1 win over the Dutch Antilles, a 4-0 whipping from the hosts and a 1-0 loss to Guyana.

The last time French Guiana entered the Digicel was 2005, when they won a group that also included Martinique, Guadeloupe and Dominica. In the next round, they lost 5-0 in Jamaica but held the eventual Digicel winners to a goalless draw in the return. Guiana’s team is an international curiosity, whose status is hampered by the different rules that apply to the last vestiges of the French empire. The Indian Ocean island of Mayotte, French Polynesia and St Pierre et Miquelon are all territoires d’outre-mer (TOMs) or collectives with different statutes. The largest French Polynesian island, Tahiti, has been a FIFA member since 1990. Another French collective, New Caledonia, will vote on independence between 2014 and 2019, and was let into FIFA in 2004.

Many players from French DOMs opt to play for Les Bleus and until recently could return to play for their homeland after a five-year gap. Jocelyn Angloma was born in Guadeloupe, went on to make 37 appearances for France then, nearly a decade after his last appearance for Les Bleus, helped his home island reach the semi-finals of the 2005 Concacaf Gold Cup.

Angloma has since retired and now manages Guadeloupe, but that rule has since been scrapped. Now French DOMs adhere to FIFA’s rules, even though joining the world body will never happen barring a seismic political shift. So Chelsea’s Florent Malouda, the most famous footballer to come out of French Guiana since Bernard Lama, can never emulate Angloma unless he wants to move into management.

Both Malouda and his brother Lesly, a professional with Dijon, left French Guiana in their teens to pursue a football career in France. Unlike many predecessors, the Maloudas succeeded. “The climate is a big problem,” claims Thierry de Neef, assistant national coach. “Young guys go to France in August but then it becomes cold in November or December and they come back home.” Like the Maloudas, De Neef made it, playing for Le Havre and Nice, where he won the 1994 French Cup before returning home. The only affordable regular outlet for De Neef’s side is the Coupe de l’Outre Mer, a biannual competition for French overseas territories. To stage the Overseas Cup costs the French football federation €900,000 (£768,000), which covers flying 18 players, three coaches and four officials from each team to Paris.

Guiana finished fourth at the first seven-team event in 2008, but failed to progress beyond the group stage last year, where Florent Malouda was among the crowd for his homeland’s opening 2-2 draw with Mayotte in the suburb of Saint-Gratien. Played in the early evening of a day when temperatures had been in the 20s, shorts were in evidence in the crowd but some Guiana 
players wore gloves.

Although the climate in France is seen as a problem, many young people still leave French Guiana, where the number of clubs is falling. The Ligue de Football de Guyane runs a 12-team first division. Most clubs come from the capital Cayenne, although the champions for the last three years are Geldar from Kourou, home to the Space Centre. With travel difficult, the second tier is split into pools with one featuring teams from Cayenne and the other provincial sides. Football remains French Guiana’s most popular sport but an increase in the number of clubs, like the size of the national side’s fixture list, seems unlikely.

From WSC 289 March 2011