Unfortunately for everyone but Canada, which needs all the Gold Cup help it can get, one of the most unique and compelling stories of this month's CONCACAF championship may end before the tournament kicks off. Or that story may get even stranger, depending on how Canada's first opponent, French Guiana, decides to proceed.
A handful of big-name Americans and Mexicans will miss out on the continental championship tournament, but that was expected considering soccer's summer scheduling crush. But in their place, at least according to the Gold Cup rosters submitted by the competing countries, was one player more decorated than any of those absent stars.
Former Chelsea and Olympique Lyon midfielder Florent Malouda has won Champions League, Premier League and Ligue 1 titles. He’s played in the biggest match of all, the World Cup final. And this summer, thanks to a quirk of sporting geopolitics, the 37-year-old planned to re-start his international career with his native French Guiana, which is making a surprising Gold Cup debut.
Malouda’s potential participation has been reported by media outlets throughout the Americas and in France, which he represented 80 times at the senior level. Most recently a member of Indian club Delhi Dynamos, Malouda joined French Guiana in time for last month’s conclusion of the Caribbean Cup in Martinique. There, the Guianans won bronze and qualified for the Gold Cup for the first time. And Malouda played twice.
Technically, his run should end there, however. He’s on French Guiana’s 23-man Gold Cup roster but isn't eligible to face Canada at Red Bull Arena as Les Yana Dòkòs play the biggest game in their modest history. Canada has been shut out in six consecutive Gold Cup matches dating back to 2013 and probably are the only ones pleased by that development.
It was believed Malouda, who was born in the Guianan capital of Cayenne, could participate because the Ligue de Football de la Guyane isn’t a FIFA member. Therefore, he wouldn’t be breaking the rules by turning out for another FIFA nation after becoming cap-tied to France. CONCACAF counts several such countries, including fellow 2017 Gold Cup qualifier Martinique and 2007 Gold Cup Cinderella Guadeloupe, among its members. Their teams can compete for continental honors but can’t enter the World Cup because they're each technically overseas departments of France.
FIFA theoretically would’ve been O.K. with Malouda playing this month. The Gold Cup isn't their tournament. But CONCACAF isn’t O.K. with it, and the key can be found in section XV. a. of the Gold Cup regulations. It reads:
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.
That last clause is the issue. Although Malouda can appear for French Guiana because it isn’t in FIFA, CONCACAF chooses to conduct its biennial championship according to FIFA's eligibility guidelines. Malouda is cap-tied to France in FIFA competition and since the Gold Cup is contested under the same rules, he's unable to play for anyone but Les Bleus in either. CONCACAF doesn’t consider a player’s eligibility until game day. Nothing stopped French Guiana from adding Malouda to its roster or bringing him to the USA. But if he steps onto the Red Bull Arena pitch in uniform, Les Yana Dòkòs will forfeit.
Malouda's ineligibility was confirmed to SI.com by a CONCACAF spokesperson late Thursday.
"The rules say he's ineligible," the spokesperson said. "We are using FIFA rules, and so a player who has played in an official match for a different [national team] cannot play in Gold Cup. More precisely, he is not eligible to play. He can play, but he's not eligible."
And this is where this gets weird. As the spokesperson said, Malouda can play. CONCACAF can't physically stop him from taking the field. It can only rule the game a forfeit if he does. The LFG has been made aware that Malouda is ineligible but on Thursday evening as his team trained at Red Bull Arena, coach Jaïr Karam said on camera that Malouda "is going to play tomorrow." Karam added, "We're the minnows here, but we will do everything we can to give ourselves a chance."
Including, apparently, breaking the rules. Would strengthening its slim chance at a stunning upset that's then ruled a loss make for a successful Guianan Gold Cup? Karam and his colleagues have less than 24 hours to make that decision.
CONCACAF hasn’t always structured the Gold Cup this way. Ten years ago, Jocelyn Angloma—a defender capped 37 times by France who played for Paris Saint-Germain, Olympique Marseille, Inter Milan and Valencia—assisted his native Guadeloupe on its stirring run to the Gold Cup’s final four. He scored against Canada and Honduras and helped Guadeloupe hold Mexico to only one goal in a narrow semifinal loss in Chicago.
If Malouda scores Friday, it won't show up in the record books. But it would make for a memorable start to the tournament.