French Guiana’s identity was lost in the tug-of-war of the imperialist world. Football Paradise peruses how football is reaffirming its eclectic identity.
We tend to associate “colonialism” with a sepia-tinted theme set in the past, held up by dated frames, on damp limestone walls. Yet, it’s often forgotten that colonies do still exist around the world, territories dependent on a single country for funding and governance. French Guiana in 2016 is still ‘’owned’’ by France. The only French-speaking region located in South America, French Guiana neighbours British Guyana and Suriname, combining to forge a forgotten pocket of the Latin continent. When the native American tongues of Kalina, Arawak, Emerillon, Galibi, Palikur, Wayampi, and Wayana fell silent, there was nothing but echoes from chirping crickets and the susurration of spieling rain to answer the questions of French Guiana’s past. The forest keeps its secrets.
Comprised of sprawling rainforest and space, French Guiana has a small population of around 250,000; an inundated history of slavery means that as well as the Amerindian population, there is also a sizeable amount of African and Indian residents, descendants of indentured labourship, unrest and a colonial tug-of-war among the Italians, the Dutch, the British and the French. Once France consolidated the land, the conniving Louis XV, to address the influx caused by the Treaty of Paris (which confiscated France of almost all her territories in the Americas), conned thousands of French settlers, luring them with stories of gold nuggets swimming in gentle streams. Instead, they found rivers frothing with diseases and natives out looking for reparations in blood. Motivation in the form of sugar, hardwood, Cayenne pepper and other spices eventually brought due governance, administration and facilities.
Whilst the three ”Guianas” abounding in natural resources once caught the fancy of the colonial world, they are one of the leading exporters of talents in the post-colonial world, embellishing the courts of footballing monarchies. French Guiana’s neighbours Suriname has been the birthplace of numerous Dutch footballing legends such as Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids and Jimmy Floyd-Hasselbaink, whilst others such as Patrick Kluivert, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard are of Surinamese origin. Makes you wonder, had Suriname been an independent entity, they might have fared better than the bickering Dutch team that reached the 1998 World Cup semis. The Guianas, therefore, is that singular dog-eared page, a bump in the annals of South American history, that has unassumingly altered the evolutionary course of modern football.
This remarkable pedigree of footballing talent from such a small area of the world has never been replicated to such an extent by neighbours, French Guiana. The territory is not part of FIFA, it does not receive the $500,000 annual funding from the world governing body that 211 members do and is, therefore, a relative unknown entity on the footballing arena. So, whilst at this point in time, we will never see French Guiana at a World Cup, as they are not eligible to qualify, they are members of CONCACAF and the Caribbean Football Union (CFU), which means they can play in qualifiers for the Caribbean Cup, a regional tournament which itself serves as qualifying for the CONCACAF Gold Cup, where giants of the continent – USA, Mexico and Costa Rica – usually await.
The majority of the French Guiana squad are not full-time professional players; they either play locally in the amateur French Guianese league known as the ‘’French Guiana Honor Division’’, or the players who do play in France often play in lower division football, which is not professional. There are some exceptions, however: Sloan Privat, a lethal striker, plays top level football for French Ligue 1 side, Guingamp, while left-back Ludovic Baal plays for Rennes.
2016, on that note, proved to be a watershed moment in French Guiana’s relatively undistinguished footballing history, as they managed navigate two rounds of qualifying before defeating Haiti 5-2 in their final game and therefore qualify for not only the 2017 Caribbean Cup, but also, for the first time in their history, the 2017 edition of the Gold Cup, alongside fellow French Caribbean territory, Martinique. It’s remarkable for a team with only a few professional players to reach a major international tournament, and no doubt many local players will be hoping the exposure to top-level football will provide them with big club contracts or moves into full-time professional football. Manager Jair Karam, who works as a school P.E teacher when not leading the team, has created a team which blends local talent with overseas-based players to create a cohesive unit.
Despite the obvious footballing setbacks in not being an independent nation, French Guiana does, however, benefit from social and political advantages as a result of being a French territory. All French territories across the world receive substantial aid from the French Government and have full rights as French citizens and each territory has 2 citizens on the French National assembly. French Guiana has one of the highest standards of living on the South American continent and in 2010, 70% of citizens rejected a referendum for greater autonomy, such was the security provided by still being a French territory. Nicholas Sarkozy even visited French Guiana on his Presidential campaign in 2012, such was the importance of votes there. This is why there is little anti-imperialist sentiments within the territories, as the economic benefits of remaining an overseas department far outweigh any moral conflict.
Florent Malouda is the most well-known player to have come from French Guiana. Born in the capital of Cayenne, he left aged 15 to pursue professional football in France, and went on to play for the French National Team and Premier League side, Chelsea. Malouda now plays his club football in India, for Delhi Dynamos, which may seem a strange choice, but Malouda does have a connection to India: his great-grandmother hailed from Kolkata and was a labourer who ended up in French Guiana. ‘’My roots are from India, my great grandmother used to live in Kolkata. Way back in 1856, she was picked up from that city as a slave and was transported to the West Indies,’’ he would tell Indian media in 2015.
Malouda’s own awareness of his roots is the reason why there have been strong indications that he will represent French Guiana at the 2017 Gold Cup, a massive coup for the team. His younger brother Lesly, represented French Guiana in 2012 and now it looks like Florent will join him, with inside sources confirming he has privately agreed to play for the land of his birth next year. Previously, former West Brom and Celtic striker, Marc Antoine-Fortune had considered playing for the land of his birth, and Cyrille Regis, who won 5 caps for England in the early 1980s, was also born in French Guiana, even admitting he was close to representing France in 1977 before joining the Three Lions.
With French Guiana being a territory, it is not forbidden for Malouda to ‘’switch’’ national teams in this way. Frederick Piquionne and Julien Faubert are two examples of players who played for France before representing a French territory, in this case, Martinique.
There is a real sense that of all the teams entering the 2017 Gold Cup, none has more at stake than French Guiana. In 1498, Christopher Columbus named the then-unnamed region as ”the land of the pariahs”. In 2017, if you happen to come across the coverage of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, and teams like USA or Mexico will no doubt take up most of the spotlight, remember the pariahs, and the pauper among the princes – the freebirds of Guyane Francaise will be taking off on a flight of fancy on a TV set near you.