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At Gold Cup, rich get richer

Wednesday 19th July 2017
Last week, CONCACAF's disciplinary committee forfeited French Guiana's result against Honduras and banned Florent Malouda from the tournament for playing in the Gold Cup while ineligible. This week, the big nations were permitted to upgrade their squads ahead of the knockout rounds. Can you say double standard?

There are six continental confederations in football. UEFA (the Euros) and Conmebol (Copa America) each hold championships with long, storied traditions. CAF's African Cup of Nations and the AFC's Asian Cup are both gaining traction beyond their own shores. Only Oceania, especially with Australia having flown the coop, lag further behind the others than CONCACAF's Gold Cup.

CONCACAF represents North and Central America, along with the Caribbean island nations and three cast-offs from South America. In all, there are 41 members. Significantly greater populations and economic power provide Mexico and the United States a distinct competitive advantage within the confederation. The duo, while rivals, are basically a two-headed giant, wreaking ruin on the region's tinier inhabitants, save for one other nation.
A real estate boom largely funded by American investment has boosted Costa Rica's economy to the point the small Central American nation has become a third power in the region. Jack Warner's wealth and influence have kept Trinidad and Tobago locked in a battle with Honduras, and lately Panama, for CONCACAF's fourth ticket to the World Cup. That's the indirect flight, requiring victory in a two-legged layover against another region's wildcard to complete the trip.

With Warner exiled from football for his corrupt acts, Trinidad's power may wane. Regardless, the point should be obvious. There remains a top heavy distribution of wealth and influence within CONCACAF. A select few nations have a realistic opportunity to reach the World Cup. The rest are fodder under their feet. Nothing casts light on the inequity better than Florent Malouda's treatment at the Gold Cup.

The former Chelsea and Les Bleus star was born and raised in French Guiana, a protectorate of France. His prodigious talent quickly noticed, he was recruited into the French set-up as a teenager. His distinguished professional career culminated in both Premier League and World Cup glory. Now, he is 37, trading on his past for one last contract in the Indian Super League. No longer in Didier Deschamps' plans, he has also come home to French Guiana to give back to the land that gave him his start.

Not an independent nation, French Guiana, hasn't been considered for FIFA membership. That may change in the future, with Gibraltar setting a new precedent. In the present, however, it remains unwanted. To add insult to injury, Conmebol also rejected the South American territory under French rule. Unable to compete in the World Cup, or the Copa America against powerhouses such as Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, and Uruguay, French Guiana's opportunity for glory is limited to the Caribbean and Gold Cups.
The side welcomed back Malouda as the prodigal son he is. He helped his countrymen win the Caribbean Cup, qualifying them for the continental competition. Then CONCACAF informed the LGF Malouda would be ineligible for the tournament because he had been capped by France. Although its lesser competitions were not governed by FIFA rules, CONCACAF had chosen to adopt them for the Gold Cup when a similar incident played out ten years earlier.

In 2007, Jocelyn Angloma, another Les Bleus and Ligue 1 product, had returned home to Guadeloupe, leading that French protectorate and CONCACAF member (there are six in all) on a monumental Gold Cup run, at that time with the confederation's approval. The Gwada Boys finished third, in the process ruffling feathers on bigger nations such as the United States and Mexico. Quickly, it was decided this was an 'unfair' advantage, and FIFA's eligibility rules were invoked for future tournaments.

God forbid a tiny nation--not even a nation, mind--lacking the population base to produce, or funding to properly train, sufficient international class talent to be continually competitive might be permitted to welcome home the one it had, that one in a generation, after larger, wealthier interests were finished exploiting him.

Understand, because French Guiana cannot compete in the World Cup, nor France the Gold Cup, there is no conflict of interest in Malouda changing associations. This is not Diego Costa turning out for Spain rather than Brazil. It's not Jerome Boateng putting on a German kit while his half-brother Kevin-Prince, also German-born, represents Ghana. It's not the many sons of American servicemen and German mothers being allowed to choose between die Mannschaft and the Yanks. Essentially, it's the same as Xavi Hernandez, Cesc Fabregas, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique, and Victor Valdes all featuring simultaneously for Spain and the Catalonian national teams, except Malouda is just one player, and he's done with France. In other words, it's harmless.

Understanding the inherent unfairness, French Guiana flouted CONCACAF's warning. It played Malouda in its first group stage match, fighting out a goalless draw against Honduras. It's authority challenged, CONCACAF took the Marie Antoinette route, forfeiting the result and banning Malouda from further participation.
Never mind that Malouda was a genuine star, adding appeal to a tournament with very little. The best players from Mexico and the United States were absent from the group stage. No Chicharito, Carlos Velez, Memo Ochoa, or Giovani dos Santos. No Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, or Tim Howard. CONCACAF could have used all the positive public relations it could get. Instead, a competition so disrespected its own powerhouses treat it as unimportant decided to banish the one celebrity willing to play. Eager to play.

To make matters worse, those A-list players El Tri and the USMNT had left off their 23-man rosters are being permitted to play in the knockout rounds. That's right. The continental giants with deep pockets and comparatively endless talent reserves can upgrade their rosters halfway through the competition, after their reserves get some minutes against the minnows, but tiny French Guiana can't field its best player from the beginning.

CONCACAF will never be relevant in football until it understands a level playing field's importance and the need to provide nations big and small equitable opportunity to shine. It values only the letter of the law, as it benefits wealthier interests, not the spirit. The latter is far more important.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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