From the quarter-finals of the Mexico 1986 to the final of France 1998 and the last eight at Germany 2006, the last few FIFA World Cup™ matches between Les Bleus and A Seleção on the biggest stage of all have brought joy to millions in France and misery to millions more in Brazil.
In French Guiana, however, those three matches would have triggered celebrations regardless of the outcome.
Home to 270,000 people, it is an overseas territory of France that lies some 7,000 kilometres away from it but which just happens to border Brazil.
It can thus claim to have won two World Cups, in 1998 and 2018, while also experiencing the Brazilians’ five world titles at close hand.
It is no surprise, then, that French Guiana is a place that lives and breathes football, where passions never run higher than when France take on Brazil, a fixture that tends to split hearts and households down the middle.
“Brazil is football at its beautiful best and we’re South American too. After all, you can’t argue with geography,” said Auxence Contout, a French Guianese teacher and historian in a 2006 interview with Le Monde. “The fact is, though, that I support France,” he added.
The second-largest of France’s overseas territories, French Guiana is also one of its poorest, though that has not stopped it from becoming something of a promised land for Brazilian people, who have moved there in numbers in search of a better future.
Over the years many of them have settled down with local people, forming couples and families in which footballing loyalties are very much divided.
Experience and support
In the streets of French Guiana and on its pitches, which range from the well-tended to the makeshift, there are as many canary-yellow shirts as blue, while the territory’s bars have not one but two TVs: one showing French football and the other Brazilian.
Yet although French Guiana is every bit as passionate about the game as mainland France and neighbouring Brazil, when it comes to the playing side of things it is very much a backwater.
Long regarded as a ‘green hell’ on account of its lush vegetation and equatorial heat and humidity, it lags behind other French overseas territories in terms of development, and that includes football.
In November 2019, a visiting delegation from the French Football Association (FFF) compiled a report highlighting the lack of infrastructure, maintenance equipment, local clubs and coaching staff.
In response, a list of priorities was drawn up with a view to giving French Guiana’s 7,500 registered players and 60 clubs the resources they need to play the game they love in the best possible conditions.
Aside from state investment, a number of partnerships have come into being between French clubs and local bodies.
They include an agreement between Saint Etienne and the French Guiana Football league enabling U-15 and U-19 teams to take part in training camps at the French club and offering training to coaches.
Meanwhile, Dijon have a similar arrangement in place with local club ASC Remire.
“They’re there to support us, tell us how to do things and to bring their experience to bear in helping us develop young players,” said the French Guianese club’s vice-president, Frederic Lafontaine.
“When they visit the club, our young players can use the training academy, watch the first team train and enjoy superb facilities.”
French flag, Brazilian colours
French Guiana has produced its fair share of gifted players over the years. Florent Malouda, Bernard Lama and Jean-Claude Darcheville all excelled in France before making their names in Europe.
Meanwhile Mike Maignan (Lille), Odsonne Edouard (Celtic) and Jean-Clair Todibo (Barcelona) are following in their footsteps. Sadly, for the national team, however, they are rarely in a position to tap into their talent – as a French overseas territory, French Guiana is not affiliated to FIFA.
It is, however, a full member of CONCACAF, a status it assumed in 2013, having been an associate member since 1978.
And it was through its membership of the region’s confederation that the national team qualified for the prestigious Gold Cup in 2017, the greatest achievement in their history.
Led by a 37-year-old Malouda and mainly featuring amateur players who had to ask their employers for permission to play in the tournament, Les Yana Dòkòs (which translates as ‘The Doctors’ or ‘The Masters’) had the honour of taking on Canada, Honduras and Costa Rica in their group.
Though the French Guianese lost all three of their games, they took immense pride from flying the French tricolour and sporting their green and yellow Brazil-style shirts at a major tournament for the first time ever.
This article was initially published by FIFA on July 23. It is part of ‘The Global Game’ series produced by FIFA which focuses on football in remote places away from the spotlight.