The CONCACAF Gold Cup has turned into the Theater of the Absurd.
Early Friday morning -- really early, as in 3 a.m. ET -- the confederation issued a news release stating that because French Guiana fielded an ineligible player in its 0-0 draw with Honduras, it would forfeit the match by a 3-0 score. CONCACAF also levied a fine against the French Guiana football association and suspended the player in question, Florent Malouda, for two games.
The farce of this situation lies in how CONCACAF and French Guiana got to this point. Prior to the tournament, French Guiana named its roster. Included on its list of players was Malouda, who has made 80 appearances for France. But French Guiana is an overseas department of France, thus allowing it to be a member of CONCACAF but not FIFA. As such, Malouda has been allowed to suit up for French Guiana in international competitions like the Caribbean Cup. When French Guiana finished third in the 2017 edition of that tournament, it qualified for this summer's tournament.
Malouda's presence didn't seem unusual at first. Back in 2007, Guadeloupe, another overseas department of France, reached the semifinals of that year's Gold Cup with the help of former French international Jocelyn Angloma. It seemed a precedent had been set but as this year's tournament approached, problems began to arise.
The eligibility rules for the Caribbean Cup and the Gold Cup are different. The Gold Cup uses FIFA rules to determine eligibility and since Malouda had already played for France, CONCACAF informed French Guiana that Malouda was ineligible.
"We advised French Guiana on multiple occasions that Malouda was ineligible from the very first time that he appeared as a possibility to be selected for the Gold Cup," said CONCACAF spokesman Brent Latham via telephone. "We were trying to help everyone avoid a situation like this."
Instead of removing Malouda from the roster, French Guiana engaged CONCACAF in a game of chicken, insisting Malouda was eligible. Among the arguments made was that since French Guiana isn't a member of FIFA, it shouldn't have been subjected to FIFA's eligibility rules. That is a slippery slope: the tournament regulations are quite clear and CONCACAF isn't in a position to selectively enforce them.
In addition to the Angloma case, manager Jair Karam pointed to FIFA's recent relaxing of rules surrounding players eligible for Kosovo as precedents for this situation, but CONCACAF didn't agree. Oddly, French Guiana even took its case to FIFA -- even though it's not a FIFA member -- only for FIFA to stand firmly behind CONCACAF's decision.
In any event, Malouda was kept on the roster and Karam indicated that at some point during the tournament, Malouda would play. While Malouda wasn't listed as an active player in French Guiana's tournament opener, a 4-2 defeat vs. Canada, Karam carried through on the promise in his side's second match against Honduras. Malouda captained the side and played all 90 minutes.
"We knew it was a big environment that was surrounding the case of Malouda so we decided not to have him in the first match," said Karam before Friday's ruling. "But after analyzing and reading and knowing all these rules, we decided to take our chances for the second match."
All of this has left CONCACAF looking dysfunctional for allowing this to happen, even though it wasn't entirely -- or even mostly -- their fault. And it has led to a host of questions. Why was Malouda able to play and be selected in the first place? Why was French Guiana's squad accepted with him in it if he'd be ineligible? Why punish them now? And why punish them only one forfeited game?
The problems start with the aforementioned difference in eligibility rules but also point to a set of broader issues. Latham said that due to tournament regulations, CONCACAF couldn't prevent a team's roster from being accepted. It can only advise a team if there is a problem.
"CONCACAF can't dictate to the teams the players they select for their rosters," said Latham. "They can choose anyone they like. It's their responsibility to choose players that are eligible to play in the Gold Cup."
Latham added that it never dawned on CONCACAF that a team would intentionally field an ineligible player. This is understandable. Why would a team do this if the whole point of participating in the tournament is to win games?
As for why it waited to punish French Guiana, the tournament regulations indicate that it's only when the player sets foot on the field that a regulation breach has occurred. Latham said that the tournament regulations would be reviewed after the Gold Cup ends in order to prevent such a scenario from every happening again.
For now, CONCACAF must live with what has taken place and the competitive consequences are potentially significant. Had the 0-0 tie been allowed to stand, Honduras would have had to beat Canada by at least two goals in the group stage finale in order to leapfrog them in the Group A standings. Now any kind of win will do.
There is also the impact that the forfeit will have on the pairings for the knockout stages. Two of the tournament's third-place teams will qualify for the quarterfinals. If Honduras finishes third in Group A but manages to qualify for the knockout stages with the help of the forfeit, you can bet that it won't sit well with whichever team is eliminated.
One can only hope that the ultimate impact on the competition is minimal.