Tomorrow night, in Kansas, we’ll be able to enjoy one of those fixtures that makes the Gold Cup such a pleasure to some of us, and a rather mystifying affair to many others. Indeed, the Gold Cup competition, while it takes place year after year in the U.S., seems to largely fly under the radar for many in this country — except, of course, for fans of the Mexican national team, and for those of the Central American and Caribbean teams for whom it represents perhaps the most important international competition.
When the two teams face off tomorrow night, it will be a study in political contrasts. The United States is, well, what people in the Caribbean easily call “the empire.” Guadeloupe is a pure product of empire: an old plantation colony, now a department (the equivalent of a state) of France, but one with a complex relationship with the mother country. The presence of Guadeloupe in the Gold Cup is the result of a set of intriguing compromises. The nationalist movement in the country has long seen football as a perfect site to express the desire for independence. The political movement for separation from France has never garnered more than minority support, but it has had outsized cultural impact in both Guadeloupe and Martinique. People are proud of being from the island, and often see it as a kind of cultural nation even as it remains part of France. Having a football team, as both islands do, is a perfect way to finesse the contradiction. Guadeloupe and Martinique are not members of FIFA — unlike the French territory of New Caledonia, in the Pacific — and indeed the islands have offered a string of crucial players to the French national team (Thuram, Abidal, Henry, Gallas, just to name a few). But they are members of CONCACAF, which means they get to compete in regional competitions, notably the Gold Cup. Especially in recent years, Guadeloupe has done remarkable well in the competition. For a tiny island of a population of 400,000 — though in addition there are many who consider themselves Guadeloupean (including players on the CONCACAF team) who were born in metropolitan France to parents from the island.
But, rooted in a long and rich tradition of football on the island — one I tell the story of in Soccer Empire, and nicely outlined in a recent piece by Ian Dorward at the blog In Bed With Maradona — they bring great style and tactics to the pitch, as they showed a few days ago when they came back from a 3-0 deficit against Panama, with only 10 men, to end up 3-2. It would be a mistake, reeling from it’s loss to Panama, not to take Guadeloupe seriously. They are certainly underdogs, but they can also certainly surprise. And there’s one reason to root for them: if they made it all the way to the Gold Cup final and won, they would technically qualify to play in the next Confederations Cup. And if (this might be even more of a long shot, but we’ll see) France won the European Cup, there could — at least in principle — be a France vs. Guadeloupe game in the offing. That almost certainly wouldn’t happen — according to FIFA regulations, all Confederations Cups teams have to be members of FIFA, and Guadeloupe isn’t. But the issue would raise troublesome and complicated issues — nothing more than what FIFA deserves right now.
So it’s worth watching a game where the line up might seem, at first glance, a little surreal — in service of the principle that football is, and should always remain, a realm of uncertainty and surprise.