Florent Malouda was lining up alongside Zinedine Zidane, Patrick Viera and Thierry Henry as France faced Italy in the 2006 World Cup Final. How had the 15-year-old who stepped off the plane in Paris after a 5000-mile journey, forged his way to the top of French football eleven years later?
The kid from Cayenne
Despite being situated on the north coast of South America, French Guiana remains to this day an overseas territory of France. They use the Euro, are still part of the European Union, and even have local delicacies such as goat-filled croissants. Although, one of the many things it does not share with France is economic prosperity. Widespread protests drew light to this in 2017 as 30 union leaders and three politicians occupied the Guiana Space Centre: a constant reminder that metropolitan France was investing more in space travel than the people of its most far-flung territory.
In the 1980s, France had pledged to invest more money in French Guiana and the territory was filled with false hope, not dissimilar to the current situation. In 1980, at the beginning of this new dawn, Florent Johan Malouda was born in the capital city, Cayenne.
Football was a family affair for the Maloudas: Florent’s mother played in the women’s league while his father was at one point French Guiana’s top scorer before hanging up his boots and becoming a local football coach. When it dawned on Malouda that he was never going to grow tall enough to be a basketball player, he unsurprisingly resolved to play with the ball at his feet instead.
In an interview in 2007, Malouda recalled: “I had the impression that the televised matches from the great international competitions like the World Cup were on another planet”. But the return of France and PSG goalkeeper Bernard Lama to Cayenne – the city he grew up in – made his dream of playing professional football more tangible. Even though a quiet acknowledgement lingered within the Malouda family that the kid from Cayenne would have to cross the Atlantic to fulfil this dream.
He wouldn’t have to wait long though as his talents caught the eye of Joseph Mercier, a football coach, expert and educator who had trained players like Michel Platini. Mercier recommended Malouda to friends over at his former club in France, La Berrichonne de Châteauroux.
Coincidentally, the academy coach from LB Châteauroux, Roger Fleury, was attending a testimonial match between Guiana and a Variétés Club de France side made up of sporting and media personalities, one of whom was Platini. Stood on the side-lines watching Florent strut his stuff against other children before the adults game, Platini raised his eyebrows and told Fleury: “that is going to be some player”.
On the plane to Paris
Needless to say, LB Châteauroux offered Florent a place at their academy, so the 15-year-old got on the plane to Orly Airport in Paris to forge his future in football. The 5,000-mile journey would see him leave the only home he had known to continue his education – schooling and footballing – in Europe, and not the South American fragment of it.
In the 1996/97 season, Florent made his professional debut for Châteauroux aged 16. But his rise to the top would be slow and steady rather than instant success. Still training with the academy, he would have to work and wait another two years to reap the rewards of a regular spot in the first team.
Malouda would later recall the difficulties of these early years in metropolitan France – seeking comfort from his Aunt in Paris and learning to control his then-bad temper – while Fleury would often find him crying as he struggled to adapt. He was more used to playing against adults in French Guiana than academy kids in Paris after all.
During LB Châteauroux’s season-long venture into Ligue 1, he made one solitary appearance. But incoming manager Joël Bats – a former goalkeeper who won the European Championship with France in 1984 – brought Malouda into the first team full time to see what he was all about.
While his performances were lively during the 1998/99 campaign, it would take some time for him to improve upon his often erratic finishing in front of goal and shrug off the nickname he was dubbed by supporters – ‘Florent Maladroit’ or sometimes simply ‘Maladroit’ – clumsy. Footballers are usually called far worse.
But the nickname that followed Florent across France still annoyed him. By no means a natural finisher, he had to persevere to prove not only the fans wrong but also coaches such as Guy Lacombe and Paul Le Guen who would later unsuccessfully attempt to convert him into a left-back.
Back to Ligue 2 for now though, as Malouda’s performances had pricked up the ears of rival clubs in France. En Avant de Guingamp decided to sign Malouda in 2000 and bring him back to the top tier of French football, this time he would make more than one appearance though.
Situated on the north coast of France in the Brittany region, Guingamp was an unusual hub of footballing activity in the early 2000s. The Ligue 1 side boasted a stadium that could hold twice the town’s 8,000 population. Yet, Malouda was unable to offer up too much excitement for these fans in his first season at the club, scoring one goal in 24 appearances, many of which he either came off the bench or was subbed to it.
No longer a fledgeling to the First Division, Malouda earnt a regular place in manager Guy Lacombe’s team during his second season at the club. But, losses followed more losses for EA Guingamp and the familiarity of Ligue 2 was looming on Malouda’s horizon.
Enter Didier Drogba
The late-blooming Ivorian striker arrived at EA Guingamp as an unknown quantity from Ligue 2 side Le Mans in the January transfer window. He quickly formed a friendship with Malouda that would lead the pair far beyond the relegation battle they were currently facing.
Just two days after arriving at his new club, Drogba scored on his debut in France’s top flight and guided EA Guingamp to their first away win of the season against relegation rivals FC Metz. But, his journey through the top flight of French football was almost as stop-start as new mate Malouda’s as he only scored twice more during the remainder of the season.
EA Guingamp secured their survival in Ligue 1 on the last day of the season with a win and some favourable results elsewhere for them in France. Nevertheless, Lacombe’s time at the club was up and Guingamp-born Bertrand Marchand was taking his place at the helm. Would he be able to unite the town’s team any better?