BY DAVE LONG
Literally in the middle of nowhere, in the grounds of a renovated 17th century castle in the Parisian countryside lies a site of over 50 hectares. It is responsible for the victorious French sides of 1998, 2000 and 2018, not to mention final appearances in 2006 and 2016. Notable alumni include Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka, Blaise Matuidi and Kylian Mbappe. The national French football academy, Clairefontaine, has won a host of admirers since its inception in 1988 and the ability to produce world class players doesn’t show any signs of diminishing soon.
Clairefontaine was a dream brought to reality by the former French Football Federation (FFF) President, Fernand Sastre. He noted the success of Italy and Germany on the international stage and felt France was lagging behind their counterparts. Building work began in 1985, just months after France’s 1984 UEFA European Championship victory on home soil. It is one of 10 centres of excellence on mainland France, while two more are located elsewhere; one on the French island of Réunion, east of Madagascar, and the other on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, also a French territory. Prospective players must hold French citizenship and be at least 13 years of age. The best players are selected by their clubs to attend a trial at Clairefontaine around Easter time. Of the participants, 22 will be selected to stay, train and learn full time at the academy.
Those fortunate enough to be selected will attend Clairefontaine from Monday through Friday, while at weekends they will train and play with their club sides back at home. Football isn’t the only topic on the curriculum; players also have strict educational criteria to abide to as the percentage of players who make it into professional teams from Clairefontaine remains low and players must prepare themselves for life outside football. The accommodation, education and football fees are all met by the FFF as many players come from working class backgrounds and would have little opportunity to be able to afford such costs.
Standards of coaching at Clairefontaine are understandably high, players are educated to become more technically accomplished; coaches focus on agility, use of the player’s weaker foot, physical and psychological testing. The ability to read a game while in the midst of the action should never be understated and tactical training is a large part of the players’ duties in order to produce not only technically proficient players but also ones who are intelligent and tactically knowledgeable. The philosophy surrounding which players are enrolled at Clairefontaine and which ones aren’t has changed significantly in the 30 years since 1988. Nowadays speed and strength are not everything, the more technically gifted a player is and the better he can read a game, the more chance he will have of being accepted. It is an attitude mirrored by many countries, England included.
It can be argued due to the high percentage of talented players to graduate from Clairefontaine that several have gone on to represent other countries. Raphael Guerreiro played against France for Portugal in the Euro 2016 Final; Damien Perquis has represented Poland at senior level; Juventus’ Medhi Benatia is captain of Morocco; and Sebastien Bassong represented Cameroon at the 2010 FIFA World Cup. There have also been some notable 2018 players who have slipped the Clairefontaine net, including Antoine Griezmann, Ngolo Kante and Dimitri Payet. Of course, many have had successful careers – Henry, Anelka, William Gallas, Hatem Ben Arfa and Louis Saha are just a few of the decorated academy graduates.
Despite the success of Clairefontaine there could be a time in the not so distant future where it could become redundant. Like Lilleshall in England, Clairefontaine could be overtaken in the youth player echelons by domestic club academies. Anthony Martial was a Clairefontaine trial attendee but was picked up by a coach from Olympique Lyon and Raphaël Varane also drew interest from Manchester United after impressing during his Clairefontaine trials in 2011 and was later that year signed by Real Madrid.
Clairefontaine has many admirers, not the least the English FA who visited there in 2000 with a view to building an English national academy. The result of many years of planning and false starts is St. George’s Park. Costing £105million the 140 hectare site contains 12 world class standard football pitches which consist of both artificial surfaces and grass (one of the pitches is an exact replica in size to that of Wembley Stadium). The site also boasts a sports science laboratory, state of the art hydrotherapy suites and video analysis facilities. It has been responsible for much national youth team success in recent years; the Under 17 and Under 20 teams were world champions in 2017 and the Under 19s became European Champions the same year.
The hope for the English stars of tomorrow is that they continue to make the most of the St. George’s Park infrastructure, the current general goodwill shown for England’s national teams, and not to mention the large sums of money in the game at the moment. Crucially they should also continue take on board the good influences brought about by foreign managers and coaching staff in the Premier League; one can only imagine how Phil Foden’s game will develop under the guidance of Pep Guardiola. England may be years behind France in their ability to produce world class youth players, but they are gaining a big reputation and the FA must continue to let this grow. If Clairefontaine was their inspiration for the implementation of St. George’s Park it must also be influential in how they measure their successes too.
The sound working relationship between the FFF and Ligue 1 has seen a vast pool of players produced from which Didier Deschamps was able to pick the second-youngest squad at the 2018 World Cup. Such is the depth of the talent in France players such as Martial, Karim Benzema, Alexandre Lacazette, Kingsley Coman and Aymeric Laporte were left out of the squad.
Mbappe is the most famous recent Clairefontaine success story. He moved from his local team, AS Bondy, to Monaco in 2013, aged just 15, and he made his senior international debut at 19. He burst on to the international scene with some exhilarating performances in Russia and his success must surely be an inspiration for the Clairefontaine attendees of the next few years. This French side is arguably weaker than that of 1998 and 2000, but the fact remains they were the second-youngest squad in Russia and won the World Cup; time is on their side and they will have another five or six tournaments together, by that time the next generation of talent will be ready to replace them.
Clairefontaine is at the heart of French football’s seemingly endless stream of talent and we could be about to witness the rise of the next dominant team in world football.
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