France, who won the World Cup in 1998, are preparing for future glory by focusing on the sport’s development at the youth-level. PAUL GABRIEL, who visited the Clairefontaine National Institute of Football recently, writes that playing ball is serious business for the children at France’s famed football academy.
THE air of serenity and the woody surroundings at the Clairefontaine National Institute of Football (INF) is captivating. A chateau provides the backdrop for acres of green lawn, with some modern structures adding to the beauty.
But this is no French resort. This place, in the heart of the Rambouillet Forest about 50km west of Paris, is the “mecca” of French football. It's where the French national team train. And it is also where a large number of young French talent spring.
The institute, which opened in 1990, is the most prestigious of six other inter-regional centres that followed later in the North (near Lille), West (in Britanny), South West (Toulouse), Centre (Vichy and Chateauroux), East (near Metz) and in Marseille.
The centres are operated by the French Football Federation (FFF), with the French Ministry of Sports contributing about 10% of the total budget.
International success for the French has been built largely around the extensive facilities at Clairefontaine. French captain Zinedine Zidane and the likes of Arsenal star Thierry Henry and Manchester City’s Nicolas Anelka are among the many “graduates” of Clairefontaine.
Talented teenagers aged between 13 and 15 – and some even at the tender age of 11 – are specially selected to study and train at the inter-regional centres for periods of up to three years before they join centres run by professional clubs.
Only the cream of the crop can dream of Clairefontaine as the intake is limited to 24 trainees per season. Consider this: for the Sept 2003 intake, a total of 900 children have registered.
French national trainer Claude Dusseau, who is Clairefontaine’s technical director, reveals just what it takes.
“Endurance, speed and technique are the three main qualities we look for,’’ he says. “Those who qualify must have at least 80% of these qualities. The other 20% we can add.”
That’s not all. “You still must have the head for the game,’’ he adds. “Many will be eliminated quickly,’’ he says.
And it's not just about juggling a ball or running with it.
The players have to respect the principles of playing football and obey the coach, says Dusseau.
There are two sets of priorities in Clairefontaine – for the trainees, as well as the coaching staff.
The youngsters have to bloom into top-class professionals, while keeping pace with their studies as a safeguard against failing on the pitch. For the coaches, they have to bring out the best in their charges.
The FFF are placing great emphasis on football development at the grassroots-level, says Dusseau.
“The better the job they do in development, the more accomplished the players will be when they become professionals.”
In Clairefontaine, the trainees attend nearby schools and return to the centre by 3pm for practical sessions from 4pm to 6pm.
There are five training fields, a stadium pitch for matches and a superb indoor “real grass” artificial pitch at the sprawling 56ha training facility.
There are also the manadatory medical centre, gymnasium, fitness room, self-service restaurant and cafeteria.
Then, there is the French national team chateau – a real sight to behold.
For the trainees here, it is not all a question of having the brains to match the brawn.
“For those who do not have the capacity to go beyond the ninth grade (at the age of 14), teachers come here to equip them with vocational skills,’’ says Dusseau, adding that six out of the present batch of 24 trainees require such assistance.
The parental touch is not being forsaken, too.
“The boys are allowed to return home for the weekends to spend time with their parents. During school vacations, some of the older players are attached with the smaller clubs. This is a good way for them to learn,’’ he notes.
Dusseau says the centre looked out for naturally skilful and speedy youngsters.
And size does matter. Wrist X-rays are taken to determine bone age and estimate how tall the boys will be able to grow!
Bone age, Dusseau says, plays a big part.
“It is important is to know the bone age of a child. We know that one out of every five youngsters possess superior bone age. And two out of the five could be two years behind time in their growth.
“Meaning, a player at the age of 13 will plays like a 15-year-old, while two others will perform like 11-year-olds. We are interested in those who act younger than they are, as they will usually have more scope for development.’’
The reason: “If an apprentice at the age of 13 plays like a 15-year-old, he will have a shorter time to develop as we can only keep him here until he is 18.
“If a 13-year-old plays like he is 11, the room for growth is greater and he will endure better. So it is best to focus on those in the 11-13 age group. Young players are usually settled by the age of 15.”
According to Dusseau, there are basically three types of trainees – those who are gifted but do not work at their game, the not gifted who work hard, and the gifted and hardworking.
He cites England’s boy wonder Wayne Rooney, who plays for Everton, as an example of a gifted player who has toiled at his game.
“At 17, he’s already acquired all the necessary qualities. He’s super-gifted. And look at Thierry Henry. At 18, he’s shown his true potential. And at 25, he is a much better player now as he has been able to develop his qualities.
“Michael Owen (the Liverpool star who began his England career at the age of 17) is also going to get even better,’’ he predicts.
Clairefontaine is, in fact, becoming a model for other countries, including England.
“About 90% of the boys who come here end up in professional training centres. Of the present batch of trainees, five are of national team material and 15 have shown Olympic potential,’’ he says.
And here's the real bad news for opponents. Dusseau says that, despite its “superpower” status, France has not even reached 50% of what can be done at youth-level.