Clairefontaine: the dream factory that changed French football forever

Clairefontaine: the dream factory that changed French football forever

This feature is taken from the France issue of These Football Times magazine. Order your copy of this beautifully crafted, timeless print edition via our online shop. In the process, you’ll support independent writing and enable us to move away from the sensationalised, clickbait football destroying modern journalism.

A sign on the walls of the Clairefontaine football centre in France reads: “Pour L’INF, merci pour ces deux années inoubliables.” It roughly translates as: “Thank you, INF, for these two unforgettable years.” The sign, surrounded by pictures, was given by Kylian Mbappé, the latest poster boy of French football, as he shows his gratitude to the infamous nursery of the sport in a country that, over the years, has honed superstars, world and European champions, Ballon d’Or candidates and the record-shattering Paris Saint-Germain youngster himself.

Mbappé is another unbelievably good footballer who’s come through the ranks of Clairefontaine. As someone certain to be amongst the highest echelons of football for many years to come, and having achieved so much at such a young age, he has great reason to thank those that got him there. For the national football centre, he is merely another success story.

Located in the north of France in the forests of Clairefontaine-en-Yvelines, a suburb close to Paris, the Centre Technique National Fernand Sastre, or Clairefontaine as it’s more popularly known, was the brainchild of longtime French Football Federation (FFF) President Fernand Sastre, and inspired by the methods of the legendary Romanian coach Ștefan Kovács. The three-year building period commenced in 1985 and ever since then, they’ve enjoyed a plethora of talent whizzing through its doors.

Going through videos of Clairefontaine over the years will show you plenty of recognisable footballers. The likes of Thierry Henry, Nicholas Anelka and Louis Saha are all graduates of the centre and the quality of coaching is what makes this stunning venue so respected. The focus of the coaches is on, amongst other things, improving all-round technique, improving the decision-making of a player, making them faster, and bringing a level of game intelligence to their play that sets them up for a future with the national team. It’s undertaken by coaches and at a level of intensity rarely seen anywhere in the world.

The process of turning coal into diamond relies on a screening process that only allows the finest talent to enter the institution. For a player to be selected for admission, thus paving a way for a future with Les Bleus, it is essential that they are between 13 and 15 years of age, have French citizenship and live or play in the surrounding Île-de-France, Seine-Maritime or Eure regions. Players train at Clairefontaine from Sunday to Friday evening before heading off to play for their local clubs at the weekend. This level of exposure to playing almost every day of the week is rare, and it’s what breeds thoroughbred footballers.

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Another reason for Clairefontaine’s success is the philosophy of creating a habitable training environment for its students, many of whom traditionally come from working-class neighbourhoods. There are rigorous training approaches and schedules, but the sense of familiarity between the trainees and the coaches ensures that the feeling of homesickness or loneliness is kept to a minimum. The players are clothed and fed, and, in recent times, an emphasis has been placed on their academic performance.

On the pitch itself, this unique methodology sets Clairefontaine apart from its counterparts. The priorities for the players are geared towards winning – the centre aims to produce winners who’ll represent the nation. While development is, of course, the primary focus, knowing how to win and your role in that is of equal importance. Players unable to meet the rigorous demands are nurtured, given time and constantly assessed. Nobody is there against their will. There’s no time for passengers.

Similarly, the coaches have priorities too. When setting up training sessions, the aims – all within the framework of the Clairefontaine philosophy – are recorded and monitored. No stone is left unturned in the quest for the perfect footballer. Under the centre’s philosophy, the coach must consider the age of the player and set objectives relative to it so they have the best chance of improving. Their advice must be accurate, efficient and helpful, while aggressive forms of anger – shouting, repetitive criticism and physical contact – are strictly prohibited. It’s this blend of methods that has made Clairefontaine such a success.

With these factors taken into consideration, the systematic style in which the French go about their business is also crucial. All age groups train in the 4-3-3 formation, which the FFF believes is most flexible and creates the most space. Within the academy, children in the first year focus on improving with the ball, focusing largely on individual development. In the second, the players work on structures and awareness – with players trying out various small-sided scenarios. Once they have succeeded at an individual level, they finally move to full-sized pitches, rarely before they hit their teens.

The idea of growing in a footballing sense also requires players to excel in tests that can aid in their mental development. There are three tests that each player needs to go through on a regular basis and the results are constantly analysed and compared. The tests are based on three key area – psychological, medical and physical – with the most advanced systems, modern methods and state-of-the-art technology playing a part in formulating the results.

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The psychological tests involve sports personality quizzes where players are given situations to solve football-related issues as well as personal ones. Meanwhile, the medical tests aim to build up the bodies and minds of players, helping them resist injury in the future and deal with the pain of recovery when they encounter it. Medical testing includes height and weight screening, sight and dental check-ups and frequent treadmill workouts. Finally, the physical tests are on the pitch itself and involve Swedish Beep Tests to check an athlete’s oxygen intake.

It is essential that a world-class facility makes the most of these modern methods, and for Clairefontaine, the results speak for themselves. A decade after it’s inception, France won the World Cup in a side containing a 20-year-old Thierry Henry, while for their Euro 2000 success, Nicolas Anelka made the step up. Since their hallowed double on the international stage, the number of graduates to have represented France grows with each passing year.

Essentially, Clairefontaine is a place designed to mould players into elite athletes, setting them up with the skills to join a leading academy full-time and continue their education. The example of Kylian Mbappé comes to mind. After his graduation from Clairefontaine, he rejected advances from some of Europe’s most renowned academies to continue his football career in the Monaco youth setup, a decision that has paid dividends and was recommended by some of his Clairefontaine coaches.

Mbappé aside, if one wants to see Clairefontaine’s great- est success, it need look no further than Henry. Coming into the academy with failing grades and a number of personal issues, Henry’s coaches recall the problems he faced at the institution as he struggled to fit in with the other players. Andre Merelle, one of his trainers, spoke to The Telegraph about Henry’s early months at Clairefontaine: “He was very intelligent, but at the start one of the few who didn’t work well. That changed. He quickly became more diligent.” The work put in by the coaches reaped the ultimate rewards as Henry would later become Les Bleus’ highest goalscorer of all-time.

The facility has now become the training base for the national team, and the players that have stepped through those doors are in football’s history books. In 1998, it was also used as the base for the World Cup; the privacy is perfect for training without distraction. Hidden away in the forest, the centre and surrounding area boasts five-star hotels, libraries, cinemas, seven grass pitches, three synthetic pitches, fitness centres and restaurants. Built for footballers of all ages, this is the ultimate development centre.

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This triumph, however, has also seen its fair share of blips along the way. In the late 2000s, when the French were struggling following an underwhelming showing at Euro 2008 and the calamity in South Africa in 2010, Clairefontaine was often criticised for breaking tradition. It was argued that the methods were becoming outdated and coaches were relying more on size and strength rather than their technical superiority. That was according to Gérard Houllier, no less, one of Clairefontaine’s greatest advocates.

The academy was also embroiled in a discrimination row when the FFF – looking to secure players for France – aimed to cap the number of players with dual nationalities. There was talk of tweaking the selection process for 12-year-olds, which was widely criticised in the French media as many French-born players of Arab heritage would miss out – a fair chunk of the senior national team in recent years.

To add salt to the wounds, Henry bemoaned the fact that young players lack respect – including those trained at Clairefontaine, calling into the question the academy’s methods: “There is no longer the same respect. When I played at Monaco, even after winning the World Cup, I collected the footballs and carried the bags. In South Africa, it was pretty much me still carrying them.”

Thankfully for this bastion of talent, the worst seems to have passed, and the list of humble, talented youngsters to have graduated is once again being added to. While mistakes have been made in player identification in recent years – Anthony Martial and N’Golo Kanté were deemed to be of insufficient quality and never finished their courses at the academy – Mbappé proves that the academy is still working.

Perhaps they can take comfort in that the fact that so many have tried to replicate their methods, often with greater coverage. England, in a bid to boost their own success on the international stage, opened St. George’s Park in 2012, while the likes of Latvia, Turkey, Qatar and most famously Belgium are also adopting the Clairefontaine methods. The inspiration they have provided to coaches and federations the world over should provide renewed motivation. Their task now is to continue their inventive methods following their world triumph in 2018.

From Henry and Anelka to Saha and Mbappé, and a host of other top-level professionals, Clairefontaine has a thousand stories to tell. A few years prior to Mbappé sending in his token of appreciation to be stuck on the esteemed walls of the academy, he gave an interview at the age of 14 where he talked about his ambition and where he saw himself in the future: “To play for Real Madrid. It is better to target the moon. That way, if you fail, you get to the clouds.” With the way he was learning, this only seemed reasonable, for Clairefontaine’s methods dared him to dream.

By Karan Tejwani @karan_tejwani26

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