In northern France about an hour outside Paris lies the central nervous system of the French football machine.
Buried in the plush green woods of the Rambouillet forrest the institut national du football de Clairefontaine or simply INF Clairefontaine is perhaps the most celebrated national football academy in the world.
Clairefontaine is responsible for refining and perfecting the technical and tactical acumen of players like Thierry Henry, Louis Saha, Medhi Benatia, Nicolas Anelka, William Gallas, Hatem Ben Arfa, Abou Diaby, Olivier Giroud, Blaise Matuidi and the recent crown jewel of the programme – PSG’s Kylian Mbappe.
There were 50 players born in France representing various nations at the 2018 World Cup. An astounding figure that demonstrates the scope of France’s ability to produce football players.
But how did the French perfect the concept of player development? How has this country continuously produced the most exciting, powerful, technical and tactically smart players on the planet?
Well quite simply, by developing the best individuals for the benefit of the team.
The brainchild of former French Football president Fernand Sastre and head coach Stefan Kovács, Clairefontaine has housed the French national team since 1988 and was the base camp for the 1998 World Cup winning side.
Kovács, a Romanian born ethnic Hungarian and the only foreigner to ever coach the French national side, was inspired by the communist training centres of his homeland – rigid camps where individual skill was obsessively honed for the good of the collective.
At its most basic level, Clairefontaine is a regional academy for boys from the Paris suburbs, an area that has consistently produced incredibly talented footballers. Boys aged 13 to 15 from the Île-de-France région apply for the programme with 23 being selected each season.
The players stay at Clairefontaine throughout the week and return to their local sides to play matches on the weekend. The philosophy at Clairefontaine begins with individual technical perfection: being able to turn quickly, improving your weaker foot and tactical decision making. The students are put through their paces in highly specific and regimented drills before ever touching a full sized pitch.
But French Football is less concerned with a larger playing philosophy unlike, say Barcelona’s La Masia and more focused on individual player development. While all the youth teams play in a 4-3-3, the emphasis is on creating the best individual players in relation to the team.
Jean-Claude Lefargue the director of the programme, The Telegraph in 2018 that France’s coaches are starting to embrace the philosophy of Clairefontaine: “All the coaches of the professional clubs come through Clairefontaine. Over the years we have been able to convince them of the philosophy, about what they have to find in a player. And so we have started to have this common idea across France. It takes time to convince others, to train coaches, but little by little we have all started to the same thing.”
When Lefargue refers to a “philosophy” he is talking about player development, not tactics. Lefargue and Clairefontaine produce incredibly astute players that are tactically malleable and technically proficient, able to play whatever roles they are assigned. Kylian Mbappe’s presence on the right wing for France in 2018 and PSG at times is an example of this philosophy in action.
There is a sort of ironic simplicity to it: to produce the best individuals for the good of the collective, and Lefargue explained the idea to The Telegraph: “I use the example of an actor. An actor has to play the best role possible, but only according to the role he has. If it is a sad role, he has to be sad. In a match, it’s the same thing. If you have a really good actor, you cannot just give him a small role. You have to make more of him.”
The French national side has played very different styles over the course of the last 30 years, perhaps best evidenced by their international double at World Cup 1998 and Euro 2000. In 1998, the French were cautious and solid, with the much-maligned striker Stephane Guivarc’h not getting onto the scoresheet all tournament, much like Olivier Giroud 20 years later.
At the World Cup, the French relied on the individual brilliance of Zinedine Zidane and their defensive backline of Lillian Thuram, Marce Desailly, Frank LeBouef and Bixente Lizarazu. But two years later, France had Nicolas Anelka and Thierry Henry, two Clairefontaine graduates and two of the finest strikers of the era. They lead the line and romped to the title based off superior speed, power and technique.
In the span of two years, France’s footballing actors were able to put forth two stylistically polar productions, but both ended in silverware. When compared to the Dutch or Italians, there is no real “French football philosophy”, besides creating the most technically precise, quick, strong and tactically astute players.
Nevertheless, a tension between the playing philosophies characterised much of modern French football. As Michael Cox writes in his book Zonal Marking, “Post-war French football was effectively a battle between two contrasting ideologies, one that favoured physicality and hard work, and the other that placed emphasis on technique and style”.
One must look no further than the 2018 World Cup-winning double pivot of N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba to see these two supposedly contrasting ideologies working in perfect harmony.
The Clairefontaine model has now been copied throughout the world, even La Masia can learn from Lefargue’s programme as he proudly stated: “La Masia came here a long time ago. But we have the same philosophy. Not necessarily the pass for a pass, but working for the collective.”
England’s St.George’s Park has been largely based off the Clairefontiane development model. With a talented new generation coming though, England is starting to reap the benefits of these ideas.
The French football machine has shown its ability to produce a never-ending procession of Golden Generations since Clairefontaine’s inception. They are perhaps the greatest modern footballing country, armed with a simple philosophy based on producing the best possible players.
If football is a game of actors, the world is truly a stage for French football.