Font of all Knowledge?
The Clairefontaine academy was once the envy of the world, but has it gone stale?
They were regarded as the perfect modern footballing machine. Their players were physical, technically assured and extremely disciplined. A rock-solid defence was screened by two strong-tackling, shrewd midfielders. They boasted electric pace in attack and, of course, that all-important creative maestro, Zinédine Zidane, tying everything together.
France at the turn of the century were as admired and feared as Spain are today.
World Cup winners in 1998 and European champions two years later, Les Bleus were seen as pioneers destined to dominate the international landscape for years. Indeed, the scariest part for everyone else was the strength in depth. If Zidane was not there, never mind, Robert Pires, Youri Djorkaeff or Johan Micoud could assume creative duties. If Thierry Henry got injured, David Trezeguet, Nicolas Anelka or Sylvain Wiltord would score the goals. If Deschamps decided to call it a day, Patrick Vieira would step in to partner Emmanuel Petit in midfield.
France's journey to the summit was long and arduous, but they had made it thanks to careful planning and a lot of hard work. No sooner had Deschamps lifted the World Cup than their coach Aimé Jacquet was hailing the triumph "a victory for French youth development". For Jacquet, the foundations of France's success could be found in Clairefontaine, a small, sleepy town situated 50 kilometres south-west of Paris.
The Clairefontaine complex, which was founded by the Fédération Française de Football (FFF) in 1988, housed France's first centre of excellence for boys aged 12-15. The site also became French football's nerve centre, where the plans for a nationwide youth development strategy and coaching philosophy would be defined. After the 1998 win, Clairefontaine was the envy of the footballing world.
Fast forward a decade and the picture has changed radically. The long period of domination never materialised and with France's performances nose-diving — they hit an all-time low of 27th in the Fifa rankings in September 2010 — Clairefontaine has come under fire. Previously hailed as innovative and revolutionary, those plotting the future of the French game are now more often accused of complacency, incompetence and racism.
The national team's poor showing at Euro 2008 was followed by an abysmal World Cup in South Africa where Raymond Domenech's side disgraced itself both on and off the pitch. Back home, Anelka, Patrice Evra, Eric Abidal and Franck Ribéry were being branded "the scum generation", portrayed as a group of spoilt, surly, overpaid footballers not fit to lace the boots of the classy "Zidane generation". That those players and the majority of the squad grew up in France's underprivileged suburbs led to much heated sociological debate.
France's famous youth structures, meanwhile, were criticised for failing to produce respectful, rounded individuals. Henry — a novice in 1998 and a veteran in 2010 — witnessed the full circle and issued a damning verdict on today's youngsters upon his return from South Africa. "There's no longer the same respect," Henry said in an interview with TF1. "When I played at Monaco, even after winning the World Cup, I collected the balls and carried the bags. [In South Africa] it was pretty much me still carrying them."
Gérard Houllier had already identified a lack of spirit and desire among youngsters as a fundamental shortcoming after returning to the position of France's director of football in 2007. But Houllier also claimed the methods employed at Clairefontaine had become outdated. Youth coaches, he argued, were placing far too much importance on size and power when selecting pupils. Mentality and footballing intelligence needed to become key criteria, as they are in Spain.
To cap a disastrous period, the FFF became engulfed in a discrimination row in April 2011 when the contents of a meeting between national coaches, including the senior team boss Laurent Blanc, were leaked to the press. While discussing the criteria on which to base the selection of 12 year olds for the federation's elite academies, the idea of limiting the number of players with dual nationality was raised. The primary motivation for the policy appeared to be reducing the number of trainees who could go on to represent another nation, yet there was enough loose talk and ambiguity to plunge the French game into another deep crisis.
Not only had France's once-vaunted youth system supposedly grown stale, but there were now suggestions of a racist element existing at its core. The pride of French football at the turn of the century, Clairefontaine is being blamed by many for the country's woes. Whether or not those accusations are at all justified, it's been quite a turnaround.
Francisco Filho cuts a proud figure as he looks up admiringly at the imposing replica of the World Cup that greets visitors at the Institut National de Football (INF) — the federation's centre of excellence — in Clairefontaine. "That trophy is the result of 32 years' hard work," the Brazilian declares.
A Clairefontaine stalwart, Filho ended his playing career in France before joining the coaching staff of the INF in 1973 and training kids there for 28 years. He charts the birth of France's renaissance to a specific date: July 30, 1966. Les Bleus had long exited the World Cup by the time England sealed victory over West Germany in a final that had been so fast and so physical it left a deep impression on French observers. "It was the day the people who ran French football realised France had been left behind," Filho explains. "The English and West Germans were big, strong, quick, and could run and run. Physically, they were light years ahead of France."
Georges Boulogne was part of the FFF's technical committee that began to address the issue, although little improvement had been made by the time he was appointed France coach in 1969. Indeed, Boulogne's first game in charge was a 5-0 drubbing by the reigning world champions at Wembley.
French football was in the doldrums; Les Bleus failed to qualify for the World Cups of 1970 and 1974 or the European Championships of 1972 and 1976. A complete structural overhaul was required and Boulogne ensured the revolution started at the bottom. The federation's Directeur Technique Nationale (DTN) from 1970 until 1982, Boulogne began by creating the INF in 1972.
Initially located in Vichy, France's inaugural centre of excellence was renowned for being a brutal boot camp. "Generally French teams were organised and defended well, but we needed to get in line physically," explains Filho. "So we trained the kids hard. Very hard. They trained in army gear. We provided them with bullet-proof vests laced with metal. We were like a team of bull-dozers. We never got tired."
The methods may have been raw but Vichy was at least a start. The INF worked with youngsters aged between 17 and 20 and liaised with the clubs to ensure they were setting up their own academies and applying the same techniques. Nancy were the first club to establish a school of excellence and their most distinguished graduate, Michel Platini, would be the star of France's European Championship triumph in 1984.
Although in the early years they nurtured some robust players, the INF's impact was limited. When the former Rouen and Bordeaux defender André Merelle joined the INF staff in 1981, he was struck by the technical ineptitude of the students. "They were all fit but I couldn't believe how low the standard was," Merelle says. "It was obvious they didn't have the skill required. That was partly our fault because we were working too much on endurance, but also we were only getting second-choice players. The clubs took all the top talent."
Merelle, Filho and their fellow coach Claude Dusseau decided the INF needed to get to the talent sooner and urged the federation to introduce a pre-formation (early training) programme, which would target 12 to 15 year olds. Soon after the INF had moved from Vichy to the lush, expansive grounds of Clairefontaine in 1988 the visionary scheme was introduced.
While endurance had been top priority at Vichy, technique would be the buzzword at Clairefontaine. "The philosophy changed," notes Merelle, who replaced Dusseau as INF director in 2004. "We felt football was about technique above all and we reasoned that if a child could not control or pass a football then he would never become great. So we repeated our technical drills over and over again until they became second nature."
This repetition of exercises became a Clairefontaine hallmark. Crucially, boys were never sent on runs and never practised fitness drills. "Every minute a 13 year old spends running without a football is a minute lost," states Filho. "Our youngsters always had a ball at their feet. They learned how to control a ball that arrived from the side or from behind. They learned how to pass a ball without changing body shape. When they had growth spurts, the training drills we imposed ensured their bodies developed in a way that would help them as footballers."
In 1990, 20 of the best 12 year olds from the region surrounding Clairefontaine were invited to spend three years at the INF's elite school. They would board during the week, train every day and continue their academic education at a school in nearby Rambouillet.
The class of 1990 failed to provide any internationals — the Caen playmaker Benjamin Nivet was probably the most successful graduate — but the second intake produced spectacular results after the catchment area was expanded to include the Paris suburbs. Henry, William Gallas and Jérôme Rothen were among those selected in 1991, while Louis Saha, Philippe Christanval and Anelka joined the following year. The FFF subsequently funded the construction of 13 more elite schools around the country, all of which would replicate the Clairefontaine methods. In recent years, French clubs have been allowed to open their own pre-formation centres, although the INF keeps a controlling hand by imposing specific regulations and ensuring they are respected.
Inevitably France's success was recognised abroad. Arsène Wenger upset many when he lured a 16-year-old Jérémie Aliadière to Arsenal just weeks after he had left Clairefontaine. Aliadière's move sparked a trend that continues today with an increasing number of French teens fleeing their homeland. Filho was also snapped up, with Sir Alex Ferguson luring the trainer to Manchester United's academy in 2001.
France's methods were all the rage back then, like Spain's are now. But Filho and Merelle are amused by suggestions the INF needs to take a leaf out of Barcelona's book. "Barcelona were the ones who copied us!" Merelle chuckles. "We worked and worked on technique with the boys, ensuring they knew how to pass, move and keep possession. The head of La Masia used to watch us train. He liked what he saw so he took our methods back to Spain."
Filho recalls a conversation he had with Pep Guardiola. "We were at a tournament in the Canary Islands," he says. "Guardiola was a great admirer of the INF and he told me 'if ever I coach a team I want them to play in exactly the same way as your kids.'"
Since Jacquet's crowning moment in 1998, France have added a second European title to their list of honours and lost another World Cup final on penalties. Most countries would be delighted with such a record, but if truth be told the run to the 2006 showpiece in Berlin — inspired by Zidane's international return — merely papered over cracks.
Just as France's rebirth had begun on the day of the 1966 final, their latest slide started shortly after Petit had shot past Claudio Taffarel to finish off Brazil in Saint-Denis. That heady night sparked an era of complacency at the summit of the French game, the consequences of which are still being felt.
By masterminding his country's solitary World Cup success on home soil, Jacquet secured a permanent place in French hearts. Like Sir Alf Ramsey before him, Jacquet became a revered figure in his homeland, his name synonymous with success and happy times. Standing down in the aftermath of the World Cup, the former Lyon and Bordeaux manager was handed the keys to Clairefontaine as he landed the powerful position of DTN.
In France, the DTN plays a vital, all-encompassing role. He is responsible for defining youth strategy, appointing technical staff for national teams of all age groups and laying out a training programme for coaches. Jacquet held the position for eight years. While his reputation in France remains positive, many experts blame him for the current problems.
The chief football writer for L'Equipe, Vincent Duluc, describes Jacquet as "the worst DTN in history". Duluc says, "His legacy was a disaster for French football and he's responsible for a lot of the problems we're encountering today. In winning the World Cup, he realised the ultimate achievement, but once it was over he no longer had the taste for football. Ask Jacquet what he did during his time as DTN and he has absolutely nothing to show. He did nothing."
Duluc is exaggerating slightly; Jacquet did make some important decisions. He was responsible for appointing Jacques Santini as Roger Lemerre's successor in 2002. He also promoted Domenech from Under-21 to senior coach in 2004 and strongly supported him against a storm of criticism until his resignation as DTN in December 2006.
Jacquet, it should also be noted, had been employed by the FFF since 1991 and he swore by their methods. His claim that 1998 was "a victory for youth development" is dismissed by others. Raynald Denoueix, who coached Nantes to the Ligue 1 title in 2001, says Jacquet was merely being tactful. "It was a political comment," Denoueix explains. "Jacquet worked at the federation for a long time and was very close to the coaches. He was just thanking them for their efforts. Saying France won the World Cup because of their youth system is far too simplistic, just as it would be wrong to say the youth system is the root cause of today's problems."
The conveyor belt of young talent undoubtedly helped in 1998. Although Henry was the only INF graduate included in the victorious squad, the majority of players had benefited from the outstanding conditions at the academies of clubs like Cannes, Monaco and Nantes. But it is impossible to ignore the fact that Jacquet was also blessed with a fine generation of players, led by Zidane, and that his team enjoyed some fortune. "If we'd been eliminated by Paraguay, which nearly happened, or lost the shootout against Italy, the story would have been different," Duluc points out.
Nevertheless Jacquet's confidence in the French methods was unwavering. The main qualities of his team were physical strength, athleticism, discipline and speed. Zidane, of course, added guile, but it was essentially a defensive side. With neither Trezeguet nor Henry ready to assume starting roles, France effectively triumphed without an international class striker. The seven goals plundered against South Africa and Saudi Arabia helped Les Bleus finish as top-scorers, but the recipe for success had been physicality not flair. "They scored more goals than anyone but this wasn't an attacking team," Duluc stresses. "They played with one up and nobody on the flanks. The strength of that side was its power and defensive solidity."
That team became the blueprint for French football. Jacquet wanted France to continue developing big, strong, athletic players. Aspiring coaches would be taught about organisation and tactical discipline when they attended the classes at Clairefontaine — which were compulsory if you wanted to obtain your coaching badges. Many of today's Ligue 1 trainers have sat in one of those Clairefontaine classrooms listening to the likes of Domenech stressing the importance of playing two defensive midfielders who never leave their zone.
During his six years at the helm, Domenech — the man labelled Jacquet's favourite son — was caution personified, always insisting on a pair of holding midfielders. Wenger once suggested putting Samir Nasri in the middle, and the French press frequently urged Domenech to revert to one defensive midfielder against the smaller nations. He never budged. In August 2009, Domenech's decision to include both Jérémy Toulalan and Lassana Diarra against the Faroe Islands, while the likes of Ribéry and Karim Benzema remained on the bench, left a nation perplexed. France laboured to a 1-0 win.
There has been a 'safety first' approach in French football for too long and it has trickled down from the national team to the club game. Ligue 1 suffers badly from the ultra cautious approach of the coaches, with the majority of teams setting out to defend, packing the midfield, and hoping the solitary forward can nick a goal on the counterattack. Avoiding defeat rather than trying to win is the priority.
Again Duluc points the finger at Jacquet. "From a philosophical point of view, 1998 hurt us a lot," he says. "Our domestic league is still suffering. We have the league that produces the fewest goals and the least excitement. Why? Because all of the coaches who have emerged since 1998 are disciples of Jacquet. They have all been taught in Jacquet's way. I don't think French players have necessarily suffered — we are still producing good players — but the French national teams have paid the price."
Few could deny that France continues to develop talented footballers. Only Brazil provides more representatives in the Champions League each season, while most leading European teams possess a sprinkling of Frenchmen. Indeed since the competition's inception, 16 of the 19 Champions League finals have featured at least one French player. At the 2002 World Cup, Les Bleus failed to score despite boasting the leading marksmen from the Premier League (Henry), Serie A (Trezeguet) and Ligue 1 (Djibril Cissé). Last season, Evra won the English title, Abidal was a champion in Spain and Mathieu Flamini in Italy.
Like many top coaches, Jose Mourinho frequently turns to France when seeking fresh talent. The Real Madrid boss recently called Ligue 1 "an ideal supermarket", providing good quality products at low prices. "The French league sets the standard in terms of developing players," said the Real Madrid coach, who signed Didier Drogba, Michael Essien and Florent Malouda from France while at Chelsea, and recently brought the 18-year-old defender Raphaël Varane to the Bernabéu. "A player who comes from France is well prepared both technically and psychologically. They adapt quickly to life at a big club."
Individually France remains strong. Yet collectively they are struggling at senior level. It's as though the French youth model has been responding to the needs of foreign clubs by developing strong, technical players who are capable of fitting in to various systems and cultures but who have no idea of how to play with one another when thrown together.
Denoueix feels that this phenomenon of fine-tuning individual talent rather than developing team players has contributed to France's downfall. Few are better placed to asses the topic than the former Nantes coach, who spent 15 years in charge of the club's exceptional academy before replacing his mentor, the legendary Jean-Claude Suaudeau, as first-team boss in 1997. Denoueix won two French Cups and, in 2001, steered Les Canaris to the last of their eight league titles before enjoying a brief, successful stint at Real Sociedad.
In terms of their philosophy and methods, Nantes are the closest any French club has come to the modern-day Barcelona. Their famous jeu à la nantaise — instigated by José Arribas in the 1960s and continued by Suaudeau and Denoueix — can be compared to Barça's tiki-taka. The best Nantes teams were capable of exhausting opponents with their possession football, as players readily interchanged positions and always looked to shift the ball to a teammate with a first or second touch before moving into space once more. They did not have star names but regularly got the better of more glamorous opposition due to their superb teamwork.
According to Denoueix, there was a marked difference between Nantes's training techniques and those carried out at the INF. "At Nantes we put the collective first," says the Frenchman, who nurtured the likes of Deschamps, Marcel Desailly and Christian Karembeu through the ranks. "Our objective was to develop a team rather than individuals. We wanted players who could be part of a team, intelligent players who understood how to play football. What interested us most was the link between the players. The federation's aim was different. They wanted to develop individuals. The collective came second."
The current DTN, François Blaquart, concurs with Denoueix. "Since 1998 too much emphasis has been placed on the personal development of players and not enough on the collective side," Blaquart explains. "Everyone is guilty, including the media who hype up individuals and forget about the teams. In the last few years [the FFF] has tried to work on the idea of developing good teammates rather than good individuals."
Could Nantes have become the Barcelona of France? Could they have defined a playing style for Les Bleus and provided the core of the national team in the same way as the Catalans have with the world champions? It is a valid question.
One of the most common recent complaints, both from the press and the supporters, is that the French national team has failed to develop its own playing style or identity. Despite having some exceptional attacking talent at his disposal, Domenech admits he would often pick his team depending on the opposition, looking first and foremost to neutralise the threat of their star players. Rarely were they capable of dictating a game.
By ignoring the Nantes philosophy France might have missed a trick, as Blaquart concedes. "French youth development has been a world leader in terms of its organisation and its structures, but not necessarily in its way of thinking," Blaquart says. "We've witnessed some fantastic innovations in France — for example the work carried out at Nantes — but we haven't taken that to a national echelon. Nantes were a trigger for the rest of Europe. Their principles regarding style of play, the role of the player, recruitment and training methods were ahead of their time."
It was always going to be difficult for a provincial club like Nantes to have the same impact on a nation as the Catalan institution that is Barcelona. Suaudeau, an iconic figure in France, believes Nantes might have provoked a shift in French methodology had they succeeded in winning the Champions League. They came close, losing 4-3 on aggregate to a Juventus side featuring Deschamps in the semi-finals in 1996, but they have declined over the past decade and currently play in the second division.
Nantes possibly needed more individual talent to win Europe's top prize. "The big difference in philosophy between Nantes and Barcelona is that Barcelona combine collective play with individual flair," Duluc observes. "Nantes produced excellent teams but they went to the extreme. The team was everything and individuals had to fit in." Tellingly, of the great Nantes side that went on a 32-match unbeaten run in winning the title in 1994-95, only Karembeu and Claude Makélélé managed to establish themselves at leading European clubs. "About 80% of the players who left Nantes failed elsewhere," Duluc continues. "They only knew how to play in the Nantes system." The meandering post-Nantes careers of Patrice Loko, Nicolas Ouédec and Raynald Pedros illustrate the point perfectly.
Ultimately the Nantes ethos fell short of affecting the broader picture, but the contrast with the stale methods employed by the federation during Jacquet's tenure is telling. More emphasis had to be put on developing teams, rather than individuals, and Houllier's appointment as DTN in October 2007 sparked a much-needed period of reflection.
Houllier had already held the position of DTN between 1989 and 1998, but the six years spent at Liverpool had opened his mind and he arrived with renewed enthusiasm. "We've reached a crossroads and it's important we choose to turn in the right direction," Houllier declared.
One of Houllier's priorities was to shake off the negative mentality that had become ingrained in French football's psyche. "Teams in Ligue 1 are well-organised but they don't play to win," he said. "In England a draw is like a defeat, whereas here a draw feels like a win. Players in England fight throughout a game. We don't have that culture. But the Ligue 1 coaches who preach caution are wrong. You have to take risks in football."
Jacquet's three-year coaching course was altered to reflect Houllier's desire for a more positive approach, and the shift seems to be rubbing off on the younger generation of trainers. Blanc's 2008-09 title-winning team at Bordeaux played positive, passing football, as did the Lille side that triumphed so stylishly under Rudi Garcia last season.
Yet the true legacy of Houllier's second spell as DTN will only be known in a few years, for the most significant changes he made came at youth level. Clairefontaine's famous pre-formation programme was revamped as the criteria for selecting the children and the methods employed to train them were redefined. The INF's focus was switched to qualities Houllier felt had been neglected: spirit, collective play and intelligence.
Houllier was ruthless in revamping the coaching staff at the FFF, promoting some loyal companions like Erick Mombaerts, who replaced René Girard as Under-21 boss, and Blaquart, who became Houllier's deputy before succeeding him as DTN when he left for Aston Villa in 2010. Mombaerts and Blaquart were committed supporters of Houllier's ideas. The INF, they stressed, would no longer put their pupils through endless drills aimed at perfecting technique. The kids would no longer have to listen to coaches telling them where they could and couldn't go on the pitch. The authoritarian era was over, as players were told to think for themselves.
"We've changed the way we get our message across," Blaquart told the magazine Vestiaires in February this year. "Until recently the coaches were too firm and authoritarian: 'do it like this, do it like that'. Our training needed to be more open and interactive. The player needs to learn how to solve a problem [on the pitch] himself.
"The 'explain everything' approach brought France some great moments but we've seen its limits," Blaquart continues. "Players were suffering too much in training, listening to the coaches' instructions without questioning anything. Too much emphasis was put on physique and technique. Now when we select children we take the person into account, his spirit, his footballing intelligence — qualities that were ignored in the past."
Mombaerts sings from a similar hymn sheet, heavily criticising the ancien regime and praising the Spanish approach. "They don't work on technique at Barcelona," says the France Under-21 coach. "They just play games on reduced pitches, adopting the same principles as the street football you see in Brazil and Africa. Even the 12 year olds play matches all the time. For six years, they work solely on collective play, so it's little wonder they can pass to one another with their eyes closed."
It sounds impressive, but some at the FFF refuse to buy in to the Blaquart-Mombaerts spiel. The duo's critics point out that neither has a CV to justify their positions of responsibility. Neither played professionally and — like Domenech — neither has won a major trophy during his coaching career. Indeed, since Mombaerts's appointment in 2008, the Under-21s have twice failed to qualify for the European Championship. Their rise merely confirms the trend of footballing 'nobodies' successfully climbing the FFF ladder.
Merelle definitely did not enjoy working with Houllier's team. He felt affronted by the perpetual criticism of the old Clairefontaine ways and seemed to be out of phase with the new staff. "When we had meetings to talk about modern trends I'd always stress the importance of technique," Merelle says. "As soon as I mentioned that word they'd all start rolling their eyes. Mombaerts says technique is only secondary. Apparently mentality is more important. But every Manchester United player had the right mentality against Barcelona [in the 2011 Champions League final]. It didn't get them far."
After three decades of loyal service to the federation, Merelle was sacked in 2010 as Blaquart carried on Houllier's reforms. "People have tried to belittle the work we did because they need to justify the poor recent results of France's youth teams," Merelle argues. "But who are Blaquart and Mombaerts? What have they done in their careers? I heard Blaquart say we should stop hyping up individuals and start focusing more on the collective. But don't we need talented individuals too? Perhaps he wants France to have a team without talent because he didn't have any and he's jealous of those that do."
The FFF is not an especially harmonious place these days. Respected coaches like Girard and Merelle have been deeply upset by the manner of their dismissals and evidently they are not the only ones with grudges to bear. The extent of the infighting became apparent when the infamous quota scandal erupted earlier this year.
Mohamed Belkacami, the FFF's technical advisor for football in the community, had grown concerned that some of the federation's staff were adopting racist attitudes and he decided to record a private meeting involving national coaches in November 2010. Belkacami handed his recording in to his superior, assuming the matter would be addressed internally. Five months later the transcript was published by an investigative website. Nobody knows who leaked it. But it was obvious scores were being settled between certain federation employees.
The discriminatory comments were made when Blaquart, Mombaerts and Blanc, among others, were discussing the issue of selecting 12 year olds for the federation's elite academies. Two important but separate topics became entwined: firstly, the very real problem of investing time and money in training boys who possess dual nationality and could therefore go on to represent another nation; secondly, the feeling that too many children were getting selected purely on the basis of their physique.
As many of the bigger kids in that particular age group are black and of African origins, Blaquart crudely suggested that the introduction of an unofficial quota on the number of dual nationality players might solve both issues. He was temporarily suspended before returning as DTN with a mere slap on the wrist. Little changed at the federation as a result of the furore but it was extremely damaging to the already-battered image of the French game.
Merelle was visibly saddened by the affair. For someone who had given so much time, expertise and enthusiasm to training mainly black children, the accusations of racism hurt. Yet he was not totally surprised by them, suggesting a degree of "light racism" had been creeping in since 2007. "At the INF, we picked players from Paris and the suburbs," he explains. "They were mainly black kids because they're the ones who play football and generally they're the best. But sometimes I felt like [the FFF] wanted me to pick fewer blacks. That was the message I was getting from Houllier and then Blaquart. Above all it was because of the dual nationality issue. It really annoyed them to see players we trained play for other nations."
That the FFF are keen to avoid using their resources to strengthen other nations is understandable, but in the vast majority of cases the players decide to play for the country of their origin only after it becomes clear they do not have the ability to play for Les Bleus. At this moment, France cannot claim to have suffered at the hands of the dual nationality problem. They have not lost a leading light like Benzema, Nasri or Evra. The Clairefontaine graduates Jacques Faty and Sébastien Bassong opted to represent Senegal and Cameroon respectively because they felt they would not play for France, and they were almost certainly right.
The country's obsession with big, strong players, on the other hand, is a legitimate cause for concern. When Blanc, speaking at a coaching forum in Spain last year, expressed doubts as to whether Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez would even have turned professional had they been French, alarm bells rang. Was size really all that mattered in the eyes of French youth coaches? Had this culture of developing athletes become so embedded in the mindset that skill and footballing intelligence were merely side issues?
More and more evidence has emerged to suggest the problem is genuine. Small players can make it to the top in France if they are talented enough, but they invariably have to do it the hard way. Marseille's 5'6" playmaker Mathieu Valbuena was released from Bordeaux's academy after one year because of his small stature. Thankfully for Valbuena, what he lacks in size he makes up for in determination and the skilful midfielder battled his way up from the lower leagues to the senior France team.
When Blanc's side defeated Ukraine in a friendly in June, two of their goalscorers were INF outcasts. Kévin Gameiro and Marvin Martin, both of whom stand at 5'7", attended trials at Clairefontaine only to be rejected for being too small. Indeed, Martin passed every test bar one: the wrist X-ray that predicts his future growth was not up to scratch.
The case of Antoine Griezmann is equally revealing. As a boy, Griezmann was constantly being told he was too small and was shifted from club to club until he was spotted by scouts from Real Sociedad. The stocky, pacy winger moved to Spain aged 14, made his first-team debut at 18, and had played 50 matches in La Liga before his 20th birthday. The youth international is convinced he was right to leave home. "I quickly realised I had no chance of making it in France," he said. "Every time I was rejected it was the same problem: size. In Spain, they couldn't care less about physique — and they're the world champions."
Denoueix probably wouldn't disagree. The former Nantes and Real Sociedad tactician is convinced that Spain and Barcelona's fluid style is possible because of their willingness to give smaller players a chance. "The small guys are obliged to be more intelligent," argues Denoueix. "When you're big at a young age you can rely on your physical qualities. The smaller players have to learn to think more quickly."
For the INF, Martin's emergence last season came at an awkward time. His remarkable contribution of 17 assists in Ligue 1 combined with an eye-catching international debut — he scored two goals and set up another during his 15 minutes on the pitch in Donetsk — led to the inevitable Zidane comparisons. That France's top youth coaches ignored such a player due to the results of an X-ray beggars belief. Merelle insists the result of the wrist examination is just one of a series of factors taken into consideration when deciding whether or not to accept a candidate, yet the fact such a process even exists speaks volumes.
The INF, however, is not nearly as culpable as the clubs. A quick glance at the list of recent Clairefontaine graduates shows many of the most successful cases are technical players and some are small: the gifted Hatem Ben Arfa and the elegant Abou Diaby, for instance, both refined their techniques in the Rambouillet forest, while the exciting young Rennes wingers Jires Ekoko and Yacine Brahimi are examples of diminutive, skilful and explosive players who were accepted by the INF and have thrived in the system.
With its 14 academies around the country and an intake of around 20 students per school per year, the INF network concerns only a tiny minority. Most aspiring footballers grow up playing for a club side and hope to be accepted by a professional club's academy aged 16. In the 1980s and 1990s, teams like Nantes, Auxerre, Le Havre, Sochaux and Cannes were the frontrunners in youth football. Nowadays every club, including the big guns like PSG, Marseille and Lyon, take youth development very seriously.
It's a highly competitive business. The youth teams are under pressure to secure good results in order for the club's academy to gain prestige. Meanwhile, the coaches know they will only keep their jobs if the team wins. They also know they are far more likely to enjoy success with a team of big kids than a team of tiny technical ones. "I've heard that many clubs would refuse to take boys for their academy if they were shorter than 6'," Denoueix reveals. "That might explain what has happened in France."
As a consequence of the policy, French youth football gives the impression of being in rude health. Yet the tall, strapping players who looked so good when they were teenagers often find it hard to make the step up. "I've seen it a lot," Denoueix says. "These big guys who were used to imposing themselves suddenly discover that physical strength isn't enough anymore. When a player realises at the age of 20 that, in fact, he doesn't know how to play football, it's very hard for him to deal with."
France's international results back up the theory. The Under-17s have reached the final of the European Championship four times this century, winning in 2004 thanks to an attack that featured Nasri, Ben Arfa, Benzema and Jérémy Ménez. The Under-19s have also excelled, picking up their seventh European title in 2010. Junior trophies do not guarantee senior success, however. Of last summer's triumphant Under-19 squad, only Griezmann — the one player trained in Spain — has enjoyed regular action at a top-flight club so far.
The Under-21s probably offer a better gauge of a country's health and France's downturn here is alarming. Finalists at the 2002 European Championship, Les Espoirs have been on the slide since. They reached the semi-finals in 2006 but failed to qualify two years later, losing to Israel in a play-off. Germany defeated Mombaerts's men at the same stage in 2010 and France failed even to reach the play-offs last time. Missing out on three consecutive European Championships was previously unheard of at any age level. For a country that prides itself in youth development, that is perhaps the most worrying statistic of all.
France supporters might be prepared to accept a dip in performances if they could see the players truly cared, yet that has rarely been the case in the last decade. In general, France internationals have come across as aloof, arrogant and spoilt, indifferent to the fact they are representing their country. The final straw for many fans arrived on 20 June 2010, when Domenech's team, in full revolt against their coaches, refused to get off the bus to attend training in Knysna. It was the ultimate strop and hard evidence that a group of young millionaires had become disconnected from reality.
Ten years after Trezeguet's golden goal in Rotterdam, Les Bleus had plunged to the lowest point in their history. Explaining their extraordinary behaviour is no easy task but the players in question all have one thing in common: they spent their formative years learning their skills and developing values within the country's youth system.
Can the INF be blamed for the spoilt brat culture that has embedded itself in the French game? Only four players in the 2010 squad — Henry, Gallas, Anelka and Diaby — attended their elite centre in Clairefontaine, but the INF has blazed a trail for the rest of the country. They have laid out guidelines for the nation's youth training methods and advised the clubs.
Predictably, Merelle defends Clairefontaine, insisting the pupils are taught important values during their three years at the academy. "The boys don't get mollycoddled," he says. "It's actually very tough for them. Every day they go to school, train, and then do their homework in the evening. We take the academic side very seriously. Before we accept a boy we look at his school reports to make sure he isn't a troublemaker. Generally the kids do very well at school. In fact, the education they get in Rambouillet will almost certainly be better than the one they'd have got in [the Paris suburb of] Aulnay-sous-Bois, for example."
Despite the strict regime, those selected quickly realise they are special. They are the crème de la crème and even at 13 the majority feel confident that a professional career is beckoning. Of course they do no housework, their meals are prepared for them, their sponsored kit is laid out for them on their neatly-made beds when they get back from lessons and their football boots have been immaculately cleaned. "They do sense they're part of an elite and the environment makes them very sure of themselves," Merelle concedes. "But we're not the ones giving them big heads. You see kids arrive for trials aged 12 and they already have an agent. The parents also believe their boy's going to be a star. It isn't always an easy situation."
In the early days attending Clairefontaine was deemed a huge honour and the promise of an exciting future. Today it seems merely to be a step towards fame and riches.
Money has of course changed football enormously, and France's pool of young talent certainly feels the effects. Agents and scouts hover over the best youngsters like vultures, preparing to swoop as soon as they graduate. "There's so much at stake now at such a young age," reflects Duluc. "The kids are leaving home when they are 12 or 13, they all have agents by the time they're 14, and they sign their first big contract when they're 15 or 16. By 17, they're far wealthier then their parents."
The contrast between their home lives and Clairefontaine is often severe. Like most members of France's World Cup squad, Anelka, Henry, Diaby and Gallas grew up in the banlieues. The team's implosion in South Africa was sparked by Anelka's alleged expletive-filled rant at Domenech. Three supposed instigators of the training ground strike — Abidal, Evra and Ribéry — came from similarly trying backgrounds in France's inner city ghettos.
Was the World Cup fiasco merely a reflection of a wider social problem resulting from France's cultural integration model? That was the view of the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, who claimed an ethnic split had developed between those from the banlieues and those from white, middle-class backgrounds. "It feels like France has been invited to look into the mirror — a terrible mirror," Finkielkraut wrote. "We've moved on from the Zidane generation to the scum generation. Blanc should ignore players like Anelka, Ribéry, Evra, Gallas and Abidal, who have behaved shamefully, notably towards [Yoann] Gourcuff. They're a gang of thugs. It's not possible to have these ethnic, religious divides in France."
Finkielkraut's view is extreme and not one that is shared by many in the football world. Just as those who hailed the success of France's Black-Blanc-Beur (black-white-Arab) team in 1998 as a victory for modern French society had exaggerated, those suggesting the impoverished suburbs were behind the team's demise in 2010 were now going too far.
As the former Junior Sports Minister Rama Yade pointed out, it is surely wrong blame the banlieues when the players in question left those areas aged 12. "Just because you come from the banlieues doesn't mean you aren't educated," said Yade, who is from Senegal but grew up in the Paris banlieues. "The true problem is that too many kids are being taken from their families at a young age."
Ensuring the children retain close contact with their families and receive a rounded education both at home and at school is surely the crux of the issue. "People have said the players from the banlieues are a bad influence but I don't believe that," says Duluc. "The current France captain, Alou Diarra, comes from Paris's northern banlieues and he's a very intelligent, polite and respectful man. It's a question of education, that's all."
As L'Equipe's senior reporter, Duluc enjoys excellent access to France players, and he sees little difference between the current crop and the 1998 heroes. "We still have the same number of stupid and intelligent guys. The problem in South Africa was that the stupid players had the power, whereas in 1998 the clever ones like Deschamps were in charge."
Nevertheless the youth structures currently in place do not encourage children to remain close to the family nest. The INF's elite academies are regionalised, which means 12-15 year olds do have the opportunity to return home at weekends. However, the children are away from their parents during the week. Once they finish their pre-formation, at 15 or 16, they are free to join any club in the country and often end up several hundred of kilometres from home.
PSG have become the first club to adopt a 'local only' policy for their centre de formation. They are unique, though, as no other French club is blessed with such a rich stock of talent on its doorstep (around 40 percent of professionals come from the Paris region). According to Duluc, Lyon may soon follow suit having noted that the majority of their star pupils have been local. Rémi Garde, Florian Maurice, Ludovic Giuly, Frédéric Kanouté, Sidney Govou and Benzema all grew up in the Rhône Valley and have invariably acted respectfully towards their hometown club.
Other French players, though, are among the worst behaved when it comes to club loyalty. Soon after last summer's World Cup, Ben Arfa went on strike at Marseille to force a move to England and Charles N'Zogbia refused to train at Wigan.
It's easy to generalise and of course French players are not the only ones guilty of holding clubs to ransom. Yet the lack of a significant club culture in France means players tend to seek transfers on the slightest whim. The habit of chopping and changing starts young: kids bounce from club to club as they try to make their way in the competitive world of French youth football, and even the academies experience a large turnover every year.
"These days it's not unusual for a player to have represented four or five different clubs by the time he turns pro," Blaquart says. "How do you expect the player to identify with his club? They have become consumers of clubs. As a result, they do not feel any attachment to the shirt they wear — even when they wear the blue of France."
On his arrival as DTN last October, Blaquart said he felt like he was "staring at a big construction site". For too long, the cranes and forklift trucks have been lying idle. They were sparked into action by Houllier in 2007, but any progress made was wiped out by the damaging events of the past year.
A degree of optimism resurfaced in June when Noël Le Graët was elected FFF president. The respected former French League president surely can do no worse than his hapless predecessors Jean-Pierre Escalettes and Fernand Duchaussoy. Encouragingly, he is promising to "open a new cycle" by restructuring the FFF and reviewing youth development strategy.
Le Graët has hinted at an overhaul of the federation's coaching staff as he seeks to bring Clairefontaine into the 21st century. The French are fed up of seeing figures with scant pedigree occupying important positions and the calls for high-profile appointees are growing. The former France midfielder Luis Fernández wants a World Cup winner to join the INF, saying, "We need former players who symbolise success and have experience of winning." Meanwhile, the one-time Liverpool and Roma assistant coach Christian Damiano seemed to put himself forward.
Modernising France's youth programme will be an even harder task. The former Metz manager Joël Muller has been commissioned to compile a proposal for Le Graët. He is likely to suggest lowering the starting age at elite academies — a move already mooted by Houllier who believes the INF should begin coaching children as young as eight. Such a change would be a double-edged sword, though. While a child's footballing skills would benefit from leaving the family nest so young, his social skills probably would not.
The Clairefontaine academy will never be in a position to fulfil the roles of parents and schools when it comes to education, yet the INF can still strive to produce more grounded individuals. Club academies also have a social duty and the sooner the FFF imposes a 'local only' policy to prevent children moving away from their families the better.
Le Graët faces another new problem: fewer and fewer youngsters are playing football. In the six months that followed last summer's World Cup, the number of licensed players in France fell by 8 percent. While parents are no longer thrilled by the idea of their sending their child to the local club, French children stopped dreaming of playing for Les Bleus years ago. Indeed, walking through the streets of Paris you are far more likely to spot a kid in a Barcelona shirt with Messi on the back than Benzema's France shirt.
As with so many success stories, complacency has led to the downfall of the France team, prompted by the lack of activity at Clairefontaine for the best part of a decade. The authorities hope to steer Les Bleus back to the summit of the global game in time for Euro 2016, which France are hosting. But as Boulogne discovered in the 1970s, rebuilding a nation's football team from the bottom up can take time.