Port in a Storm
The extraordinary success of the academy at Le Havre
No-one can do outraged in French football quite like Jean-Pierre Louvel. The Le Havre president is used to seeing the best players from his club's youth academy leave for bigger sides, but that does not stop him hitting out at "the predators", as he has called them, who circle his talented crop. But Louvel plays a clever game. He needs those predators as much as they need him, or at least, his players.
Le Havre Athletic Club, known as HAC, is France's oldest football club and it can also claim to be one of its most successful in bringing through young talent. An XI of those who have passed through its academy could read like this: Steve Mandanda, Charles N'Zogbia, Souleymane Diawara, Jean-Alain Boumsong, Pascal Chimbonda, Lassana Diarra, Didier Digard, Vikash Dhorasoo, Anthony Le Tallec, Mamadou Niang, and Florent Sinama-Pongolle.
Louvel has been HAC president for 11 years and before that he was head of its youth academy. One of his first acts as president was to oversee the building of a new academy training-centre, La Cavée Verte (Philosophy: 'to produce responsible citizens and talented footballers'), which is among the best in France. He quickly identified that the academy would be the key to HAC's future survival, and its success is as much a business one as a football one. "Our training system is the most important thing because it's based on the education of an individual by a team of coaches who all share the same values," Louvel said.
There are certain socio-economic and geographical factors that help him: Le Havre is a traditional working-class port town with a large immigrant population, where kids are out every day, kicking a ball around until nightfall. In 1999, it had an unemployment rate of nearly 29 per cent, although following a regeneration project, that figure is now closer to 20 per cent. The district of Caucriauville, packed with high-rise estates, is a particularly rich area for talent: in recent years, it has produced eight international players.
Julien Faubert, once of Bordeaux and briefly, Real Madrid, grew up there alongside Niang and Diawara, while his current West Ham teammate Demba Ba joined them as a teenager (though did not make it to the academy). "There were no job opportunities in the area when we were kids, and there was nothing else to do but play football," Faubert said. "Le Havre is full of ghettos and all the kids want to do there is survive. Everyone is just trying to save their lives, and if they can save their parents, their families, on the way, then they go for it. All we did was play football in the hope that we would make it. Education was not taken seriously, so the other option was to take the wrong path in life. I did not do that, but I know others that did."
Louvel decided to make Le Havre's location its strength rather than a weakness, but his real masterstroke was to appoint Jean-Marc Nobilo to head the academy. When he returned to Normandy in 2003, Nobilo was a journeyman coach with sporting directorships with the Mauritius and Lebanon national teams on his CV. Louvel had worked with him when he was HAC's reserve coach in 1996. In his first spell at the club, Nobilo coached Diawara, Chimbonda and Boumsong. "I pushed them through with my vision and with my hard work," he said, "and I've made the club a bit of money on the way."
The first thing Nobilo did in his more recent period at the club was to foster a close relationship with Caucriauville's three local teams, Frileuse, HCS and Municipaux. The best players from all three teams are offered training sessions with HAC between official matches for their club. When the time comes for them to move on, HAC are in prime position to sign them. One academy employee remembers losing a Frileuse player to another French team, but before he could complain, Louvel reminded him that the long-term partnership with all three clubs was much more important than losing one player.
Some of the players Nobilo brought through are now emerging as key talents in Ligue 1. "I can talk about Jean-Armel Kana-Biyik, now at Rennes, or I can talk about Kévin Anin who is at Sochaux," he said. "I plucked Amadou Alassane from Quartier des Neiges, 'The Snow District', in Le Havre, a really tough area, but unfortunately he had to retire two years ago with a heart problem [which only emerged before he was about to sign a contract with Celtic]. I have found four or five very good players in the tough areas, including Guïeda Fofana: he was training with me when he was very young."
Fofana, who is 19, is still at Le Havre. He captained France Under-19s when they won the European Championship last summer, and is seen as the next jewel in the club's crown. The Aston Villa coach Gérard Houllier wanted to buy him in January but the move broke down.
Nobilo also instigated a scouting policy that took in two other regions: one, anywhere within 200 kilometres of the club, which extended as far as Paris; and the other, due to his links from his previous job with Mauritius, on the nearby island of Réunion, where he personally discovered Sinama-Pongolle and Hoarau.
The Arsenal coach Arséne Wenger has described scouting as "the biggest teacher of humility there is in football". He told the Leaders in Football conference last year that he still makes wrong calls on certain players, but he does know what he wants from his young players. "I want to detect motivation and intelligence, those are the key attributes, but it's difficult to predict how a player who is 13 or 14 will later react in a dressing-room, among top-level competition, where there are personalities, real men, all competing for a place," Wenger said. "I look at his natural development up to the age of 21, and after that, I need 20 minutes with him to make up my mind." Wenger employs Jacques Crevoisier to run psychological tests on his young players twice a year to evaluate their progression.
Nobilo set up a similar evaluation system, which he calls 'The Player Scanner'. "It's a complete programme which allows you to monitor each player technically, tactically, athletically, attitude-wise, psychologically," he explained. It helps that he and his team have the talent to spot decent a player at 13 or 14 and, crucially, build up strong relationships with that player's family.
There is the odd exception, though. When Manchester United signed Paul Pogba, then 16, in summer 2009, the club published a story on its website headlined: "United steal Pogba from HAC". Louvel went into overdrive, hitting out at "those robbers from England". "What is the point of investing in an academy if the players leave at 16? And we are not the only club who have had players stolen," his managing director, Alain Belsoeur, complained in the Times.
Except Louvel had slipped up. Pogba had signed a 'non-solicitation contract' with HAC, a contract that only protects HAC from other French clubs, not foreign ones. And because of HAC's own budgetary restraints, Pogba had not been offered another contract by the club. "Le Havre didn't take care of my son," Pogba's mother Yeo told France Football. "When Paul went to play a tournament with the team, we asked the club afterwards to arrange school lessons for him. But they didn't care. We felt that they didn't believe in him. They offered other players of the same age contracts, but nothing to Paul. The trust was broken."
Louvel complained to Fifa, who found in favour of United. It was not the first time Louvel had made such a complaint, although in the past, he has been more successful. Fifa awarded HAC €300,000 in compensation when ruling that N'Zogbia had broken his contract by joining Newcastle in 2004, but three years and an appeal later, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled they were due another €900,000. "We still only received less than a quarter of what Newcastle got from Wigan when they sold him," said Belsoeur.
Matthias Lepiller is another who slipped through the net: a former France Under-17 international, he made his HAC debut aged 16 but, at 18, he moved to Fiorentina. After another Fifa case, the Italians were made to pay €600,000 in compensation.
For all the noise HAC have made in these cases, the bottom line is purely business. They are not mourning the loss of the players, but the loss of revenue. It is a far cry from the situation at, say, Nantes, who produced an incredible generation of players that included Didier Deschamps, Christian Karembeu, Claude Makélélé, Nicolas Ouédec, Patrice Loko and Marcel Desailly: but every time each player left, it was seen as a tragedy.
So it is ironic that the new head of Nantes's academy, Guy Hillion, has in the past accused Louvel of trying to cash in on his young stars. "French clubs try to picture themselves as the innocent victims of the system, but this is false," Hillion told France Football after the Pogba scandal broke. "It's all a question of money. A few weeks ago, I got a phone call from an agent working for Louvel, to ask me if I was interested in their best young player. They wanted a lot of money for him. At that price, he had no moral problem at all with letting a youngster go to England." That player was Fofana and the fee €4m (which is more than Villa offered for him).
HAC's natural level is somewhere between the bottom of Ligue 1 and the top of Ligue 2, but the only chance they had of keeping Fofana beyond the summer was to have won promotion to Ligue 1. "If HAC can establish themselves in the first division, they can develop players and keep them for their club," said Nobilo. "But there's the problem. If HAC stay in the second division, they will always develop players for other clubs."
That's why this summer, having failed to win promotion, promises to be a twitchy period for Louvel. He has persuaded the local council to help fund a 25,000-seater stadium, which is scheduled to open in time for next season (although it has its critics, who claim that the current home, Deschaseaux, only ever reaches its 16,000-capacity when big clubs are visiting). "Our biggest challenge was to convince our local authorities that they needed to build a new stadium, and now it is to make sure the club are in Ligue 1," said the president. "Selling is not the objective here. Unfortunately, 'selling to survive' is what we need to do before we move into the new stadium, which will bring more income to the club."
Even if HAC establish themselves in the top flight, it is inevitable that Fofana will leave soon. But after him there will be another star of the future, and then another. Nobilo is now technical director of Côte d'Ivoire's national teams: his legacy to HAC is not just the players he has spotted, but the system he has put in place. "The Player Scanner is still there, and I have left a concept and a methodology with competent guys to manage it," he said. "As long as the foundations are still in place, it can't crumble like a house of cards."
Especially when Louvel is there, overseeing things and negotiating hard for the best deals he can possibly get.