French and German academies light path towards bright future

The Rio Report

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The commitment to youth development may take time to pay dividends but for Germany and France this year’s tournament in Brazil has showcased the dramatic success of two quite different solutions.

In the outskirts of Paris, the Clairefontaine academy has been pumping out players since 1988.

Only the best youngsters eligible for France are selected, including a wealth of players from the French dependencies and the many African countries that previously came under French rule.

Just a decade after the academy’s creation, France won the World Cup with a side that included graduates and players born overseas. The triumph was hailed as a vital moment of unity for a nation with continuing racial tensions.

Just over 15 years further on, Clairefontaine’s multicultural alumni includes former French stars Thierry Henry, William Gallas, Hatem Ben Arfa and Nicolas Anelka and a good proportion of Didier Deschamps’ squad that shined bright in Brazil.

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The process focuses on catching players in their formative years, with three-year programmes that start at age 13. Players live on site and mix their on-pitch training with a baccalaureate education in case they do not make the grade.

It’s ruthless. The first selection to the national team takes place at Under-15 level and in the next year 50 per cent of those are gone.

But its success has also been a failing, as many players with dual nationalities are now benefitting from the federation’s investment then leaving to play in overseas leagues and for African nations.

In contrast, Germany has worked with its entire national club roster to develop a more locked-in youth network.

After a terrible Euro 2000 campaign, they created national talent centres for children aged 8 to 14, served by 1,000 part-time coaches and covering 366 areas.

But they also introduced rules for the Bundesliga that stipulate all 36 clubs in the top two divisions must run an academy and that at least 12 players in each intake must be eligible for Germany.

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That means anyone with talent is quickly fast-tracked into the club system, and more talent is unearthed than ever before.

The concept is simple, and German FA sporting director Robin Dutt told the Guardian: "If we help the clubs, we help us, because the players of our national teams come from the clubs.”

Since the system was introduced, the Bundesliga make-up has changed from almost 50 per cent foreign players to having around 65 per cent now eligible for the national side.

The Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund squads in last year’s all-German Champions League final contained 26 homegrown players eligible to play for the national side and Germany’s World Cup squad in Brazil contained nine players under the age of 25.

"The excellent work done by the clubs in the training centres has paid off,” said German boss Joachim Loew. “Young players are trained better and we have world-class players once again."

In Spain, future development is less holistic and more focused their giant clubs, with Barcelona’s La Masia academy almost the sole producer of the nation’s golden generation.

Graduates include Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Xavi, Cesc Fabregas, Pepe Reina, Mikel Arteta and Pep Guardiola.

In England, things are a little behind. The Professional Game Youth Development Group was set up in 2008 but disbanded after a year. The £100m St George’s Park academy, opened in 2012, has finally shown a commitment to a better player development future, but the key now will be ensuring the quality of people matches up to its facilities.

Because despite their differences, it is the focus on developing the core coaching staff in Germany and France that has made both approaches such great success.

At Clairefontaine, over 19,000 coaches have been developed, with the nation’s best 400 invited for three weeks, twice a year. In Germany, the depth of the network simply encourages continuous training.

For Gerard Houllier, the technical director when Clairefontaine opened, it is not the bricks and mortar of academies that makes the difference, it’s the people who run them.

“(The buildings) are a cornerstone, a vision, a philosophy, a place of unity,” he said. “Once you have a tool of that dimension it brings unity to the national teams, even referees can train there, national teams from youngsters to the first team.

“When it opened, we could not imagine the role this place would play...”

Will Gray

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