Tuesday marked the seventh anniversary of the French player revolt at Knysna, the South African training camp where players refused to leave their bus and train in protest to the expulsion of teammate
for swearing at head coach Raymond Domenech
at halftime of the World Cup match against Mexico.
From the national shame of that afternoon to today, the French
have turned around their national team program. French soccer is the envy of the world with a seemingly endless supply of young talent. Players like Monaco's Kylian Mbappe
Dortmund's Ousmane Dembele
are just the two most prominent examples
of young players
coming through the French system.
No other country except Brazil had more players playing in foreign leagues in 2016-17 than France (781). French academies produced 89 players who played
in the UEFA Champions League last season. And the top five French clubs have netted more than 60 million euros ($67 million) from the sale of academy products since 2004.
All this shines
a new spotlight on the methods of the French federation and French clubs in response to Knysna and France's humiliating first-round exit four years after it lost to Italy in a shootout in the 2006
World Cup final. French soccer pioneered "centres de formation" -- or development academies -- and there are 35 full-time programs operated by French pro clubs but the disaster of 2010 served as a
wakeup call for French soccer, much like the changes that followed in German soccer after the shocking first-round exit at Euro 2004.
Common themes emerged to the new French approach in a
series by the sports daily L'Equipe
on player development. The French sports and social landscape is different from that in the United States, but what the French
are doing is instructive of the possibilities in face of the challenges in American soccer. (It should be noted MLS has developed close ties to the French federation
with its academy licensing program.) 1. Early residency programs are discouraged.
While the Paris region, in particular, is teeming with full-time French -- and European -- scouts
looking at players as young as 10, players are discouraged from leaving home early. Just six of the 89 players who played in the UEFA Champions League didn't complete their pre-academy program
(under-16) in their hometown area. (On the American front, it should be noted that U.S. Soccer recently disbanded its under-17 national residency program
, at which most players have entered at
the ages of 14 or 15.) 2. More than soccer talent matters.
In response to Knysna and other incidences of off-the-field problems
involving young French stars, French clubs are placing more emphasis on character. "To be good at soccer can no longer be the only criteria," said Gilles Thieblemont
, the regional director for
youth soccer in Reims who added that problem players at the youth level will most likely be problem players at the national team level. 3.
Younger and smaller players must be scouted.
Concerned about the impact of the relative age effect -- youth teams stacked with players born in the first half of the year -- and players on a
later physical development path being overlooked, the French federation expanded its pool of players regional scouts are monitoring at any one time at the U-16 and U-17 levels from about 30 to 100.
(U.S. Soccer recently had 64 players in its Futures Camp
, a program launched in 2015.) 4. Role of individual in team environment emphasized.
French soccer has never had a problem with a lack of talent. It's always had
among the best skilled players in Europe and an abundance of talent emerging from the country's vast immigrant communities. The French academies aren't trying to discourage a player's talent but
encourage him to understand his role in a team setting, a subtle difference. 5. New emphasis placed on the importance of educational
French soccer isn't like American soccer where the importance of a college education -- and college athletics -- is taken as a given, but French academy programs are placing new
emphasis on education -- how many players are passing higher levels of courses -- in part because it goes hand in hand with the greater rigors they are placing on academy life than just kicking a
soccer ball. 6. Smaller means better in terms of class sizes.
French clubs aren't filling classes simply to make sure every
dormitory bed is filled. They've cut the number of players in their academy programs by 10 percent over the last five years as part of a greater emphasis of quality over quantity. 7. Academies don't skimp on costs of facilities or coaching.
Academy coaches raised as players in the 1970s and 1980s marvel at the difference
between academy programs then and now, in terms of the training facilities, support staff and coaching methods. The licensing program for a French academy coach to obtain his BEFF ("brevet
d'entraîneur formateur de football") requires 1,000 hours of classes, on-field training sessions, foreign study programs and thesis.