Secrets to the French soccer revolution, seven years after Knysna

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 Nicolas Anelka 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 and Borussia 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 programs. 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.
13 comments about "Secrets to the French soccer revolution, seven years after Knysna".
  1. Trey Newton, June 22, 2017 at 2:02 a.m.

    I like the overview and tone of this article. I've been saying that the US needed to follow the French system for a while. But while there is a big difference between taking a 10 year old out of the home and a 15 year old like in the residency program. Disbanding the residency program was a step backwards. France has 12 elite academies in a country geographically smaller than Texas. An article that speaks of French development without mentioning this system or at least Clairefontaine is incomplete. Kids are enrolled at 13, train and school there, Monday through Friday, then return home for the weekend and still play games with their local teams.

  2. Nick Daverese, June 22, 2017 at 7:38 a.m.

    Why did that player swear or as I like to say curse at their coach in front of the team? You did not say why as we all now the why matters. If it was for a reason like he was not playing enough to suit him. That is a pretty good reason to get rid of the player. What was the reason for the player to do that?

  3. Roger Faulkner, June 22, 2017 at 7:39 a.m.

    How does the funding of young French players compare with our pay to play system?

  4. Ben Myers replied, June 22, 2017 at 5:10 p.m.

    Like most European countries, players' families do no pay for the player to be in the academy of a professional team, but they have to continue to compete to remain there.

  5. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, June 23, 2017 at 9:51 a.m.

    That's the same here - MLS academies are free. The difference here is that we only have 22 MLS teams so pay to play clubs fill the gap.

  6. Nick Daverese, June 22, 2017 at 8:11 a.m.

    You know every couple of years their comes a new system of play. Like the Belgium way, the French way, the German way, the Italian way, the Portuguese way, the Brazilian way, the Dutch way. Then ways named after coaches. Actually I saved them all I find them interesting. I could publish a book about all the ways how to play and win. Then we have Americans who say if we just did it there way we too can win a World Cup or almost win the World Cup. Almost forgot the Talihuchi way, the Arsenal way, etc etc etc etc etc. the Ajax system :) also the windscreen wiper is the future according to FIFA. Haha

    I just think it does not work like that. It hasn't yet maybe some one would write a paper on the US men winning the WC in 3010 :) like Carlos Queiroz wrote that we would win the WC in 2010. Now the genius coaching Iran.

  7. Nick Daverese, June 22, 2017 at 8:21 a.m.

    On the school of excellence in England why are some teams so much better then others. They must have the way to play.

    Old post from the head of one of the schools of excellence not Arsenal or Manchester United.

    It really depends on the club.
    The only criteria that has changed is that they can only take on children under 16 from no more than 10 miles from the club.
    I saying that though, top prem clubs have now established 'Locality feeder clubs' which are either sponsored clubs already established or new club set-ups which incorporate a different area to the main club. From these 'clubs' the best players are taken for trials.

    This is one of the main reasons why top clubs like Arsenal and Manchester United now 'invite' young players for trials from other countries or indeed fund overseas feeder clubs in areas where there is no restriction on distance from a catchment point of view.

    As for the age at which players can be members of Schools of Excellence the clubs are bound by the new FA Child Protection Scheme sponsored by GOAL. I could easily say that its this or that age, but I know that even as young as 6 years old, there are instances of these 'talented' players playing for 'certain funded amateur clubs' which are the link to these Schools of Excellence.

    In my opinion, you can go to the FA Site and get the official line if you want, but that is only the superficial word - the actual way is far from that.

  8. Nick Daverese, June 22, 2017 at 8:56 a.m.

    The last year that Italy won the WC I saw them play and knew they had a good chance to win it. It was not there system it was their control of the ball. When you can control any ball with two touches or less you have a good chance to win. They had the best control of the ball you can win. Plus they were very good on defense.

    Systems I have a system to play an Italian card game I like to call ziggy. I have won 50 thousand dollars in a night. I don't tell you I have lost 50 thousand dollars in a night. The real knack to the game is how you pay at the end of the night or get paid at the end of the night without someone taking all your money after robbing you. That is the local Shylock comes to your house the next day to get paid. They get 2 percent for doing that. They also bring you the money you won the next day for the same two percent.

  9. Fire Paul Gardner Now, June 22, 2017 at 10:16 a.m.

    France is the gold standard of youth development at the moment. The more we can be like them (as far as it is practical) the better.

  10. Nick Daverese, June 22, 2017 at 10:51 a.m.

    Here we go the French way. The French Federation of Football (Soccer) is structured as follows:

    The French National Technical Staff consists of 14 full-time people including Mr. Jacquet. All the coaches are ex-professional players with backgrounds in education and they all maintain the highest coaching certification available in France and Europe.

    France is divided into 21 regions; each one of the regions has a full-time Technical Director that oversees all football programs, mainly youth development. All the Directors report directly to the National Technical Director.

    All the Regional Technical Directors and National Staff come into the National Training Center twice per year for professional development. This is to make sure that everyone is up to date on all developments.
    Mr. Jacquet believes that the French system is presently very healthy, full of star players and it is there to stay for a long time. Mr. Jacquet's statement is supported by the following objectives:

    The main objective is coaching development. Without top level educators, France will not be able to produce quality players.

    The second objective is player identification for the National Teams. France has 7 male National Teams starting at U16 and ending with the World Cup Team. The most important team within the National system is the Olympic U23, otherwise known as Equipe Espoir.

    The third objective is the youth. From age 6 to 11, it's called the "learning stage and fun football." From age 12 to 16, it's called the "technical stage," where players have to train for 2 hours of purely technique on a daily basis. From age 16 onwards, top level players are usually signed to a formation center. France has 52 formation centers that belong to the top professional clubs in the country.

    All players go through physiological and medical testing. The older players are tested psychologically.

    France are developing very athletic players that are tactically astute. The technical ability of a player is still the prime asset. This makes the fine difference at the professional level.

    Age 16 is very key in a player's development. This is where they begin their major strength and conditioning. The strength training must be related to the game. Speed and explosiveness with the ball must be trained. Very competent and knowledgeable coaches must work at this level.

    With women's soccer, France is in the process of building a training center specifically for the female athletes. And as FIFA President, Mr. Sepp Blatter previously said, "the future of football is feminine."

  11. John Willis, June 22, 2017 at 11:09 a.m.

    The French have produced very talented soccer players for years and years, much like other "great footballing nations".I do think that there's something to be learned and appreciated in their approach, but, just like Spain, Germany, and Belgium recently, countries are adapting and progressing their approach to youth.

  12. Ben Myers, June 22, 2017 at 5:09 p.m.

    Take any one of the French, German, Belgian, Dutch, Spanish or Portuguese systems of player development and impose it on USSF, and we would have a World Cup contenda.

    In particular, we, here in the United States, influenced by the brawn of American football, tend to select the larger players, not the technically proficient ones, up through college level, and, yes, MLS. Spoke the other day with a college player whom I have coached. He has filled out now to maybe 5'9" after playing a highly technical game at 5'5". He stated bluntly that many of the teams in his college conference are of the large 6-footer variety. So, yes! Select the smaller quick more technical players.

  13. Nick Daverese, June 22, 2017 at 6:36 p.m.

    Yes Ben it is about being quick in a small space. Bigger guys are not that quick. It is also about player control of the ball especially in the area. It is also about first step speed off the dribble. It is also about being able to beat your first defender. I think with the new rules in the youth game on heading. In the future we will probably not be good at that skill so I think we will move to the smaller quicker player in the future. It is also about player match ups so we still need the bigger players in the future.

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