For those of our readers unfamiliar with the name, Clairefontaine is an elite youth training academy in the heart of France. Its full name, Le Centre Technique National Fernand Sastre, or simply Fernand Sastre National Technical Centre in English, comes from the former French Football Federation president (you’ve guessed it) Fernand Sastre.
Clairefontaine was used as the base camp for France’s national side during their winning 1998 World Cup campaign – it boasts five-star hotel facilities, 60 full-time employees, 302 beds, a library and video-cinema, seven grass pitches alongside three synthetic ones and is one of the 12 elite football academies France prides itself on, certainly the most famous one. It trains children aged 13 to 15, but also educates them and provides them with a school with full-time teachers available in their time off the pitch. It was built in three years (1985-1988) and envisioned by former Romanian player and coach Stefan Kovacs.
One of the most interesting things you can find while researching Clairefontaine are videos of today’s stars in their early teens, their physiques undeveloped, their voices squeaky, but their skills doing all the talking. Each generation of children is hand-picked, with only three conditions needed for registration, apart from their talent: they have to have French citizenship, be at least 13 and come from the Ile-de-France , Seine-Maritime or Eure region. Seeing Hatem Ben Arfa play rock-paper-scissors with another boy for a better place in the bunk bed they were to sleep in is priceless. Seeing a squad practice their shooting skills by aiming at a century old window of a derelict building in the middle of the forest is at the very least fun.
The most important thing Clairefontaine does in its methods of education is acting friendly to its students. Yes, there are tests and rigorous eating and sleeping habits, and the boys are there for the entire week (with the exception of weekends), but there is a sense of familiarity and camaraderie among them which is well beyond a professional level. And even if they get particularly lonely or homesick, they can contact their families whenever they wish to. This is no boot camp by any means.
Many of these players are expected to perform for the national squad in the future, and quite a number of them of them do. Playing with someone for so many years develops an almost telepathic bond which translates into success on the pitch. The French take their football very seriously, and this is why club coaches must take instructions from national squad coaches on how to train a certain young talent, what to say to them, when to rest them, how to organize individual sessions etc.
Nicolas Anelka, Louis Saha, William Gallas, Hatem Ben Arfa, Abou Diaby, Sébastien Bassong, Mehdi Benatia, Blaise Matuidi and national team top scorer Thierry Henry are just some of the jewels of Clairefontaine.
Former Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier once claimed the English would never be able to reach such a level of commitment to a common goal as long as clubs continue to dominate the football map. He revealed that the French boys at Clairefontaine trained ten hours a week, while English children were reduced to only four or five.
The academy works on several aspects of the game inside a short time period: apart from physical exercises and testing, the technical side of the game is improved, with juggling, dribbling and shooting drills being a daily must for every member. Medical factors are taken into account and the child is expected to take a personality test and communicate with a sport psychologist from time to time, so that a winning mentality and the sense of brotherhood can be retained. Then come the somewhat complex tactical concepts of movement – like knowing when to help out a playmaker by approaching him, following up a pass with smart running, opening up space etc. At the end of their tenure at Clairefontaine, the students are expected to be aware of their weaknesses and able to use both of their feet in the game.
When puberty ensues and the players start growing and gaining strength, they should be ready to face any challenge football can throw at them.
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