THERE was once a time when French football was thought to lead the world.
France won the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 with a team that included some of the world’s best players, yet around that time it was believed that their true edge lay off the field, where enlightened institutional thinkers had constructed the world’s most sophisticated system of football production.
Gerard Houllier was even presented with a specially minted World Cup medal to acknowledge his contribution in 1998: it seemed Zinedine Zidane couldn’t have done it without him.
Envoys came from around Europe to France’s national technical institute at Clairefontaine, hoping to study the French way and see what principles could be copied to help drag their own national games into the future.
With the benefit of hindsight we now understand that there was nothing special about the French system. The turn-of-the-century fad for French methods was the result of middle-aged men in suits grabbing credit for victories which had really been won by the singular genius of Zidane and an unusually gifted generation of players.
Schmoozing journalists at technical conferences, the suits managed to persuade many people that the likes of Thierry Henry had learned everything he knew at Clairefontaine. As the years passed and Clairefontaine produced no further Henrys, the factory of excellence was exposed as a myth.
In fact, French football appears to be led by an unusually stupid administrative class. That belief blossomed during the Raymond Domenech years, when a coach loathed by players and public somehow managed to cling to his job for three campaigns thanks to his friends in high places at the French Football Federation (FFF), with disastrous results at the last World Cup.
Now the online magazine Mediapart has unearthed an ugly little scandal that reinforces all the unfortunate stereotypes about the vegetable-like French football administrator.
Key individuals at the top of French football are annoyed that so many players are being trained at Clairefontaine, only to then declare allegiance to other national teams.
Mediapart published a transcript of a conversation between France coach Laurent Blanc, U21 coach Erick Mombaerts, national technical director François Blaquart and others in which the question is addressed.
At the beginning of the transcript, Mombaerts complains that Clairefontaine recently turned out a crop of 30 young players, of whom only four are now French internationals.
The other 26 have declared allegiance to other countries.
“That shocks me,” says Blanc.
“It shocks us,” says Mombaerts.
“When people wear the France national team shirt as of 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 years old, U21s, and afterwards they go off to play in North African or African teams, that bothers me enormously,” says Blanc.
Why waste resources training these players if their education will ultimately benefit some other country?
The three geniuses think there might be a way to stop this.
Just don’t let as many kids who could potentially have dual nationality — and therefore one day play for Mali, or Algeria, or whatever — into Clairefontaine.
You can tell that even these guys know there is something not quite right with the plan, because they intend to keep it hush-hush.
Mombaerts: “Do we get to grips with the problem and limit the number of kids who can change nationalities? In such a case, we have to do it under the elbow [on the quiet].”
Blaquart: “Ideally, in fact, it would be to say, but not officially; in any case we no longer take as many kids who are susceptible to ultimately changing... We could trace, on a non-spoken basis, a sort of quota. But it must not be said. It stays as action only.”
France is officially colour-blind; discrimination on the grounds of race is of course illegal and even the census does not record information about race and ethnicity.
In practise though, there is a lot of colour vision around. I remember being in a café in Paris before the France-Ireland match in 2004, and being told by a North African waiter that the French team “is not France. It is a team of blacks”.
In the transcript, the three men stress that they are not racists, they simply don’t like being taken advantage of by dual-nationality players.
Blanc: “I have no problem with coloured people... If there are only — and I’m speaking crudely — only blacks in the youth teams and those blacks regard themselves as French and want to play in the France team, that suits me fine.”
Thankfully for the image of French football, there is one official, Francis Smerecki who (as his name suggests, is partly of Polish descent), points out that the idea of limiting the intake of players who might take up dual nationality is hopelessly discriminatory. In practise it will lead to less-gifted ethnic-French players being favoured over footballers whose foreign ancestry makes them dubious prospects.
Rather than debate the point, U21 coach Mombaerts simply restates the original “problem”: “Doesn’t it shock you that the INF has produced four French international players and 26 foreign international players — can we not re-orientate things a little bit?”
Actually, the figures shouldn’t shock you at all. If we look at the six squads France took to the six international tournaments between Euro 2000 and World Cup 2010, we find they consisted of 66 different players.
Twenty-two of those players were there at the start of the period under consideration, so in 10 years the French team added 44 new tournament-class players — or 4.4 per year. If Clairefontaine’s annual output yielded four new French internationals, that’s very close to par. Not that somebody like the French U21 coach could be expected to realise.
If Clairefontaine also produced 26 internationals for other countries, that tells you that football in France is a game played by many children of immigrants, and that France is producing more international footballers than it can use.
As the World Cup winner and anti-racism campaigner Lilian Thuram has pointed out, the best French-trained players of foreign descent usually want to play for France: Zidane could have played for Algeria, Desailly for Ghana, Vieira for Senegal.
“Benzema plays for which country? Nasri plays for which country?” Thuram said. “The others, who won’t be kept on, will naturally go and play for other countries.’’
Smerecki, the voice of reason, made the same point to Blanc.
“If a guy wants to play international football, it’s only normal he goes to a country where he can play. If you had not been able to play for the France team...” Blanc: “I would not have asked to play elsewhere. It’s as simple as that.”
If Blanc himself were a second-generation immigrant, this argument might have some relevance.
Since the story broke the principals have insisted that they were simply indulging in a little blue-sky thinking, that no such quota system was ever introduced. All we know for sure is that if it had been, nothing would ever have been on paper.
So far, only technical director Blaquart, who has been suspended by the sports ministry, looks likely to lose his job.
That may not go far enough. Imagine that we are not in France but Northern Ireland, and three of the IFA’s top men have been overheard complaining that too many of their Catholic players have lately switched sides to the Republic.
The IFA men wonder whether the best response would be to cut down on the number of Catholics allowed to train with their youth sides. Would a Northern Ireland manager who seemed seriously to entertain such a notion have been able to keep his job?
Blanc told The Guardian over the weekend: “I am against all forms of discrimination.”
So why didn’t he say as much when someone suggested a system which would necessarily discriminate against players of foreign descent?
The question will haunt the rest of his career as France manager.
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