French players and managers are already all the rage in England. Now they are exporting their behind-the-scenes coaches as well. Ben Lyttleton reports
July 14, 1998, was one of Francisco Filho’s most memorable days in his 28 years at the Institut National du Football, based at Clairefontaine. “It was two days after France had won the World Cup,” Manchester United’s new Under-17 coach said. “Gérard Houllier told us he was leaving for Liverpool and Aimé Jacquet’s first words were: “We need to further improve our training.” He didn’t even mention what had happened two days earlier. I was taken aback, but that’s an example which illustrates the success of French training methods.”
Each year more than 700 youngsters, hoping to follow Clairefontaine alumni such as Nicolas Anelka, Philippe Christanval, William Gallas, Thierry Henry and Jeremie Aliadière, attend the 18 days set aside for try-outs. Only 24 gain a place. The centre of excellence, with its seven full-size grass pitches, two synthetic pitches, full-time staff of 60 and beds to sleep 302 people, has taken on a mythical standing in world football. The three tennis courts are used for players to practise their skills with a smaller ball. Other differences to the standard set-up at even the most advanced English clubs are just as pronounced.
Aliadière, who left Clairefontaine as a 16-year-old three years ago to develop his skills at Highbury, explains: “It’s much more technical in France. There was much less stress on results but here it is more competitive and results-based. At Clairefontaine, they always made me use my left foot, but in England that went out of the window.”
Georges Prost spent seven years at Marseille’s training academy before moving to Southampton in April. He said: “In England, the coaches are not trained in such a structured way as in France, where you need qualifications and diplomas to be able to work. There’s nothing like that here and, perhaps because of that, training for young players tends to be rather basic. All the players do is a lot of running, and then they play 11 against 11. At Southampton, I’ve brought over some of what exists in France. I have diversified the exercises, concentrating on different individual skills and combining it with tactical appreciation.”
Filho, who was head of coaching at the INF, is also educating the United youngsters slowly. “Little by little, I am going to try to change certain habits; for example, to teach them to pass the ball more and to use the spaces. They have a tendency to look for the final pass straight away. I am working with the Under-17s and we have players from all over the world. I was told to work how I was used to working in France. And the other coaches from the other youth teams have been coming along to see what I do.”
If United’s coaching staff are in awe as they watch the Brazilian-born 61-year-old tell his players to pass the ball, the thought of what other English coaches tell their charges is terrifying.
Filho is not the only coach to leave Clairefontaine this summer. Jean-François Jodar, who led France’s Under-17s to the world title last year, has become director of football for the United Arab Emirates. “Nobody cared at the French federation,” he said of his departure. “When I told the president I was resigning, he said to me that he was unable to match the salary I was being offered. I found the explanation almost comical; I hadn’t even told him how much I was going to earn.”
The pair have started an exodus from Clairefontaine which is already a concern to Jacquet. “I have always said that rather than taking our players, they’d be better off taking our coaches and trainers. And now that’s what they’re doing. These departures are harmful for us. But it’s also further proof that French training methods remain of the highest quality.”
Filho agreed with his former boss: “I wouldn’t call my move to Manchester United a seal of approval for me, it’s more of a recognition of the success of French training. I have to admit, I was agreeably surprised by the move; I was plodding along gently towards a peaceful retirement. A few clubs had already contacted me, but I always thought the best place to train players was Clairefointaine. And then one day, somebody from Manchester United telephoned me to say that Sir Alex Ferguson wished to see me. It was time to take on a new challenge, I’ve always liked United and when I arrived here, I was able to see just how big this club is.
“My work was always done in the background and that was the way I liked it. I prefer to get on with the job behind the scenes and leave the ambition and glory to the players I train.”
From WSC 190 December 2002. What was happening this month