The Center for the Study of Sport and Leisure in Society

Spain v. France: Blueprints for Developing Soccer Talent?

In Soccer on June 22, 2012 at 10:03 pm

By Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff

The author is a historian in the Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State.  Her forthcoming book, “The Making of Les Bleus: Sport in France, 1958-2010,” (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books) examines the history and evolution of French soccer and basketball development.

France plays Spain in the Euro quarterfinals tomorrow inUkraine.  Both sides have demonstrated results in recent memory:Spain’s Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 titles, andFrance’s 1998 World Cup and 2000 Euro victories.  Much is made of each side’s Generation ’87, players born in 1987 who are prominent fixtures in this year’s tournament.  For Spain, this includes Gerard Piqué, Cesc Fàbregas, and Pedro Rodríguez, and for France, Karim Benzema, Samir Nasri, Jérémy Ménez, Blaise Matuidi, and Hatem Ben Arfa.  While indeed gifted athletes, they (and their teammates) are products of similar yet different youth programs.  By the late 1990s, the French development system was acclaimed as the best in the world, a bragging right Spain has since taken over.  This begs the question: what happens in Spain and France to create “winning” soccer players?

France today has two main programs that develop soccer talent.  One is the academy structure run by the French Football Federation (FFF) through the country’s professional clubs.  The other is the FFF’s National Institute of Football (INF) at Clairefontaine.  Both programs date to the early 1970s, when the “soccer crisis” illustrated by the national team’s inability to compete internationally provoked action.  At the time, the main problem was that French players needed improved technical expertise so as to quicken the tempo of their passing game. Both aspects were crucial in order to be competitive as “total football,” exhibited by the Dutch club Ajax, began to dominate play.  The solution seemed simple: start training players earlier.  The main obstacle was the education system: long days of academics, notable for the absence of dedicated time for sports.

For inspiration, the French looked to East Germany. Several elements of the GDR system were borrowed, notably the congregation of prospective youth athletes in one area with a dedicated team of professionals to support them; housing provided free of charge to the players; sports equipment at minimal or no cost to the players; and the time and means to devote themselves entirely to sport.[1]  Yet, the French programs were not totalitarian. They taught democratic attributes, sought to impart a sense of community and citizenship, and were conceived of as athletic apprenticeships rather than factory-production of elite athletes.

The INF opened in 1972 as the main training center forFrance’s elite youth players.  Originally located in Vichy, at its outset the INF only recruited players aged 16-18 years old (at the time, school was mandatory through age 16).  In 1988, the INF moved to Clairefontaine, and since 1990, it recruits French players aged 13-16 to spend up to three years in the development program.  At Clairefontaine, young athletes live, train, and continue their academic studies under the supervision of a cadre of professionals dedicated to ensure that they develop athletically, scholastically, physically, and physiologically.

In 1973, the youth academy concept was launched by Georges Boulogne, often considered the father of modern French soccer.  Today, the academies focus on academics, citizenship, and soccer (in that order, officials claim).  Players are recruited and sign contracts of apprenticeship with the professional club.  Several (typically up to 40) live together at the formation center, while others who live nearby commute from home.  Since the 1980s, French clubs no longer recruit players from abroad into the youth system.  Throughout a player’s time at an academy, a collection of professionally licensed coaches, physicians, and trainers are on hand to ensure that players develop physically and psychologically to the game.  The player continues their studies either at a local school or through the private schools that many academies have established since 1986 to support their soccer programs.  In both systems, adult guardians live onsite to supervise the live-in charges.  Equally, both structures seek to produce well-rounded citizen-athletes.

The Spanish example differs.  In Spain, development stems from the youth academy of FC Barcelona, long the symbol of Catalan nationalism and identity.  Influenced by Johan Cryuff, a Dutch national who played for Barcelona, in 1979 the team opened a formal youth program.  Known as La Masia, the center was designed to train home-grown talent for the senior team in the style promoted by Cryuff: “total football.”  That such an effort began after the end of Gen. Francisco Franco’s regime—which sought to suppress Catalonian identity—is perhaps not purely coincidental.  In constructing a team with a strong reservoir of youth talent to ensure a winning future, Barcelona sought to promote a sense of “nationalism” through the grace of soccer.  The team’s strong identity and its motto of “more than just a club…,” is transferred to its youths.

Since Barcelonais synonymous with Catalonia, many players recruited into the academy are from the region. However, La Masia also seeks out youths from the rest of Spain, as well as abroad. Each year, approximately 200 players enroll in its programs, while a much smaller number (30-40) live together as a family-in-residence.[2]  Boys begin their careers as young as 7 or 9, while those selected to live at the compound are typically in their teens.  Supported by a cadre of athletic, medical, and academic professionals, the players hone their skills in the classroom and on the field.

Many chalk up La Masia’s success to its emphasis on providing a “life education.”  Values such as respect and hard work are integrated into a program that emphasizes academics and completion of schooling.  Intelligence, mental toughness, and self-esteem off the pitch translate into results on the score board.  The success of FC Barcelona in creating home-grown youth talent to stock their senior team or to sell to other, richer professional clubs has spurred other Spanish clubs to replicate the formula and develop their own academies.  These are the programs that formed this year’s national team.

It is interesting that within both France and Spain such programs were begun in the 1970s, an era of great political, economic, and social change.  The French and Spanish blueprints share common objectives and origins: creating technically superior players who are not just athletes but educated citizens; developing talented youth to represent the nation through soccer victories.  Yet, there are differences.  France has a two-track approach whereas Spain relies on professional clubs.  There was no national reason or unified approach to formalizing Spanish soccer academies—no soccer “crisis,” no contemplation of other national programs to devise a country-wide program.  French and Spanish systems were influenced by separate entities and are still structured and administrated differently.  Yet, over time they have evolved to jointly influence soccer development around the globe and are today held as models for how to create “winning” players who are more than just athletes.  When the game begins tomorrow, it will be more than just a battle between the Generations of ’87. It will be a faceoff between these two methods of molding young talent.

All views portrayed in this article are those of the author and do not represent those of the U.S. Department of State or the United States Government.  Information for this article was obtained from publicly available information, as well as from oral history interviews conducted by the author during 2006-2008.

[1] The French did not “borrow” the GDR’s doping program.  In fact, the French were—at least, officially—at the forefront of the anti-doping movement.  As early as 1965,France had national legislation that made it illegal to dope in athletics, making it one of the first countries in the world to have such laws on the books.

[2] Despite the fact that the original La Masia closed last June, when the youth center was moved to Masia-Centre de Formació Oriol Tort at Ciutat Esportiva, the program still is commonly referred to as La Masia.

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  1. Interesting post, thanks. Couple of questions: What about the role of municipally-funded youth football programs in France? As feeders into the club academies, are they not an important part of the development system there? The answer would be useful for us to think about in the U.S. where our pay-to-play system excludes players from poor and working-class families who cannot afford high fees.

    Turning to Spain, can we say anything about youth programs outside Barca’s La Masia? And how did the Spanish Federation’s approach to youth development change during and after Franco? Finally, a minor correction: it’s Johan “Cruyff”.

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