2014 FIFA World Cup Soccer Fitness Preview: France – Youth Development and the “Crisis of Football”


Because this is a World Cup year, I have decided to countdown to the tournament by providing a short soccer/fitness related preview of each of the 32 participating nations. In this installment, I will look at France, 1998 World Cup champions and the home to some of the most talented players in the world.  France has drawn a group that includes Switzerland, Honduras, and Ecuador, and plays their first match against Honduras on June 15th.

As I just mentioned, the current French team boasts some of the world’s most talented players, including Karim Benzema, Frank Ribery and Olivier Giroud.  In the past three decades, the French system has developed countless other world class players, making them perennial World Cup contenders and earing the country a reputation as one of the world leaders in youth development.  It was not always this way for France, however.  In the late 1980’s, frustrated with its nation’s failure to qualify for Euro 1988 in the Soviet Union and the 1990 World Cup in Italy, the French Football Federation (FFF) declared a “Crisis of Football”, and began re-organizing and re-vamping their youth development programs.  Among the major changes France made was the opening of the National Football Institute (INF) at Clairfontaine.  The INF was the first of a series of Formation Centres set up around the country, which selected, trained and developed France’s best young talented players, often at as early an age as 9 or 10 years old.  These Formation Centres, inspired by old Communist sports schools, comprised world class facilities, coaches, and an elite level training environment that was created for the sole purpose of strengthening the French National team.  According to Wikipedia, “youth development at Clairefontaine incorporates many principles on football with their students, such as:

  • Making the player’s movements faster and better
  • Linking movements efficiently and wisely
  • Using the weaker foot
  • Weaknesses in the player’s game
  • Psychological factors (sports personality tests)
  • Medical factors
  • Physical tests (beep tests)
  • Technical skills
  • Skill training (juggling the ball, running with the ball, dribbling, kicking, passing and ball control)
  • Tactical (to help the ball carrier, to get the ball back, to offer support, to pass the ball and follow the pass, positioning and the movement into space)”

Professional Club Academies in France sent their best players to the INF, where their technical and tactical development was accelerated.  The FFF also poured large amounts of money and resources into re-structuring their coach education program and UEFA coaching licenses, which are now considered to be among the best in the continent.

In the late 1990’s, France began to see the results of their 10 years of hard work since the “Crisis of Football”.  They reached the semi-finals of the Euro 1996 tournament in England, and 2 years later won their first and only World Cup championship on home soil.  France followed their 1998 World Cup victory with a Euro 2000 championship in Holland, and has since been to the final of the 2006 World Cup in Germany, losing on penalties to Italy.  Several of the players who began their youth development at Clairefontaine were key members of the French 1998 and 2000 Championship teams, including Lilian Thuram, Bixente Lizarazu, Patrick Vieira, and Nicholas Anelka.    

In the years since that 2006 World Cup final defeat, the French team has had some disappointing results.  They failed to get out of the group stages at both the 2008 European Championship (Austria/Switzerland) and the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, and required a 2-leg play-off against Ukraine to qualify for this year’s World Cup after placing 2nd in their qualification group.  Can the changes in youth development instituted after the 1988 “Crisis of Football” help the French team reach the same heights of the late 1990’s/early 2000’s?  We will have to wait and see what happens in 1 month’s time.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic.  Drop me a line here to get the conversation started. 

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