Football: Experts in the export business

Glenn Moore on the French youth programme that is the envy of Europe
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England are not only playing a country in Montpellier today, they are taking on a footballer factory. In the last few years France has become one of the biggest producers of footballers in Europe, surpassed only by the countries of the former Yugoslavia, traditionally the continent's leading exporter.

Just this week Arsenal signed two more French players while, in Italy, Alain Boghossian moved from Napoli to Sampdoria on a pounds 300,000-a-year contract. None of these players are even in the French Tournoi de France squad, though Boghossian did join two players who are: Christian Karembeu and Pierre Laigle.

They are two of nine Italian-based players in the French squad. With others in England (Franck Leboeuf and Patrick Vieira), Spain and Germany, only seven of the 22 still play in France and several of those, like Bruno N'Gotty and Robert Pires, are constantly linked with moves away.

Despite these exports French clubs have become successful in Europe after many years of failure. Marseilles' 1993 Champions' Cup success - France's first European trophy - may be clouded by bribery allegations but Paris St-Germain have reached the last two Cup-Winners' Cup finals, winning in 1996. That year Bordeaux reached the Uefa Cup final, while Monaco and Auxerre have also made an impact. All of this has been achieved with very few foreign players.

French players are attractive to other countries because they combine technical ability with physical resilience, a combination most evident, to differing degrees, in Didier Deschamps of Juventus.

The emergence of players like Deschamps, his team-mate Zinedine Zidane, and others like Marcel Desailly, Lilian Thuram and Karembeu is one reason why the Football Association's Charter for Quality, the new coaching initiative, draws heavily from the French example.

This may seem odd when today's squads run out. While England can offer Phil and Gary Neville, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Sol Campbell, only Vieira is under 23 in the French squad. However, that party, which also has only two players over 29, has been together over a period of several years with the express aim of peaking for next year's World Cup which the French host.

Below this group the production line shows no sign of faltering. France are in the World Under-20 Championships in Malaysia later this month and on Thursday won the prestigious Toulon tournament, beating Portugal - whose own youth system is renowned - in the final.

England, though they are also in Malaysia, are heavily reliant on the success of a few outstanding youth development schemes, primarily at Manchester United, and, more latterly, the FA's own national school. The shake-up proposed by Howard Wilkinson is long overdue -the French began reviewing their system more than 20 years ago.

"We changed our methods in 1974 and it is paying off today," said Arsene Wenger, Arsenal's French manager. "We have a professional detection of young players and work with them from very early on. From 14 to 20 they train every day. The quality of coaching is very good."

There have been two strands to their progress. The first came from the clubs which realised they did not have the resources to compete with the better-supported and sponsored giants of western Europe and thus began breeding players instead of buying them. This trend was led by clubs like Nantes (who produced Deschamps, Desailly and Karembeu) and Guy Roux's Auxerre, who have gone from a park club to the Champions' League. The wealthier French clubs, like PSG and Marseilles, were slow to catch on but now have similar schemes.

Talented young players are brought to the club, housed and schooled. Coaches have to be far better qualified than in the UK and have much greater security of tenure - in England a change of manager often means a new youth coach. Clubs like Arsenal and Crystal Palace are trying to change that by making independent appointments.

France went on to win the 1984 European Championship, but when they failed to qualify for the 1990 World Cup in neighbouring Italy it was decided more needed to be done.

Gerard Houllier was appointed Technical Director and he set up a national coaching network with schools of excellence, developed the fledgling national coaching centre and football institute at Clairefontaine, and invested heavily in the national youth teams. It is elements of this system the FA are seeking to copy.

However, success has brought its problems. The steady exodus of players may be good for the national team, which benefits from their experience, but it is devaluing the national league, leaving it even more vulnerable to depredations.

Alarmingly, French players are now being poached as teenagers, with Arsenal's controversial acquisition of Nicolas Anelka not an isolated case. Juventus have recently lured an 18-year-old defender, Saliou Lassissi, away from Rennes and a 17-year-old goalkeeper, Sebastien Frey, from Cannes.

Then there is the nature of the players being produced. They are very good technically but some regard them as being over-coached and lacking the imagination of predecessors such as Michel Platini and Alain Giresse. Zidane is billed as the new Platini but is yet to perform well for the national side in major competition.

Another concern is for the players who do not make it. The non-footballing education that young players receive in their hothouse development is, said one French journalist, "good only for a weak job. They end up playing part-time with a job being found by the chairman or sponsor but, at 30, it's over. For every 10 or 20 players who come through, 80 disappear."

Youth development is not a precise science. Paul Rideout was a sensation at 15 but never went on to play for England, Shaun Brooks, son of the former international Johnny, was tipped for great things but spent most of his career at Orient. By contrast, the young Ian Wright was ignored by the professional game and learned his trade at parks level.

The French have their own examples. Ibrahim Ba, the exciting 23-year- old right-winger, had four clubs before he was 18, with PSG among the clubs which rejected him. Juventus-bound Lassissi was turned away by Nantes.

But while some will always disappoint, or emerge late, a well-structured and resourced system can only be of benefit. The English FA is finally recognising this but it will take time to catch up. At present the French are pulling further away - in January they launched a scheme in harness with the government to improve school football for eight-year-olds.