Merelle indicated the other man. "This is spy number two." There was wry laughter. "And you may call me spy number three."
Andre Merelle, Claude Dusseau and Joachim Francisco Filho, grouped together in the ornamental garden of a French chateau, with a mist clinging to the surrounding forest. In a setting fit for the three musketeers, here were the three spies. The villains of French football. Traitors to the cause. And spies, worst of all, for the perfidious English.
Two weeks ago, the news broke that Arsene Wenger had signed yet another French player for his Highbury squad. And this time the boy was barely old enough to lace his own boots. Still two months away from his 16th birthday, Jeremie Aliadiere had been signed to a reported seven-year contract worth about pounds 1.2m.
In France, the response was immediate and heated. "It's a disgrace," Noel Le Graet, the president of the French league, announced. "His coaches, his teachers and his parents should ask themselves a few questions about this auction of a child of 15."
Who is Jeremie Aliadiere? A centre-forward whose potential had been spotted at the age of seven and now, with five appearances in the national under-15 side to his name, a star of the junior teams of Racing Club de France. And from Monday to Friday a student at the INF, the institute in the grounds of the Chateau Montjoye at Clairefontaine, the former country home of a member of the Lazard banking family, where Dusseau, Filho and Merelle are the guardians of a project that has been described as the key to the technical policy of French football, a policy whose integrity had suddenly come under threat.
The French are very aware that their best players usually find fame and fortune outside their own frontiers. Of the 11 who started the World Cup final on the eve of Bastille Day, only two were playing for clubs in the French league. Fans and administrators alike are proud of the way French talent earns such practical recognition abroad, but are sensitive about the implications for the standing of the domestic game. And now the flower of French football had been plucked before it had even come into bud.
In outbidding the representatives of FC Rennes, who offered just over a million pounds, Wenger had also seen off firm interest not just from several other French clubs, led by Paris St-Germain, but from Barcelona and Internazionale.
"It's not just a financial decision," Laurent Aliadiere, the boy's father, told journalists. "We're not a poor family. If we chose Arsenal, it was because of what was offered on the sporting side. Certainly, football is a professional sport, and money is part of it. But we liked what Arsene Wenger had to say.
"London is only an hour from Paris by plane, two hours by train. If he'd joined Monaco, say, it would have been worse on that level. So it wasn't a gesture against the French clubs, it was just that Arsenal showed us the best opportunity. I don't know how they came to hear of him. But he's played in the national under-15s. That's a good explanation, non?"
Not as far as the furious Le Graet was concerned. "Here is a boy, educated and coached within the national structures of French football, who leaves for the highest bidder," he raged. "What happened is obvious. Let's call a spade a spade. Arsene Wenger has an employee stalking the corridors of the Institute."
A week after Le Graet's outburst, a general council meeting of the French federation and the league agreed to form a commission of inquiry into the affair, in order to discover if employees of the institute at Clairefontaine had indeed acted as intermediaries between the player and the English club. "The FFF hunts for spies" was L'Equipe's headline. The finger of suspicion pointed firmly at Dusseau, the institute's director, and Filho and Merelle, his coaches.
Two days later Merelle sat in the institute's refectory, tucking into a blanquette de veau, mulling over l'affaire Aliadiere, and preparing his defence against the charges of espionage and treason.
"Football is small world," he said, "and today it's all about money. But we're not advisers in this respect. We're not agents. We're very cautious about that, because when a professional club here can't get a boy to sign with them, they tend to say, `Ah well, the coaches at the institute advised him to go elsewhere.' The big clubs want the best young players, and when they don't get them, they become suspicious."
Aliadiere had played alongside his own son in a local team up to the age of 13. "Then we took him into the school here. At that point he could have registered for Paris St-Germain. They would have liked to sign him, and five of our other boys are with them. But the father knew that if he signed the registration card, that would be like a contract. He wanted his son to be able to make a decision later. So he signed for an amateur club, Racing de France. Then they waited for other clubs to ask about him. They had many discussions. He chose the best, in his father's view."
According to Merelle, he and his fellow coaches never played a part in such decisions. "But still we find ourselves accused of directing this player to that club. Or if two of our boys join the same club, it's said that we've been paid to send them. But this time it's more serious."
The trouble, Merelle said, is that French football clubs are not rich enough to keep their best players. "Even after the World Cup," he said, "we don't have big crowds. Television fees aren't as big as they are in England. We are not a very important country for football. We are not fanatics. So the players go abroad, they learn, they grow in experience, and it's good for the national team."
Two of the Institute's recent graduates exemplify that phenomenon. Thierry Henry, the 20-year-old winger who starred in last summer's World Cup campaign before moving from Monaco to Juventus last month, is one graduate. Arsenal's 19-year-old Nicolas Anelka is another.
Sixty boys from the Paris region, aged between 13 and 16, are currently receiving instruction at Clairefontaine. A further 240 boys pass through six other centres around the country. All of them are weekly boarders, staying in a dormitory building in the chateau's grounds. From Monday to Friday, they go by coach to local schools and then train from four o'clock to six o'clock. On Friday nights their parents arrive to take them home. On Sundays the boys play for the junior sides of their clubs before returning to the institute in the evening.
"Last year we had applications from 450 boys," Merelle said. "We picked 24. Each year two or three are eliminated, and we end up with a final year of 18 boys. We try to take the most skilful players. There's no question of size or strength. It's just the skills. And speed. We try to take speedy boys.
"What we notice is that the skilful players also have the best understanding of the game. They're more attuned. Of course, some boys will grow up and their physical potential will be their main quality. Or some will be not so skilful but they are so speedy that they can have some success. But when they have both speed and skill, that is a good thing."
The afternoon training consists almost entirely of games and drills aimed at developing technique. "There's very little physical education. Everything is with the ball. We have a gymnasium, but we use it for playing football. When they play football for two hours, the boys are running and jumping, and just by playing they are developing their endurance. We test them from time to time, and the tests prove we are right, because they do as well in physical tests as the rest of the national under-15 or under-16 squads. Sometimes better."
Nor is tactical education a priority. "In the first two years we don't teach them team building because we have no team. Only in the third year does the Institute have a team. We concentrate on the first principles of the game. But not strategy. That comes later."
The importance of schoolwork, on the other hand, is stressed from the start. "They follow the normal studies, like any French children. Some are good, some are not so good. What we say is, `OK, you were selected to come here because you are good at football, but the most important thing is studies. At the end of the three years here we shall see if you're capable of joining a professional club or not.' Most of them do. But even if you do, we say, you must know that out of five, six, or seven, only one will become a professional footballer. So you have to work at school, too."
All this costs about pounds 6,000 a year for each boy, which is about what it would cost to send him to a minor English public school. And that, apart from the principle of the thing, is what has raised hackles in the Aliadiere affair. A national investment has directly benefited a foreign enterprise.
"I don't know what can be done to prevent it," Merelle said. "Maybe the parents could sign a paper promising to sign a contract with a French club when the boy leaves the institute. But maybe that wouldn't be legal. Or they could promise, if he signed with a foreign club, to pay the federation back."
In the case of Jeremie Aliadiere, it's too late for that. So what kind of a player is he?
"Sort of... Van Basten," Merelle said, with a note of fondness in his voice. "Looks like him. Tall, slim, speedy, scores goals. Good player."
In the spring, the talent in question will pack his bags and be driven down the tree-lined avenues of Clairefontaine for the last time - untouched, one can only hope, by the current psychodrama. A few weeks later he will arrive in London, where he will settle into accommodation with his grandparents, deputed to act as chaperones during his first two years in England. And then the rest of us may begin to learn what France has lost and Arsenal has gained.
A suivre, as they say.Reuse content