England warned: French model wasn't built in a day

An architect of the system that rules the world points out the pitfalls to would-be imitators
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As the Football Association count the shopping days to their Christmas deadline, the nation requires more than the gift of a new national coach. While that is undoubtedly a priority, it is building the right structure around him which must be of prime concern.

As the Football Association count the shopping days to their Christmas deadline, the nation requires more than the gift of a new national coach. While that is undoubtedly a priority, it is building the right structure around him which must be of prime concern.

Within days of being entrusted with the difficult mission of putting in place lasting foundations for the future of English football back in 1998, Howard Wilkinson knew precisely where to turn. France had just won the World Cup and was the obvious place to start.

Throughout the Nineties, French clubs had made steady progress in European competitions. And after a rocky patch at the end of the Eighties and in the early part of the last decade, the national team were following suit. Wilkinson was convinced Les Bleus were the ideal model to relieve England's blues.

Like an eager parent in the festive run-up, the FA's technical director ran out to find his country the latest, coolest present - a football organisation to match those trendy neighbours. But did he remember to pick up the instruction manual? And did he read it thoroughly? Claude Dusseau, the man who runs the INF (Institut National de Football) at the French Federation's headquarters in Claire- fontaine, is not convinced. "England have erected the walls," he said, "but the rest is still under construction. The system can't run itself."

If Wilkinson and the FA thought all they needed to do was buy the French model, assemble it, and then put in a couple of batteries, they were sorely mistaken. As Dusseau, 61, explained, the machinery takes time and effort before it really gets going. "In France, we started the formation process nearly 30 years ago. The French football association drew up a plan that would, in the first instance, bring us up to date and then, in the long term, perhaps help us lead the way. The idea was never to become the best side in the world overnight, but rather to create a charter that all the professional clubs would adhere to."

Dusseau added: "In effect, we wanted to create a common goal, to which every player and manager could aspire. Because that is something which is important as well. There is no point developing the players if you are not doing the same with the coaches. Otherwise, you end up with dozens of excellent players but nobody good enough to teach them." Touché.

Ironically, Dusseau can rem-ember when England's approach to sport, and football in particular, was the envy of the world. He recalls crossing the Channel to get an idea of how things should be done. "For years, we copied the English system," he said. "We were always in awe of the way kids would go to school in the morning and then play sport in the afternoon. That was unheard of in France, but we talked about the system and eventually introduced it in a few schools.

"Georges Boulogne [the man who created the centres for excellence] realised that football was like any other profession. If you want to be an electrician, you have to be taught how to do the job properly. Well, football is the same."

England's cowboy approach to football education has finally run out of steam. Nobody, not even the most loyal national supporter, still believes the old methods are the best. But neither the realisation that things need to improve, nor the FA's recent changes, are likely to produce any tangible results for some time. "It took our national team 26 years to reap the rewards of the work we had put in," Dusseau said. "The first centre for excellence was opened in 1972 in Vichy and, although a few good players [Jean-Pierre Papin and Jean-Luc Ettori, to name but two] emerged, it was not until we moved to Clairefontaine in 1988 and took the formation process a step further that France made its mark."

He added: "The important thing is not to panic. In the early Nineties, there were plenty of critics in France. Gérard Houllier's team had failed to qualify for the World Cup in America and there seemed to be no high-profile candidate when he resigned. But the federation stuck to their principles and, against the wishes of media and public, continued with their policy of promoting from within, Aimé Jacquet moving up from assistant manager." And the rest, as they say, is histoire.

Jacquet's four-year tenure may have ended in triumph, but there were some rocky patches on the road to World Cup success. When Jacquet first took over in the summer of 1994, he was faced with a similar predicament to England's current state. Morale was low, expectations were high and the players were unsure as to how they should be playing.

Franck Sauzée, one of France's most capped midfielders who is now at Hibernian in Scotland, recalls: "We had a terrible time between 1992 and 1995, when there was a lack of focus and confidence with the national team. But the work being done behind the scenes was progressing and the feeling was always that the tide would turn.

"The point is that it takes time. Like any business, you have to give the plan a chance to blossom. If it is in a healthy state, it will come good. But why copy France? The FA should turn to Manchester United for inspiration. The board allowed their manager several years to build a competitive youth structure and they're reaping the benefits."

The implementation of academies in the majority of Premiership clubs will help find the players of the future, as will the FA centres for excellence (once they are up and running). But, whatever system Wilkinson puts in place, Dusseau believes it will take at least five years for the first wave of talented youngsters to come through.

"If you want a truly élite band of professionals, you need a large base to choose from," he said. "But that base takes a while to form. Once you are producing only good players, though, exceptional ones are certain to emerge."

The hope is that the French approach will eventually work in England. But, as Dusseau is at pains to point out, there are no guarantees that the success of Les Bleus will ever be mirrored in this country. "Ten years ago," he said, "we knew that, while the bodywork needed some repair, the engine was in excellent shape. France were never in need of an overhaul."

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