The professional route - with no corners cut

The French way
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The Independent Football

Despite Bernard Bosquier's assurances, finding his football summer school proved as arduous a task as that of unearthing the next significant generation of England internationals. "There are signs everywhere," he had said. If there were, they must have been taken down by rivals, because Carpentras was devoid of any. Thankfully, the entire population of this charming Provence town know about the course and are more than happy to help hopelessly lost visitors locate the venue. "Down there and then just follow the signs," they all say.

Despite Bernard Bosquier's assurances, finding his football summer school proved as arduous a task as that of unearthing the next significant generation of England internationals. "There are signs everywhere," he had said. If there were, they must have been taken down by rivals, because Carpentras was devoid of any. Thankfully, the entire population of this charming Provence town know about the course and are more than happy to help hopelessly lost visitors locate the venue. "Down there and then just follow the signs," they all say.

The wait is worthwhile. Here, children from all over the world - last week there were African, Asian, French and even two English boys - live and breathe football for five days. The set-up is simple, unpretentious and straight-forward. For about £120, children are being given the chance to live the life of a professional footballer. This is no American-style summer camp. Children are given responsibility and treated as adults. As a result, they are expected to respond in kind. Attitudes and appearances are important. Bosquier wants his pupils to enjoy their stay, but he also wants them to learn at the same time.

In a bid to emphasise the nature of the course, Bosquier even makes his 120 charges sign a contract. "If they're going to be pros for a week," he says, "then they might as well start where every pro starts and put pen to paper." The contract is, in reality, little more than a gimmick, but it illustrates how seriously and efficiently the course is run.

The centre, which is tucked away in the old part of town next to the municipal swimming pool, is nothing special. The two buildings - one for living, the other for eating - are more than 60 years old and offer minimum luxury. This is, to all intents and purposes, a typical countryside youth hostel. The playing area, which comprises six full-size pitches, is well maintained though hardly manicured. All in all, the setting is, in the words of Prince Albert of Monaco who played there once in a charity match, "charming".

But then those running the centre have long since realised that it is not the facilities which matter, but the work done on the field. Their feeling is you can have the latest equipment and the greatest gym, that still does not guarantee success. As Bosquier likes to remind people, "we are here to play football; nothing else". And when it comes to teaching children, the former captain of Les Bleus is peerless in France.

Bosquier, aided by his son, Nicolas, who played for Martigues and Istres, as well as the former France goalkeeper, Georges Carnus, has been running his camps for the last 20 summers. During that time, he has taught over 20,000 youngsters some of the skills which helped the cultured defender win five French league titles, three French cups and 42 caps for his country. "Kids love the course because they are made to feel like grown-ups," he says. "They do the things here which I did throughout my career [with Saint Etienne and Marseille]. They watch coaching videos, learn how to stretch properly, what to eat, how to take care of their bodies and, of course, how to play football."

Each day is meticulously planned and given a specific theme. Friday was dribbling and shooting. It says much about the philosophy behind this centre that two of the most highly-valued skills are kept for the last day. It is, Bosquier insists, perfectly logical. "You cannot put the cart before the horses. Sure, the ability to dribble and shoot is crucial, but then so too is control and passing. You cannot do anything if you can't hold the ball and do with it what you want. Why do you think [Zinedine] Zidane is so elegant on the ball? It's because he has been taught the basics right. I always say that a kid must have acquired all the elementary skills by the age of 16, otherwise it's too late."

Bosquier adds: "Of course, a player can improve but he has to have the framework in place by the time he is reaching the end of puberty. So when I tell people the important thing is not winning or scoring lots of goals, but becoming a better all-round footballer, I know it sounds like a cliché but it's true.

"You can always get stronger, fitter or quicker. Look at Thierry Henry. When he joined Arsenal he was a very gifted player. Now, though, he is bigger and tougher from playing in the English league. I think an English footballer would find it harder to make the transition abroad. Do you think Barcelona or Milan have time to teach a player how to pass?"

Herein lies the fundamental problem of British football. Not since Chris Waddle enthralled the Marseille faithful a decade ago has an English player had any real impact abroad. International results - both at club and country levels - have sometimes flattered only to later deceive. Predictably, the two English boys at the centre were by some way the poorest technically. The truth is that England no longer produce good raw material. "There is no doubt that England has been left behind," Bosquier says. "I remember when I played in the World Cup in 1966 and England were the best in every respect. The players were strong and athletic, and their spirit was excellent. But then perhaps people rested on their laurels a bit and, by the time the powers had realised they needed to respond, it was too late. At that point, the problem is all logic usually goes out of the window.

"I call it the Champions' League phenomenon. Fans want results yesterday and, as a consequence, corners are cut. If all that we say to our kids is 'score' and 'win', then if they fail to score or win, they panic. Calm, discipline and self-belief are what is needed."

Bosquier's thinking explains why kids are forbidden from shooting at goal during their warm-up. Instead, each child is given a ball to juggle, pass or simply get the feel of. Training sessions are divided into groups of 10, with one qualified instructor taking charge. Small numbers mean more time for individual coaching and allow every child the opportunity to progress. There are no children looking dejected or feeling left out here. Instead, all the kids, aged from nine to 19, are focused and interested. This visitor was amazed by the quiet around the training pitches. There is no screaming, fighting or running around. Everybody knows why they came andtake their role seriously. All, you sense, want to be professionals. All, you witness, are high in confidence following LesBleus' double of World Cup and European Championship.

"Confidence is the key," Bosquier says. "We always had the right technique, but we needed to believe in ourselves more. Michel Platini's arrival as national coach changed perceptions and now the players are strong mentally." That arrogance, that unshakeable faith in their abilities and those of their team-mates, explain why France never gave up in the dying minutes of Euro 2000.

"The kids play a lot of seven-a-side matches because it allows everybody to get a touch and feel involved. That way, by the time they're ready to play professionally, they're used to being given the ball. I don't know the ins and outs of English football, but there seemed to be too much of the hot potato syndrome at Euro 2000. French players, meanwhile, don't just look comfortable on the ball, they look happy."

Bosquier does not take the credit for the famous players he has helped develop, nor does he make any unrealistic promises to prospective pupils or their often over-eager parents. "The chances," he says, "of any of these kids becoming professionals are remote, but at least they can go away boasting they know what it's like.

"Every professional club has something like 900 kids who take part in their courses each year. And of those, maybe two or three will make it, no more. So you can imagine, there is not much hope of a child progressing from here to become a pro. Having said that, virtually all the pros of the last 10 years have been to a course like this at some time or another. We complement the work done by the Federation and the clubs."

Bosquier boasts an impressive list of past pupils who made an impact. Bordeaux's Michel Pavon, World Cup winner Alain Boghossian of Parma and Liverpool's Titi Camara are just three who spent several summers at the centre. In fact, Bosquier discovered Camara when the Guinaean was an unknown 14-year-old. "I hope I contributed a little to their development," he says. "It proves our system works."

For England, there is still hope. The fact that Michael Owen's memorable goal against Argentina at France 98 was used as the main example of how to execute the perfect balanced run, dribble and shot, during Friday's video session testifies that England are capable of producing players to rival the world's best. Kids looked on in awe, clapping as the Liverpool striker ended his mazy run with that right-foot shot into the net. "What England now need," Bosquier says, "is what France have. That is, lots of Michael Owens."

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