France's outdated physical philosophy
"Germany learned a lot from France, notably from its golden years of 1998 and 2000," Bayern Munich supremo Karl-Heinz Rummenigge told radio station RMC recently. "Germans often went to France to see how you bring through young players. They have transferred that model to Germany. The goal was to stop having players that resembled tanks and make them more technical."
French football's "formation, the forming of players, was the envy of the world after Didier Deschamps lifted both the World Cup and the European Championship in successive tournaments, with the former victory hailed by winning coach Aime Jacquet as a triumph for the country's youth academies, the leading example of which was based around the chateau at Clairefontaine, a short drive from Paris.
The national team training centre remains a watchword for excellence in developing young players, but it is ironic that Rummenigge should pick France as an example to follow in radically overhauling stereotypes about German football when the root of Jacquet's success, and the subsequent travails of Les Bleus, was the kind of players we were used to seeing in the Nationalmannschaft before the advent of Mario Goetze, Mesut Ozil and Toni Kroos.
Exasperated by the bullying of their nation on the football field by the likes of England and the Germany sides of yore, and Les Bleus' failure to qualify for a major international tournament between 1970 and 1976, Georges Boulogne and Jean Sadoul set about revolutionising youth development in France, emphasising the physical aspect of football, an ethos taken to the summit of the world game by Jacquet, who -- despite the brilliance of Zinedine Zidane -- owes his place in the pantheon of football greats more to the likes of Marcel Desailly, Lilian Thuram, Bixente Lizarazu and Patrick Vieira.
"The main qualities of his team were physical strength, athleticism, discipline and speed. Zidane, of course, added guile, but it was essentially a defensive side. With neither Trezeguet nor Henry ready to assume starting roles, France effectively triumphed without an international class striker," French football commentator Matthew Spiro wrote in an excellent piece in The Blizzard, reminding everyone bar Newcastle United fans -- who have most likely still not forgotten -- of the limitations of Stephane Guivarc'h. "The seven goals plundered past South Africa and Saudi Arabia helped Les Bleus finish as top-scorers, but the recipe for success had been physicality not flair."
France's success proved double-edged after Jacquet took the influential role of directeur technique national (DTN) after the '98 triumph with his ethos further endorsed by the triumph of Les Bleus at Euro 2000 under his former assistant Roger Lemerre. "You can pin it all on Jacquet," Spiro told ESPN FC. "After he became the DTN after the World Cup, all coaches preached his cautious, athletic brand of football."
As Blanc himself stated during his tenure as national team boss, "Xavi and Iniesta would never have played in France." Kevin Gameiro, Marvin Martin and even the player arguably most influential on the current France side, Mathieu Valbuena, have all suffered from the sizeist basis of youth development. Big, powerful and athletic was in vogue as long as Jacquet shaped the vision of the game in France; all coaches taking their badges were force-fed his brand of football, and -- given his success with it -- who was going to argue?
The effects are still being felt now. France rank second to Spain in terms of international youth titles won since 1981, most recently taking the under-20 World Cup in the summer. However, while the Iberians have become dominant in world football, the French can only look back with nostalgia on the feats of Zidane & Co. after three disastrous senior international tournaments since 2008.
"They do well at youth level because they have these physical monsters, but when they get to U21 level, they realise they can't play football," added Spiro, who is backed up by the fact that Les Bleuets have only qualified for the European U21 championship twice in eight attempts since 2000. "Spain, for example, because they have these little guys, they have to compensate by thinking more quickly."
"Certain youngsters were reduced simply to their physique despite them having the potential to become great technicians. It's a real shame," Arsenal scout Francis Cagigao told So Foot late last year. "There has always been a tradition of a style of play in France, but after the success of '98 and 2000, everything was turned upside down. From that moment, French youth development was focused in an exaggerated fashion on physique to the detriment of technique. If the generation of young French players is less good today it's because of that policy."
Anyone who has watched a Ligue 1 match can confirm that Jacquet's legacy endures in the oft-dreary domestic game too. "From a philosophical point of view, 1998 hurt us a lot," L'Equipe's chief football writer, Vincent Duluc, told Spiro in The Blizzard. "Our domestic league is still suffering. We have the league that produces the fewest goals and the least excitement. Why? Because all of the coaches who have emerged since 1998 are disciples of Jacquet. They have all been taught in Jacquet's way. I don't think French players have necessarily suffered -- we are still producing good players -- but the French national teams have paid the price."
Raymond Domenech's six-year tenure as France coach owed much to Jacquet's influence as the former Lyon defender was one of the DTN's proteges, and he consequently prolonged the ideas of his mentor and protector. That approach was, however, altered when Gerard Houllier returned as DTN in 2007, and when Blanc replaced Domenech after the footballing and PR catastrophe that was the 2010 World Cup, speed of thought and quality of pass was finally heralded over fleet of foot and strength in the tackle.
That, though, has still not brought success on an international level, and the manner in which Blanc's side were unzipped by Spain at Euro 2012 and the team of his successor, Deschamps, beaten by the same opponents in Paris in World Cup qualifying suggests there is still much work to do on that score.
Equally so in terms of players' attitude, which -- since the 2010 World Cup and their infamous "bus of shame" strike in Knysna -- has seen the players and the French football public fall spectacularly out of love. Surely had the squads of 2008, 2010 and/or 2012 pulled anywhere near the same direction, higher-quality results would have followed.
But the sulky "me, me, me" attitudes of the likes of Jeremy Menez, Samir Nasri and Hatem Ben Arfa, all of whom "excelled" in that regard at Euro 2012, is not necessarily merely a question of parental education and a hazardous upbringing, but also a legacy of French clubs' approach to their hottest youth academy prospects.
Jose Mourinho once described France as "a supermarket," where the best talents could be popped into a handy basket and whisked away for an even handier bargain-basement price because French clubs are starved of the financial resources of rival leagues in England, Spain, Italy and Germany.
"Players have gone from being promising young players that need educating in football to an exportable commercial product which assures the continuation of a company," reads a carefully crafted article on the matter on the Cahiers de Football site. "In this context, the players cannot be held solely responsible for their individualist attitude. They have been educated in a bubble inciting them to value themselves individually despite the clear collective demands."
"We no longer want those who just want to earn money and who don't respect others. It's blown up in our faces, it's finished," said Erick Mombaerts, then U21 coach though since removed following his failure to take Les Bleuets to Under-21 Euro glory in 2013, when he addressed the issue of attitude in 2010. "Our idea is that a good individual will become a good player, and not the other way round."
Though the French Football Federation and national team coach Deschamps have attempted to combat that problem by taking a hardline approach to the current senior squad, perhaps the money that might funnel down from financial big shots Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain in terms of gate receipts and greater TV revenue generated by the two clubs' stars will help revise and perhaps even reverse that "cash for kids" attitude with clubs no longer required to sell off the family jewels quite so quickly in order to survive.
There are budding shoots of recovery around Ligue 1. Despite the club's financial problems, this summer Lyon chose to offload more established stars such as Lisandro Lopez, Michel Bastos and (unsuccessfully) Bafetimbi Gomis than the OL-manufactured and highly prized Clement Grenier and Maxime Gonalons, while Remi Garde's squad is peppered with fresh faces he helped nurture as youth academy director before stepping up to the first team. Monaco, too, with Layvin Kurzawa and Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco in particular are -- despite their seemingly limitless wealth -- keen to save their roubles by producing rather than paying for talent.
PSG have never previously been particularly youth academy-oriented. That is perhaps changing under Blanc with Adrien Rabiot, previously and briefly at Manchester City's youth academy, getting a chance to squeeze himself into the first-team picture while teenage forwards Kingsley Coman and Hervin Ongenda have opportunities to feature alongside Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani. Up until now PSG have been outshone by lesser lights such as Sochaux and Rennes, but should the national champions implement a thriving youth policy it would send out a strong and encouraging signal to their Ligue 1 counterparts.
When they took over at the Parc des Princes in 2011, Qatar Sports Investments did state their ambition to buy immediate success but also bring through the next Lionel Messi. They -- and the rest of French football -- are still waiting, but perhaps they may now uncover a rare gem among the millions of boys living in the greater Paris region and dreaming of pulling on a PSG shirt.