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France's conveyor belt of young talent

An exciting new generation of players are quickly making a name for themselves in France, but why is their journey so special?

With only ten days left of the transfer window, Kylian Mbappe’s future is yet to be resolved. It has rumbled on for the best part of 3 months, as the Monaco wonder-kid has been tipped for a mega-money move across the continent. Only this morning have we learnt of a major development in the saga, as a training ground bust up was revealed to be the reason he was missing from his team’s 1-0 victory over Metz at the weekend. We have heard much about the 18 year old since his breakthrough at the tail-end of 2016, and if he does depart Monaco before August is over, it will go a long way in highlighting the influence of France’s renowned Clairefontaine football academy.

There have been plenty plaudits for Monaco’s academy over the last year, and rightly so. The French champions stormed to their first title since 2000, and an emphatic Champions league campaign ended at the semi-final stage, thanks to the sturdy Juventus. Their squad, with an average age of just 23, has set the footballing world alight with emerging talents such as Kylian Mbappe, Benjamin Mendy, Bernardo Silva and Thomas Lemar, but what do they owe their accelerated entrance on to the world scene to?

Monaco’s academy was voted the best in France, as the club spend around 8m euros per year on maintaining its excellent standards. The club has the best scouting network in Europe, with six scouts in Paris alone and the academy runs on one simple but effective rule, that the very best at each age group are challenged with the task of playing an age group above themselves. A rule that seems to be paying dividends in 2017.

Monaco have slowly shifted their operating strategy since their promotion back to Ligue 1 in 2013. In the summer of their return, Colombia striker Radamel Falcao, was bought for around 60m euros from Atletico Madrid and a fee of 70m euros secured Porto's James Rodriguez and Joao Moutinho. This mega spending spree was short lived, and although it helped them keep hot on the heels of the star studded PSG, UEFA Financial Fair Play forced the club in to thinking with a longer term view. With an average home attendance of around 9,000, low television broadcast revenues and small sponsorship deals, Monaco were forced in to re-thinking their transfer strategy and looked to utilise their excellent scouting network in order to spend low and sell high. They now look to sign the best young players in Ligue 1 - such as Thomas Lemar, Tiemoue Bakayoko, Djibril Sidibe and Benjamin Mendy - and do so at a reasonable price. They are willing to take a chance on the young hopefuls across the league and harbour them in their unique academy structure before giving them much-needed game time. Those players are eager to join because they know they will get their chance on a European stage quickly. That reputation has spread and has lifted them in to a major European hot-spot. The French champions have banked 173.5m euros (£155m) so far this summer by selling their top talents and might yet add to that tally with Mbappe’s future yet to be resolved. It is not beyond the imagination that Monaco's net income could potentially be doubled, with a nine figure price tag over Mbappe's head, and more so that their rivals PSG have shown that is well in their power.However, the conveyor belt of talent for France isn’t all down to the re-emergence of AS Monaco, even the club itself has a lot to owe to the renowned Clairefontaine academy.

The national centre for footballing excellence will reach its 30th birthday next year, and has developed some of the finest players across Europe in that time. The academy is owned by the FFF (France Football federation) and boasts five-star hotel facilities, 60 full-time employees, 302 beds, a library and video-cinema, seven grass pitches alongside three synthetic ones and is one of the 12 elite football academies France prides itself on, but Clairefontaine is certainly the most famous one. The academy trains children aged 13 to 15, but also educates them and provides them with a school with full-time teachers available in their time off the pitch. Mbappe is the poster-boy for this generations graduates, but it has been home to the likes of Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka and Louis Saha since launching in 1988. It has been widely quoted that the academy has had a direct influence in the success of the national team, with silverware in the ’98 World Cup and Euros only two years after. Since then, Les Blues have reached Finals in the 2006 World Cup and the 2016 Euros, and approach next year’s World Cup as one of the strong favourites.

Thierry Henry, arguably one of the country’s top ever talents, took the same route as Mbappe through Clairefontaine and subsequently AS Monaco, can the youngster emulate Henry’s amazing career?

Their education at the French academy may not be the most known part of their careers, but could prove to be the most significant. Players who are selected to attend Clairefontaine stay and train at the facilities from Monday through to Friday. Players are given the weekend off to visit family and train and play with their parent clubs. Its unique structure means that the academy claims either dual or full ownership of players registrations, with the ability of selling the player to Ligue 1 clubs. This is where Monaco seized the opportunity with young Mbappe, aged only 14. Having impressed in the youth ranks at AS Bondy, Mbappe enrolled into Clairefontaine between the age of 13 and 15, before heading off to Monaco.

Gerard Houllier, the former Liverpool and France manager, hailed the academy as a cornerstone for the future of the country’s football. He revealed that the French boys at Clairefontaine trained ten hours a week, comparing it to the English children, who were reduced to only four or five. It formed part of the inspiration for St Georges' Park complex, as English football started its search for a unified vision for the national game. It has also played a part in the plans for the Scottish FA’s Performance School’s strategy, with the first set of graduates emerging this calendar year.

Clairefontaine is precious to French football. Only the best are selected to be part of the academy with the entry requirements stating that players must be at least 13 years of age, have French citizenship, and be living and playing within the Île-de-France region. Its educational values also offer a sense of progression, even if players don’t make it to the very top, which is more uncommon than not. In one interview, Mbappe, then 14, was asked about his career ambitions. He said: 'To play for Real Madrid. It is better to target the moon. That way, if you fail, you get to the clouds.' With a Clairefontaine education, such lofty dreams could become reality.

With 13 of the 24 players in Didier Deschamps' squad 25 years old or younger, with six of which crossing path with the academy at some point, and nine owing some stage of their development to AS Monaco, the future is very much bright for French football, offering a threat for years to come. France’s conveyor belt of talent isn’t stopping anytime soon.

21/08/2017, published by Lewis McKenzie