The French academy where World Cup dreams take flight

The foundation for the two-time champions was built at Clairefontaine, the gold standard of national soccer academies

The Institut National du Football de Clairefontaine celebrates the two World Cup titles won by France at the entrance with a statue of the trophy and two stars. (Cyril Marcilhacy for The Washington Post)
14 min

CLAIREFONTAINE-EN-YVELINES, France — Nestled in a forest about 40 miles southwest of Paris, a winding, rhododendron-lined lane leads to a security gate and, just beyond, a manicured lawn with a towering copy of the World Cup trophy shimmering in the sun. In front of it are statues of two large stars — one for each world championship France has won, in 1998 and 2018.

This is the home of French soccer — the Institut National du Football de Clairefontaine, widely regarded as the gold standard of national soccer academies.

A decade after its 1988 opening, Clairefontaine, as it is commonly called, spawned the golden generation of French players that won the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European championship. A steady stream of world-class players followed, including striker Kylian Mbappé, among the stars of the national team that will launch defense of its title at the 2022 World Cup, which gets underway Nov. 20 in Qatar.

If Les Bleus succeed, France will become the first country since Brazil in 1962 to win back-to-back World Cup championships. And a third star will be added at the entrance of Clairefontaine.

It is an idyllic, 140-acre setting, even on busy days when the national team is in residence along with the 13- to 15-year-olds who train at the youth academy.

At the heart of the grounds is a 17th-century, ivy-covered chateau referred to as “The Castle” by players and staff.

All pathways seem to lead to the renovated Castle, yet it is off limits to all but the country’s star-studded A team. The academy students walk past it each day but can’t enter or even see inside. It is not a given they will ever get the opportunity.

So the Castle stands, at the center of all activity, as an aspiration.

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On this afternoon, coaches bicycle past. Maintenance staff scoot by on golf carts. Battery-powered lawn mowers the size of hedgehogs silently crisscross the grounds, trimming so that no blade of grass is a centimeter from perfection, then return to their charging stations.

This calm and order reflect the philosophical heart of Clairefontaine, where individual skill is honed and then forged into collective excellence amid tranquility, structure and the shared conviction that it is a privilege to sacrifice personal goals for that of squad and country.

The French Football Federation’s success in turning the country into a global force has made Clairefontaine the envy of other nations, several of which have sent emissaries to study its model. England drew from the blueprint in opening St. George’s Park, the training home of its national team, in 2012. Belgium, Turkey and Latvia have borrowed from Clairefontaine’s approach. The United States, one of the few major countries that doesn’t have a national training center, has eyed the French model in the U.S. Soccer Federation’s push to establish one.

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French national team manager Didier Deschamps, who served as captain of the 1998 World Cup champion team and coached Les Bleus to the 2018 title, has welcomed rivals to the forested enclave to study, critique and borrow from its system of developing young players.

“It’s very flattering and gratifying that other countries come and see,” Deschamps said through an interpreter in an interview at Clairefontaine. “We are not here to close doors.”

But building a World Cup contender is not simply about replicating bricks and mortar; nor is it a matter of finding the next Mbappé, a graduate of Clairefontaine’s youth academy, as were Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka and Louis Saha, among others. For France, the transformation is rooted in a culture and philosophy that may not translate elsewhere.

It did not occur overnight, Deschamps noted, but was the product of the French Football Federation’s three-decade effort to elevate the country’s global standing in the sport via first-class facilities and coaching, science-based training protocols and support services for its most promising youngsters.

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“The quality and talent of our players counts, for sure. But it’s also all the elements that surround and form the players,” Deschamps said. “And it’s not just because we’re French that we think we are the best. We are open to learning from other countries too. It’s a question of culture, habits and philosophy.

“I am not saying that we are a painting to come and admire. We truly welcome other countries to come and watch, maybe even give suggestions for improvements.”

Training begins early

There is an explosion of energy when the boys return from school. Fresh off the bus, they scurry into the academy’s three-story stone dormitory, scoop up their snack boxes of yogurt and juice and greet Christian Bassila, manager of the Clairefontaine academy, with fistbumps.

Though they range in age from 13 to 15, the boys vary wildly in height and development. Some could be mistaken for 10-year-olds and others, college freshmen. They are the seed capital for France’s future World Cup teams, selected to attend the academy because of their potential.

The French Football Federation, which governs the sport, supervises 13 such academies throughout the country, serving distinct geographical regions.

Clairefontaine serves the historically talent-rich Île-de-France region that includes Paris. It is unique among the 13 academies because it also serves as the training home of France’s national age-group teams. It was home of the victorious Les Bleus throughout its 1998 World Cup, which was hosted by France. And it’s where the national team regrouped after this summer’s UEFA Champions League final to launch final preparations for Qatar.

Here, Franck Raviot wears two hats. He is goalkeeper coach of the national team. He is also director and goalkeeper coach of Clairefonatine’s youth academy, ideally suited to explaining the structure and philosophy of the national system that is credited with turning France into a global soccer power.

It starts with identifying exceptionally promising youngsters through a rigorous series of tests, evaluations and interviews among thousands and thousands of applicants. The 20 to 23 best players in each region are selected annually and provided first-class coaching, facilities and support at no cost to their families.

The boys leave their families and move to their region’s academy to train Monday through Friday. They attend the local school together and go home each weekend to visit their parents.

The initial academy training focuses on elevating their technical ability. The boys get faster, stronger and more capable with their weaker foot. They sharpen their technique, precision with the ball and tactical acumen.

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As they progress through the academy, they are taught values the academy deems essential for success: respect for themselves, the team and the institution; the drive to work hard to learn and improve; and humility.

“We all have dreams. These young players all have the desire to become Mbappé,” Raviot says with a smile. “Between the dream and the reality is a very, very long path. The path is sometime winding, littered with potholes and traps. You always have to be driven by this humility, this taste for work, this respect that allows us to climb mountains that are difficult.”

As manager of the academy, Bassila is the man who keeps the boys on that path, aided by a clear system of rules, rewards and demerits.

“It’s not just teaching about football but living within a group and being responsible,” explains Bassila, a former defender on France’s under-21 team. “They’re very immature; they need to be guided. You need to repeat things over and over.”

Each dorm room on the upper floors displays photos of its two roommates, with their name, number and position. Nonetheless, the academy teaches all positions and trains each boy for two positions.

There are no posters on the walls inside. Neatly folded identical jerseys, shorts and socks are stored on open shelves, with Nike cleats below. Bedsheet corners are tucked with military precision.

It is not easy to leave home at such a young age, says French national team defender Raphael Varane, 29, a product of the national academy system.

Reared in Lille, three hours north of Paris, Varane started playing with his local club team at 7. At 9, he joined a professional team, Lens. At 13, he was chosen for one of 20 spots in the national academy in Liéven after several rounds of interviews, evaluations and physical tests.

He recalls feeling “a bit lost” at first, having given up so much of his childhood for a career he wasn’t sure would ever materialize. The competition was intense at every turn.

At a young age, Varane learned the importance of discipline. He made significant strides physically, technically and tactically as well.

“There is only one thing they can’t teach you: It’s about instinct,” says Varane, a center back with Manchester United. “When the ball arrives, everybody thinks you are going left, but you go to your right, and you don’t know why. It’s about feeling; it’s about how you move.

“It’s very, very different than playing football in the street or with your friends. I know a lot of players with a big, big talent who don’t play professionally.”

Varane vividly recalls his first visit to Clairefontaine. He was 17 and summoned as a member of France’s under-21 team.

What captivated him was the grandeur of the Castle.

In Varane’s case, it wasn’t until two years later that he first stepped inside, named to the national team at 19 by Deschamps, who wanted the young defender to start learning his methods soon after he was appointed France’s manager in 2012.

“It was like, ‘Okay, the legendary Castle!’ ” Varane says, recalling his awe and anxiety. “When you arrive in your room, you have the name of the player who was in the room for the previous competition. You say, ‘Ah!’ for example. ‘Zinedine Zidane was in my room!’ ”

No winning without unity

The 2010 World Cup in South Africa proved a fiasco for France, its roster of big names and bigger egos wrought with dissension.

Deschamps, the defender who helped lead Les Bleus to the 1998 World Cup and 2000 Euro title, was tapped in 2012 to continue the work of Laurent Blanc to restore order, excellence and goodwill among alienated French supporters.

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His priority, apart from assembling the athletes he needed, was to instill the mentality that winning teams demanded.

“I knew all about that,” Deschamps says, speaking in French while emphasizing words in English. “It’s true that technical qualities and individual talent will make a difference on the pitch, but the collective strength — the team working together — is what counts. No team can win without unity.”

Since July 8, 2012, Deschamps has achieved that while steering the national squad through spells of conflict and scandal.

He omitted outstanding striker Karim Benzema from the 2018 World Cup team amid allegations he attempted to blackmail a teammate. Yet Deschamps also led a process of reconciliation that brought the 34-year-old Real Madrid star and recently crowned Ballon d’Or recipient back to the fold after years of exile. (Benzema was ruled out of the World Cup on Saturday because of a thigh injury.)

“I think I always choose what’s best for the team,” Deschamps says, declining to elaborate. “It’s a good thing for the French team, for him and finally me.”

With France’s 2018 triumph over Croatia, Deschamps became just the third man in history to win a World Cup as both a player and coach, joining Brazil’s Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer of what then was West Germany.

Asked how he successfully manages so many gifted French players and strong egos, Deschamps takes umbrage.

“The players that I have don’t have egos,” he says.

This is a point he must make, he explains, in nearly every interview.

It is true he has the best players, he notes. But his job, as coach, is to find a balance among them by making each feel important.

“That is the essence of what I have to do, and this is particularly the case for our forwards, through their character and personality, is to make them want to work as a team. Of course we’re going to talk about Mbappé, Benzema and [Antoine] Griezmann more so than our midfielders and our defenders. But these players all accept that they have to be part of the team.”

That doesn’t mean he seeks deference.

“I don’t want players that say: ‘Yes sir! Yes sir!’ ” he says. “I need players with strong personalities, but I have to find a social equilibrium in the team, with my technical staff.”

Deschamps’s staff is smaller than those of most nations, roughly 20 close-knit coaches who share his philosophy.

According to Varane, Deschamps commands players’ respect by blending authority and warmth and by being clear in what he wants — chiefly, efficiency on the pitch — while allowing players freedom and creativity as long as they think for the team.

“He chooses you because of your talent and because of your personality, too,” Varane said. “It must be complementary with other players. … Some very, very good players are not here, but he builds a team.”

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Under Deschamps, national team players must also accept their role in preparing the next generation.

“Each generation transmits to the other one,” Varane says. “It is natural.”

Passing on the dream

It stays light quite late during French summers.

On this early evening, the under-18 squad sets off on mountain bikes for a training ride through the forest, accompanied by their coaching staff and trainers. They wear helmets as well as matching training gear and devices that monitor their vital signs.

The national team is in its third day of residence since it gathered at the Castle to prepare for a Nations League match against Denmark at Stade de France, with a trip to Croatia to follow.

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Residents of the village have been invited to watch Les Bleus practice from a modest grandstand on one side of the pitch. A media contingent watches from the opposite side.

Most players are just returning from their club teams, but they fall easily into a choreographed, communicative dance with the ball.

Deschamps looks on from the pitch, hands clasped behind his back, overseeing the discipline and efficiency he prizes.

On an adjacent pitch, the academy youngsters hold their training session, too. The boys erupt with squeals whenever they score a goal, extending both arms and zooming around like airplanes.

After dusk settles in and training ends, the powerfully compact Mbappé stays late with a goalkeeper and a few defenders, firing extra shots. He arrived on these same grounds roughly a decade earlier, full of promise like the current crop of youngsters.

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But unlike them, he doesn’t make a peep when his shots find their way past the keeper. There are no theatrics. He simply repeats the drill, over and over.

His only reaction comes when the rare ball clangs off the post or misses its mark. Then Mbappé erupts in howls of anguish.

At this stage of his career, success is expected.

“The youngest players look at the dream, the French team, and they tend to copy what they see,” Deschamps says of the dynamic at Clairefontaine. “That means they should be seeing positive elements. So each player has a duty in everything he does, whether it be on the pitch or off … to have a positive influence and to give a good image to the young players.”