The Institut National du Football de Clairefontaine, a football academy located in Northern France, is setting the standard for youth programs across the globe.
INF Clairefontaine’s model is simple: focus on the individual player’s development, and this will ultimately lead to the benefit of the collective team.
While other programs, such as Barcelona’s La Masia, focus on instilling a larger philosophy in their youth players, Clairefontaine aims to identify certain talents and help them reach their best selves, which will end up serving the team better in the future.
Clairefontaine is situated in the magnificent Rambouillet Forest, about an hour south of Paris.
Considered the brainchild of former French Football President Fernand Sastre and head coach Stefan Kovács, the academy is modeled after Romanian-born Kovács’s philosophy that individual skill should be rigidly honed for the good of the collective team.
Only the best players in the Île-de-France region in France are selected to attend. Twenty-three teenagers, 13 to 15 years old, are selected each season. Additionally, they train with the academy during the week, before returning to their local side to play during the weekends.
Clairefontaine has identified and produced top-tier talents such as Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka, Louis Saha, Blaise Matuidi, and the new crown prince of the academy, PSG star Kylian Mbappé.
Before Clairefontaine’s inception in 1988, France had little success on the national stage. The country of Franks watched as its neighboring rivals Italy and Germany outperformed it consistently in national competitions like the World Cup.
But with Clairefontaine’s influence, the willingness to switch play-styles and adapt based on current personnel changed France’s fortunes.
In 1998, France won the World Cup due to a forceful, defensive-minded squad led by star central midfielder Zinedine Zidane.
Two years later, France won the UEFA European Championship, in-large-part due to their two brilliant attackers Nicolas Anelka and Thierry Henry.
In 2018, the French won the World Cup again, bolstered by their star forward Mbappé and the defensive midfield pairing of N’Golo Kanté and Paul Pogba.
Jean-Claude Lefargue, director of Clairefontaine, sees the youth academy as innovative for football in France. He told the Telegraph in 2018,
“All the coaches of the professional clubs come through Clairefontaine.”
He continued, “Over the years we have been able to convince them of the philosophy, about what they have to find in a player. And so we have started to have this common idea across France.”
Establishing a national identity has done wonders for French football. It may seem contrarian to have a philosophy that is anti-rigid philosophy. Still, the adaptability of Clairefontaine has directly affected the success of football in France, not just with the players produced, but with the change in mindset.
The process of identifying star players isn’t easy and establishing a play-style based on a variance of different players is even harder.
Still, Clairefontaine has shown the ability to adjust the club’s skill set based on the players on the roster. Now based on its success over the last 25 years, France has too.
There is no right way to go about constructing a youth academy and then establishing a philosophy for it. Barcelona is perhaps the greatest club in the world over the last 20 years.
Furthermore, its academy, La Masia’s philosophy of making the right passes, moving without the ball, and team-building is a direct cause of this success.
Creating chemistry between players at a young age serves the club better moving forward, represented by the beautiful chemistry between stars Andrés Iniesta, Lionel Messi, and Xavi.
While this method has worked for the Spanish, Clairefontaine has adopted a different method, focused more solely on the individual.
The academy’s idea is to identify certain players that will be stars, build up their games by focusing on their strengths, and work on improving their weaknesses. Thus making the player, and in turn, the French National Team, better situated for success in the future.
That is all with the understanding that all players should be technically astute, strong, quick, and technically precise.
Clairefontaine has set the mold for football in France and academies across the globe. By churning out youngsters with abilities that have been optimally fostered, the academy has set a path for France to be dominant for generations to come.
The UEFA European Championship is this summer. I wouldn’t bet on anyone other than France to win it all.