February 25, 2008
A Different Approach

A replica of the French federation's youth development program may not be feasible in the USA, but some key aspects of the system are worth considering.

By Mike Woitalla (from Soccer Magazine, February, 2008 issue).

The first page of the newspaper needs to be crumpled up and squeezed tightly, because that's the core. Wrap three more sheets around the core and tape a big cross around the orb.

Masking tape will work, but athletic tape is best. Add three more sheets of newspaper. Then wrap tape around it until you can't see any of the newspaper.

Mark Hackett constructs such balls with the players on his U-12 Downers Grove Roadrunners team in Illinois, where weather conditions mean that outdoor soccer on many days of the year just isn't possible. The idea is that they kick the ball around in their homes.

"It's springy enough that you can kick it off the wall," he says, "but it doesn't bounce away from you so much that you start destroying things. They can tell their parents that it's safe to use in the home."

Of course, there's no guarantee against broken vases and such, but so far Coach Hackett hasn't gotten any parental complaints. And from what he can tell, his players have not only taken to newspaper ball, they love it.

"They can play in the basement," Hackett says, "kick it off the wall and it doesn't make dents. It's pretty easy to control. You can pass it around, play one-on-one."

I met Hackett as he was leaving January's National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) Convention, where thousands of coaches congregated, looking for new ways to create better players. Hackett, also an assistant coach at Elmhurst College, didn't get the newspaper idea at the convention, but said he picked up some coaching techniques from the presentations in Baltimore.

For me, the most intriguing NSCAA guest was Gerard Houllier. The Frenchman was popular among the attendees, who seemed to know him mainly from his six-season stint at Liverpool that included a treble title win in 2001. My interest was in Houllier's role in the French soccer federation's youth development system, considered Europe's most successful.

After winning two league straight titles with Lyon, Houllier recently returned to the French federation as Technical Director - a role he held for eight years from 1989.

The session titled "French Player Development" sounded like it would be a lecture, but instead the 1,000 or so in attendance saw Houllier instead run an on-field demonstration. The hour-long session consisted of various go-to-goal games. There was no barking from the 60-year-old coach, who sprinkled his comments with smiles and chuckles.

Afterward, Houllier fielded questions on how the French federation created a system that helped France win the 1998 World Cup, the 2000 European Championship, and produced players such as Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka and William Gallas.

"What we did is create elite centers for players between ages 13 to 15," Houllier said. "The best train together. When the best train together, they improve. We put the stress on skills. Skills, skills, creativity. It's not a physical program. Just skills."

Houllier calls the centers pre-academies, because it's at age 15 when players enter the pro club system.

The venture began with the establishment of the Clairefontaine national training center outside of Paris in 1988. Clairefontaine served as the pilot program. Now there are 10 centers throughout France. They are financed by federal and local government funds, and by the federation.

"The pro clubs like it," he said. "They're not really equipped to do that sort of thing."

The elite-center players don't compete in league play together.

"They go back home and play with their teammates, even if it's a small club," he said. "There's no uprooting. Even if they're scoring 10 goals with their club, that's OK. It makes them confident."

Houllier reacted in disbelief when he was told that in the United States there are such things as state cups for U-10s.

"In France we have regional competition for under-16," he said. "The first national championship is under-18. There's no such competitions before the age of 14. Winning is part of the development of players. But winning for winning's sake, no."

Houllier points to France's qualification for the 2008 European Championship, clinched in November on a goal by Henry, as an example of the system's success.

"It was a symbolic goal," he said. "[Hatem] Ben Arfa, who is 20 and was at Clairefontaine, passed the ball to Henry, who was at Clairefontaine 10 years earlier."

At the elite centers, Houllier says players train once a day only, even when they're out of school.

"It's not overloading the training," he said. "What we noticed is that those players who are better scheduled suffer fewer injuries."

The emphasis on technical skills, he says, also prevents injury.

"If I pass the ball to him," Houllier says, pointing at a reporter, "and his control is not good, there's a fight, a tackle. If he controls it well, he avoids that."

The French federation has 15 national coaches and about 120 regional coaches who select players for the elite centers.

"So from about 300 kids, we take 20 players for that age group," Houllier says, "and for three years they train together."

France is only twice the size of Colorado, so its federation doesn't face the geographic challenge the U.S. Soccer Federation must cope with as it tries to identify and develop talent.

The other dramatic difference is that the elite players in France don't have to pay their own way. On that front, there is good news in the United States and it comes from Major League Soccer clubs fielding youth teams.

The New York Red Bulls, Chicago Fire and Chivas USA, which field teams in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, have created cost-free youth ball for elite players. Other MLS teams are folowing suit.

The advantages of youth soccer in which parents don't foot the bill goes beyond creating opportunities for low-income players. It also takes the focus off short-term results, because coaches are judged by their employers - the franchise, not parents - on how successful they are at producing players for the top level.

The ultimate success of any youth development program, however, depends on the soccer environment players are in at the very early ages.

The French federation leaves that in the hands of local amateur clubs - until the players pass through the U-12 level - but makes clear the kind of coaching it advocates.

"At that age, I would say dribbling is No. 1," Houllier says. "Dribbling is also control of the ball. And at that age it's about skills and fun. Fun, enjoyment is very important. To bring the desire, the passion for the game." Getting youngster to play around the house with a newspaper ball sounds like a fine example.

(This article originally appeared in the February 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)