Clairefontaine, an African Pillar

During the last World Cup in Russia, one of the main institutions praised by many professionals was the lucrative academy Clairefontaine. The academy is well known for the growth of French star players such as Henry and Mbappe. However, another less familiar side of it is its contribution to African football. In order to understand the way the academy contributes to African football, we need to dive a little bit into the never-ending connection between France, Africa and especially its former colonies.

In its peak, French colonialism ruled over vast parts of western Africa, including Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Cameroon, annexed Algeria and had a protectorate over Tunisia and Morocco. When these colonies were de-colonized in the 50s and 60s and even before their liberation, a lot of their citizens moved to France to seek for employment and better opportunities. Many of them moved to Paris, the capital. The immigration was so massive that even today, more than 20% of the people under 18 in Paris have a sub-Saharan or northern African origin. Moreover, more than 35% of all immigrants in France live in the region of Paris.

With these stats in mind, it is possible to start and understand why Clairefontaine is important to African football no less than it is to French football. The reason is simple. The academy recruits its members among the best players in Ile-de-France region, where Paris is located. Therefore, with so many immigrants and sons of immigrants in this area, it is no surprise that many of them find themselves training in the academy. Some of the names are well-known players such as Mehdi Benatia, Sebastien Bassong, Yacine Brahimi and Mohamed Diame. These players are representing Morocco, Cameroon, Algeria and Senegal, respectively. Moreover, they represent a potential for some new ways of connection between France and members of its old colonies.

It has been a long thought that although France decolonized its colonies, it still keeps very strong ties with them. For example, in most former French colonies, the currency is the CFA franc, a currency established by De-Gaulle in 1945 that remained active and dependent on French currency until now. These ties remain very obvious in football as well but in a different manner. Ironically, it is the French federation forming future stars of African football and contributing to it.

Some might say that it is another continuation of Colonialism but it may be as well a sign of maturity for both French and African football. On one hand the French national team has never played a match, even a friendly, on African soil (although France B did play twice against Algeria B in the 1975Mediterranean games held in Algeria, including a lost in final). However, Noel Le Graet, president of the French Football Federation spoke in 2016 about the strong ties of
French and African football. Interestingly, he stated that he fully understands players with a double nationality who chose to play for an African team with whom they feel more connected. From another perspective, one of the premium academies in Ivory Coast, Mimosifcom, is been referred to as the Clairefontaine of Ivory Coast. This may sound anecdotal but it reflects as well the fact that the relations between French and African football are becoming more a two way street than a one way.

This may be best demonstrated in the fact that prior to Euro 2016, France Football published a poll regarding the best bi-national players that their readers regret they are not playing for France. Benatia ended up in 5th place after Aubameyang, Mahrez, Aurier and Higuain. Alongside with recent reactions about the performance and diversity of the 2018 World Cup holders, the role of Clairefontaine and its importance for African football may be a sign for a new kind of relationship between French and African football.

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