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Tuesday, July 10, 2018

In Greater Paris, lives French greatness

The love for football was just one reason Fassou Pogba introduced his youngest son to the sport. There was another pressing, more pertinent, issue that drove him to this decision.
Fassou migrated to France from Guinea in 1966, and settled in the Parisian suburb of Roissy. This run-down banlieue had just two schools. But there were 73 football clubs in its periphery. Football, Fassou realised, was a more valuable form of education. And Paul would get his first lesson when he was just two years old.
At first, the concrete basketball court next to an ageing apartment was Pogba’s paradise. Until he signed for the biggest local club, Roissy-en-Brie, as a six-year-old. (The club had three football fields – more than the schools in the suburb). Pogba’s story is similar to those of most players who grow up in Parisian suburbs. His extraordinary talent, however, would make him the engine of the French team that’s chugging along at breathtaking pace in Russia.
The rest have made it big too. Failures are few in these parts.
Roissy is a tiny part of the Ile-de-France, or the Greater Parisian region – similar to what the Western and Eastern suburbs are to Mumbai or NCR is to Delhi. In Paris, however, these regions carry a stigma. They’ve become ghettos for non-white immigrants, with high unemployment rates and, of late, have been viewed as a breeding ground for terrorism.
“Banlieues have become the symbol of a bleak urban environment, deviant youth and segregated minorities,” renowned French sociologist Sylvie Tissot notes in her paper ‘French suburbs: A New Problem or a New Approach to Social Exclusion?’
With little else to fall back on, the small local football clubs are where the dreams of the underprivileged youth are shaped. Pogba is the bearer of those dreams. “This is the dream of all young players from here. To be like Pogba and (N’Golo) Kante,” Wojtyna Piotr tells The Indian Express.
Piotr, a Polish-origin coach, is the coach of the youth team of JS Suresnes, where French midfield mainstay Kante spent his entire teenage years. The player’s parents, like Pogba’s, settled in the suburbs of Paris after migrating from Mali. With nothing else, “football gives them hope,” Piotr adds.
Twelve million people inhabit the Greater Paris region — more than the total population of Belgium (11 million), France’s opponents in the first semifinal on Tuesday.
It isn’t just about the numbers, though. A few years ago, Arsene Wenger compared these Parisian suburbs to the streets of Sao Paulo, for the kind of talent they produce. Just last week, Patrick Vieira repeated the comparison in his column for The Times.
They weren’t simply dealing in hyperbole. The list of players from Paris’s banlieues is irresistible. From the current French World Cup squad, Kylian Mbappe and Blaise Matuidi — apart from Pogba and Kante – are from this region. Another top player, Bayern Munich’s Kingsley Coman, who did not make the squad, is also from the area. Players from Ile-de-France have also turned out for Senegal, Tunisia, Morocco and Portugal in this World Cup.
Simon Kuper, the author of ‘Socceronomics’, recently estimated that Greater Paris produces “more talent than Asia, Africa and North America combined.”
The representation wasn’t always so high. When France won the 1984 European Championship, none of the players that formed the core of the playing group belonged to the suburbs. By 1998, when France lifted the World Cup, that had changed.
Thierry Henry, Vieira, Lilian Thuram, and Nicolas Anelka were all from Greater Paris. Henry grew up in the industrial suburb of Les Ulis, which didn’t have a railway station but had a proper football club. Les Ulis continues to be a breeding ground for future stars even today – Manchester United’s Anthony Martial being its latest product. Piotr, the JS Surenes coach, says an efficient structure is one of the key reasons for the region’s success. The smallest and poorest suburbs, he says, have clubs with basic amenities and licensed coaches. Most of them are funded by the state.
Starting young 
Families enroll their children at an early age – most kids, in fact, are coached by their fathers. Like Pogba, Mbappe was trained by his Cameroonian father, who was a player and coach at AS Bondy, one of the smaller clubs in the suburbs of Northern Paris.
“Each suburb has clubs where children start playing at the age of six. This allows us to form a big player pool, which essentially broadens the base for professional players,” Piotr says. “The most talented players are spotted around the age of 12-13 and then they play for professional clubs. Kante is an exception as he stayed with us till he was 19.”
The talent spotting happens at the Paris Ile-de-France League, a tournament for suburban clubs which takes place every weekend. Scores here are secondary – at some matches, they do not even maintain them. It’s all about the playing experience.
This is where scouts also swarm like sharks. Players who are good enough are sucked to the professional orbit by clubs or the national academy in Clairfontaine. According to the book ‘Sciences Sociales Soccer Club’, players from Parisian suburbs formed 27 per cent of the overall number in French League 1’s 2013-14 season. Two decades ago, that figure stood at 10 per cent. Some, like Pogba and Mbappe, end up earning multimillion dollar deals and go on to become national team pillars. Those who do not, end up playing for the countries of their origin, like Pogba’s two brothers or Riyad Mahrez.
Talent seldom has gone waste.
Greater Paris’s success story also comes at a precarious time for France. The suburbs came under intense scrutiny in the aftermath of recent terror attacks. Football has been used as a uniting force, just like it was in 1998, when Zinedine Zidane – born to Algerian immigrants – became the hero of a multi-cultural French team.
It was hoped the success of that multicultural team would help reduce discrimination. But that proved to be a false dawn. There is hope that this multi-ethnic group will once again break barriers.
But whether that happens or not, one thing is certain: the smaller clubs in Parisian suburbs will continue to churn out prodigious players.