PARIS — Nearly a decade ago, Arsene Wenger ranked the Paris region as the second-best talent pool in soccer after Sao Paulo in Brazil. But by now, the French capital surely ranks top.
Here are just a few of today’s players raised in Greater Paris: Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial, N’Golo Kante, Kingsley Coman, Blaise Matuidi and Kylian Mbappe, plus three other regular Paris Saint-Germain starters, the Algerian internationals Riyad Mahrez and Yacine Brahimi, and various Senegalese and Moroccan internationals who will play at the coming World Cup. In fact, the Ile-de-France (as Greater Paris is known) probably produces more talent than Asia, Africa and North America combined. Why?
I ask myself that question every weekend.
I live in Paris and spend most of my weekend mornings watching my kids play soccer matches here. Generally, the morning follows a set rhythm: you cram into somebody’s car and drive out to some spartan, but neatly kept, sports complex in the banlieues, the suburbs. (My favorite ground, in a suburb that used to vote communist, is called the Stade Karl Marx.) Usually, it’s freezing. Typically, the complex is ringed by dingy apartment blocks. Most of Paris’s suburbs are unlovely, but despite foreign prejudices about this region, they’re not impoverished, terrorist-ridden hellholes. Probably the best word to describe these places is drab.
While the kids change, the parents procure coffee, ideally at a local bakery, or at worst from a machine in the clubhouse. Then boys of all colors troop out of the locker rooms. On the fence around the new-generation artificial field, there are usually signs saying “Fairplay” (in French it’s one word). The match happens, generally with some pretty impressive passing moves. You have to keep score yourself because no result is announced at the end, a deliberate policy by the soccer federation, which wants to cool down kids’ matches. Afterward, everyone shakes hands. By lunchtime you’re finally free to go home and thaw out.
The Ile-de-France’s rise to soccer dominance has been gradual. Most of the metropole’s suburbs were built in the postwar decades; as the region filled up (largely with immigrants) and as sports complexes were built and staffed, local soccer improved.
At first, much of the talent here probably went unscouted. None of the starters of France’s European Championship-winning team of 1984 grew up in Greater Paris. By 1998, the squad of the French world champions included three memorable products of the Paris suburbs: Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Lilian Thuram. Nowadays, the region typically produces more than a third of the French squad. Meanwhile, in France’s top division in the 2013-14 season, 27 percent of players were born in the Ile-de-France, up from just 10 percent in 1995-96, according to Bastien Drut and Richard Duhautois in their book “Sciences Sociales Soccer Club.”
In 2016, in an interview in Turin, I asked Pogba why there was so much talent in the Parisian suburbs. He replied “because there is only soccer. Whether it’s at school or outside in the neighborhood, everyone will play soccer. And that helps people to not stay in the neighborhood doing nothing and doing stupid things. Every day it’s the ball. That’s all there is.”
Perhaps the extreme case is Les Ulis, a satellite town of Paris so isolated that it doesn’t even have a train station. The local soccer club produced Henry, Martial and Patrice Evra.
Pogba grew up with his mother and twin elder brothers in the eastern satellite town of Roissy. Beside their old apartment block is a small sports court, with basketball hoops and little soccer goals. That’s typical: in these densely packed suburbs, playgrounds are full of kids escaping their cramped apartments to kick around. Even in the smartphone era, many of them put in the 10,000 hours of practice required to become top-class without being distracted by vacations or violin lessons. For similar reasons, U.S. inner cities produce basketball stars.
A lot of fathers in Parisian suburbs devote their lives (usually in vain) to turning their kids into multimillionaire players. Pogba’s immigrant dad from Guinea trained his three sons (all of whom did turn pro) using balls that he had pumped up to be rock-hard, because he thought that would increase the boys’ shooting power. In poor Seine-Saint-Denis, northeast of Paris, Mbappe’s Cameroonian dad coached his son, too, tutoring him at home, but also at his local club, AS Bondy. The combination is crucial. Even the poorest French suburb boasts a state-funded sports club with accredited coaches.
A short walk from the old Pogba apartment building is the local club, US Roissy. In the grandly named “Bureau football” hang signed shirts from all three Pogba brothers. In the solitary stand of the main field, I asked Pogba’s former youth coach, Sambou Tati (now the club president) whether little Paul always wanted to become a pro.
“All the boys want to be pro,” Tati said. “The only problem was that he dribbled. I’d say, ‘No Paul, you lose time. When you do that you’re not a good player.'” And Tati mimes Pogba’s wailed response: “Waaah!” But Pogba learned, more or less.
In these suburbs, perhaps more so than anywhere else in the world, talent is refined by an efficient state sporting structure. The best local kids are swiftly lifted into the professional orbit. Jamel Sandjak, president of the Paris-Ile-de-France league, says that compared with the rest of France “the average level is higher in the Ile-de-France and the young are more motivated to become professional players. Then the professional clubs have scouting networks practically everywhere in our region.”
For example, at the age of 13 Pogba was recruited into the academy of Le Havre, a port town 200 kilometers from Paris. “They had been following him a long time,” Tati said. “The day Le Havre signed him, Le Mans wanted him, but it was too late.” Aged 15, Pogba went on to Manchester United.
These days, he would probably have been snapped up by a more organized PSG, which makes sure not to miss a single talent in the region. But foreign competitors are now sniffing around too. The very best players also get shaped by Clairefontaine, the French national academy in the woods southwest of Paris. This infrastructure helped turn Mbappe into that frightening combination: a natural athlete who has had the world’s best coaching. He dribbles and scores, but he also understands passing, and he does his defensive work.
If Mbappe had been a bit less skilled, he would probably have ended up playing for his father’s Cameroon, or for his mother’s home country, Algeria. Many kids of African immigrants who are rejected by France choose another national team. Pogba’s twin brothers are Guinea internationals, while the Algeria squad that did so well at the 2014 World Cup was three-quarters French-born. Senegal may bring half a dozen Ile-de-France natives to Russia this summer.
In 2018, the Parisian talent pool faces two great tests. France, arguably the most gifted national team on earth, intends to win the World Cup. And Paris Saint-Germain hopes to capture its first Champions League with a team that is far more homegrown than most observers credit.
For all the fuss about Neymar, PSG’s starting XI this season so far usually includes keeper Alphonse Areola (24), central defender Presnel Kimpembe (22), midfielder Adrien Rabiot (22) and 18-year-old Mbappe — all of them born in or around Paris. Had PSG been more alert, it would have hung onto another local boy, Kingsley Coman, who joined its academy aged 9 before being poached by Juventus at 18. (A year later, he moved on to Bayern Munich.)
Even without him, a PSG triumph would truly be a Parisian triumph, one that would deserve the honour of illuminating the Eiffel Tower.
Simon Kuper is a contributor to ESPN FC and co-author, with Stefan Szymanski, of Soccernomics.