For the Love of Playing

Mathieu Valbuena is suddenly everyone’s favourite footballer. The pocket playmaker has at times single-handedly kept Marseille in this year’s Ligue 1 title race, and has been producing excellent performances for France, including spectacular goals against Italy and Georgia.

Much has been made of the fact that Bordeaux supposedly let him go for being too small but while this may have played a part, you can be certain more concrete deficiencies were taken into consideration when they decided to let him go; in the Gironde, they know a thing or two about fantastic footballers that you could fit in a suitcase – more on this later. I am more interested in what happened next: for Valbuena is one of many players in Ligue 1 (and there are many, many more in Ligue 2) to have played in France’s amateur leagues past his 20th birthday.

France’s academy systems, both those run by the clubs and the regional academies  run by the French federation (like Clairefontaine) are feted as the gifts that keep on giving, and this is only fair given how many of their graduates populate the upper echelons of European football. Yet France’s lower divisions and amateur system have produced great talents of their own, as well as rescue some of those who fell through the cracks of the bigger academies. Whatever the criticisms that are leveled at the top level of French football for the competitiveness of French teams in Europe or the faults with Ligue 1, it is undeniable that, in terms of the development of players, every part of the French league system is playing a strong role.

One of the reasons why players from France’s amateur leagues get to Ligue 1 and thrive there so regularly is because the level is not actually that much higher[1]. This can be seen every year during the cup competitions in which teams from the National (3rd division) and CFA leagues (4th and 5th divisions) beat those from higher up the food chain. These wins can take the form of the traditional FA Cup upset – the big boys from the bright lights get roughed up by the plucky amateurs, who sneak a win from a set piece. But I would say that just as frequently the lower-ranked team passes their Ligue 1 opponent off the pitch.

This compactness, arguably the defining feature of the French League system, is a consequence of the economic pragmatism that is found at both ends of the spectrum. Sides at the top (Ligue 1 teams plus those in Ligue 2 whose academies are well known abroad like Le Harve) are constantly selling their best players abroad, and sides at the bottom can only afford squads that are full of young players on smaller contracts. Sid Lowe has repeatedly made the point that the outwardly positive aspect of Spanish youngsters being given a chance at home is simply a consequence of the lack of money in the Spanish game, often in reaction to gross economic mismanagement. In France things are similar, but with the twist that clubs are forced to be financially responsible before they bankrupt themselves by the body that oversees the finances of French football clubs, the DNCG[2]. So the clubs at the bottom are packed with kids because they cannot afford much else. Meanwhile at the top, where the best players move abroad thus keeping the overall level below a certain threshold, clubs are happy to go hunting in the lower leagues to bolster their squads because they cannot afford anything fancier. And because it works; once a certain ‘transfer highway’ is established and proven to be effective the process is self-sustaining. An accelerated example of this process is the way Newcastle repeatedly returned to France to do their shopping once they realised how good and how cheap were the players they could get there.

But aside from the financial aspects, there are many footballing reasons why professional clubs can have great success by turning to players who are impressing in the lower divisions or who had previously had spells in the nether regions of the French league system.

Those who overcome early rejection – for generally players end up at these amateur teams because they failed to make the grade elsewhere, like Valbuena at Bordeaux or Julien Féret in his first stint at Rennes – find that the experience can be enormously useful in terms of mental development. There are countless examples of sportsmen and women whose successes are defined by their early failures, as well as countless examples of super-talented players who have failed to develop to their full potential precisely because they have never experienced these kinds of setbacks.[3]

In the case of the former group, there is often a sense of regret. Bordeaux are deemed to have failed in letting Valbuena go, giving away a player who has since become world class. And the player, while eventually enjoying an excellent career, could have had a longer spell at the top had he followed a smoother route to get there. But I struggle to accept that Bordeaux released him simply because of his size. If Valbuena is one of the best players in the world today, I believe it is because he was forced to acknowledge his faults as a player and subsequently proved to himself that he could conquer them. In other words, he did not succeed despite his detour via the amateur leagues, but because of it.

There is a chance Valbuena could spend his entire career in France because it is only this season that he is receiving media attention from abroad that his level of talent merits[4], and by the start of next season he will be 29 years old. The conventional thinking would suggest that Valbuena is approching the end of his peak, and that at his age there would be little or no resale value. Thus the number of teams who would try to obtain Valbuena’s services is smaller than it should be given how good he is.

This viewpoint neglects one of the main advantages of players who only started playing professional football in their early or mid twenties. They received the one thing that all young players need in their late teens and early twenties – regular competitive matches – but not so much that their bodies suffer for it in the long term. Having played less high intensity football at an early age, these players are likely to have deeper careers with later peaks. It would not surprise me if Valbuena was still playing at this level in 2016. By the same token it would not surprise me if someone like, for example, Juan Mata (who has played over 350 professional and international matches before his 25th birthday, often with little or no summer break) eventually saw the physical or mental strain of such exertions reflected in a diminished level of performance.

One other attribute which I often see in players who played in the lower or amateur leagues for much of their development is that they seem to be consummate team players. They have a great understanding of the importance of sacrificing themselves for the collective and above all else they seem to have a great enthusiasm and aptitude for improving the performances of their teammates. This is best exemplified by the performances, especially at international level, of a player who I utterly adore without reservation: the most intelligent centre-forward of the 2000s, a player who has a more beneficial impact on his teammates than any other player I have ever seen, a player who I could talk about endlessly[5], and a player who at the age of 21 was playing amateur football in the German 5th division: Miroslav Klose.

Cheap, unlikely to burn out, possessing an excellent attitude and often capable of improving the level of the players you already have. It does not take a genius to see why footballers from amateur clubs are regularly sought after by professional teams.

One of the stranger joys of contributing to Le50 is the knowledge it is barely half of the story. Right now there are players in their late teens and early twenties, guys almost no-one has heard of, playing amateur football in goodness knows where. Some might have dropped out from regional academies, or been turned away by bigger clubs. Some might be playing at a lower level because it enables them to continue their university studies. Some might simply be playing for their home town (or village) teams, their bodies or minds not yet mature enough for a higher level. In a few years these guys will be stars, playing in Ligue 1 or in top divisions abroad. Some might be playing for France, or Senegal, or Tunisia, playing decisive roles in important matches. All we can do is wait for them. The future is bright, even for those playing in obscurity.


[1] When I was at university in Aix-en-Provence five years ago, I shared a couple of classes with a guy who played in the CFA (I forget who for). He excitedly told me about the high quality on display in the lower reaches, where the emphasis remains on technique rather than physical force and where 1m94 central defenders like him were still expected to be capable of passing the ball reliably.

[2] Of course that is the theory. In reality teams are still susceptible to economic problems, the biggest instance currently being that of Auxerre.

[3] I cannot recommend highly enough Ed Smith’s book ‘What Sport Tells us about Life’. The chapter ‘The Curse of Talent’ features this statement:

“…talent only matures when harnessed within a personality that is capable of self-improvement. And talent, ironically, has a nasty knack of protecting the talented from the urge to self improve. Super-talented young sportsmen, never having needed resilience thus far, often lack the psychological capacity to develop it when life gets tough in the big leagues.”

The player that, to me, sums up this paradox more than any other is Hatem Ben Arfa, who was a superstar by the time he was twelve. The player so good, so talented, that he never needed to learn any different from the beautiful but flawed way of playing he had developed when he was just a child. It is only when you take in to account this aspect of the development of young sportspeople that you realise just how staggeringly exceptional people – never mind players – like Leo Messi are: the top 0.01% of the top 0.01%.

[4] This is an odd way to think about it and one that does not engender fondness on my part. Nonetheless if we are examining the level of “exposure” that players get then there is no doubt that Valbuena has flown under the radar for a very long time.

[5] I probably will write an extended piece on Klose at some point, probably in response to this slanderous piece of nonsense Paul Hayward wrote about him in 2010, an article that irritates me to this day.