The French success – is there a secret?

When a team has as much success as the French men’s national team in recent years, with triumphs at the 2008 Olympics, the 2009 World Championships, and the EURO 2010, everyone wants to know: what is the ‘secret’ behind this success, and is it likely to turn into a hegemony? In an interesting article in the magazine Der Spiegel, the German journalist Tim Oliver Kalle looks behind scene. The following summarizes his key points and adds a few observations.

The focus of the article is on a very systematic and firmly structured way of catching and fostering young talents for a few years (ages 13-18). Using political terms, one could almost label it a ‘socialist’ system, where the government and the French Federation collaborate. The system is based on about 25 regions, where the young talents first go through a testing and selection process and then undergo standardized training in a regional sports center for several years. The education is provided by licensed coaches paid by the national federation. At any given point in time, there are about 500 participants in the system.

While the parents of each participant are asked to contribute with about US$ 7.000 per year, the cost of running the centers is essentially absorbed by the government. Teams from the regional centers get together in annual tournament, but the training is mostly decentralized, something which observers see as a weakness of the system. It also means that a special talent may be stuck for some years in a region where the quality and the competition are less stimulating and challenging.

At the next level, for two years, the clubs in the top 2 divisions are expected to run their own ‘academies’, through which the top talents should be brought up to the elite level. Here the clubs are somewhat protected and rewarded for their efforts, in the sense that if a rival club were to try to contract such a talent during or shortly after the two-year period, they are obliged to pay compensation. (This is a different approach from most other top handball countries, where clubs that ‘invest’ in a particular talent are left without compensation in such circumstances).

Almost all of the current ‘triple champions’ are products of this system, so in that sense there would seem to be some evidence that it is a good model, although one obviously does not know what the situation would have been in its absence. (Of course, other countries note with some envy that France also has a special talent pool in the form of strong athletes from their overseas ‘departements’.) But in recent years, the results of the French teams at Youth and Junior World Championships have not been particularly outstanding, not in comparison with the senior team and not in comparison with the youth/junior teams from some other countries such as Germany.

And a closer review suggests that there are right now very few top talents emerging as obvious reinforcements for the senior team, as some of the older ones of the ‘heavily medaled’ players retire, perhaps after the 2012 Olympics. Could it be that more than a result of a particular system, the current confluence or abundance of strong talents on the senior team is more of a generational coincidence?? While one should not expect France to drop out of the picture again like in the 1970s and 1980s, perhaps it gives the other top countries some hope that they will not always have to be satisfied with fighting for the silver medals…