Kylian Mbappé is the man with the potential to quash England’s World Cup dreams as he steps onto the pitch to spearhead the French attack in today’s quarter final in Qatar.
The man is already a footballing great despite only being 23. Surrounded by numerous other pieces of silverware, a World Cup already sits in his trophy cabinet after he guided his team to glory in 2018 – even then only aged 19.
But when watching his brilliance, it’s easy to forget the path that stars like Mbappé have taken on the road towards etching their name on the annals of world football.
Like many French footballing prodigies, Mbappé learned his craft at Clairefontaine, the national factory for creating stars.
Kylian Mbappé of France celebrates after scoring the team’s third goal during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Round of 16 match between France and Poland at Al Thumama Stadium on December 04, 2022 in Doha, Qatar
A young Kylian Mbappé is pictured with Portuguese mega-star Cristiano Ronaldo in 2014
Kylian Mbappé trains at Clairefontaine with the French national team in May 2021
France football’s Clairefontaine graduates
Arguably the best of all Clairefontaine graduates. An Arsenal and Premier League legend, Henry is France’s second all-time top goal scorer.
Giroud is now France’s highest goal scorer of all time. A former Arsenal and Chelsea player, he is considered vastly underrated by many.
Another former Arsenal man, Gallas made 84 appearances for France. He is known for making his way around London clubs, with stints at Chelsea and Spurs.
He made a name for himself at PSG as as a box-to-box midfielder. He won the World Cup with France in 2018.
A Premier League cult hero, Saha played for Everton, Fulham, Tottenham, and won the league and Champions League with Manchester United in 2008.
The striker was a journeyman around some of Europe’s best clubs, including PSG, Arsenal, Real Madrid and Chelsea.
The midfielder had a nine-year stint at Arsenal, but had his career curtailed by injures. He later played for Marseille and retired in 2017.
The young Kylian Mbappé had already been identified as a future star of world football at just 12-years-old when he arrived at Clairefontaine.
But, of course, future stardom is never certain. Factors in and out of young player’s hands can brutally snatch a career of glory from many of them.
At the time, the Mbappé family were living in the banlieues of Bondy. Part of the infamous Seine St Denis 93rd arrondissement, Mbappé grew up in one of France’s poorest neighbourhoods, which over the years has earned a reputation for high crime rates and violence. A young Mbappé could have easily become trapped in the troubled council estate.
If footballing greatness was his destiny though, Clairefontaine would be the place to give him the greatest chance of success.
Nestled in the expansive Rambouillet forest, an hour southwest of Paris, Clairefontaine is the factory where French football is produced. Dozens of football pitches surround the Montjoye castle, a renovated 17th century build with five-star facilities. The training base that has played home to greats like Thierry Henry and Louis Saha as they refined their stills in past years.
Each year, France’s national football institute selects just 23 young boys aged around 13. Out of some 1,600 who trial for a converted space in the program, those selected will spent the next two years honing and developing their craft.
The Clairefontaine students must stick to a strict regime. They wake up at 6.50am and on weekdays are bussed to a local school. They then return back to the centre at lunch before spending the rest of the day completing their homework and undertaking intense and grueling training sessions.
After a long day of education and training, their mobile phones must then be handed in by 8.20pm.
There are six Clairefontaine graduates at the Qatar World Cup, four of them in the French national team including Mbappé.
Clairefontaine was set up as a project in the 1970s after a stretch of failure by the French national team. They had failed to progress to the knockout stage of the 1966 World Cup, finishing bottom of their group. French football was certainly not on the map back then with the national team making up the numbers in major tournaments rather than offering a competitive force.
Nicolas Anelka (front row left) and Louis Saha (second row left) trained there as children
There are 10 pitches, seven grass and three artificial, at the inspiration for St George’s Park
Clairefontaine features 302 beds, a games room, library and cinema in a 17th century castle
Clairefontaine is, in essence, a training centre for the national teams, as well as a development centre with the objective of equipping Ligue 1 sides and ultimately the French national team
Eric Cantona does sprint training in preparation for the 1992 European Championships while training with the national team at Clairefontaine
William Gallas leads the national team on a run through the 56-hectare grounds at Clairefontaine in 2008
Dozens of football pitches surround the Montjoye castle, a renovated 17th century build with five-star facilities. The renovated castle at Clairefontaine is pictured in 2018 with players from Les Herbiers walking to training
Two young French football players part of the national training centre’s Under-13 squad at Clairefontaine in May 2011
But once Clairefontaine got going, and its philosophy installed in young players, French football took its seat at the international table.
Gerard Houllier, the former Liverpool manager who worked within the French Football Federation in the early 1990s, said: ‘Those buildings are more than a fantastic tool. They are a cornerstone, a vision, a philosophy, a place of unity. When they opened, we could not imagine the role this place would play ten years later.’
Clairefontaine is, in essence, a training centre for the national teams, as well as a development centre with the objective of equipping Ligue 1 sides and ultimately the French national team. Teenagers can train at the Clairefontaine base between the age of 13 and 15, before forging a professional career for themselves.
But despite being one of the world’s best academies, two-thirds of pupils never make it as a professional. Their road to stardom is brutally snatched away from them by injury, fatigue and stagnating development.
This was not the case for Mbappé though. Real Madrid and France great Zinédine Zidane came knocking, wanting to sign the then 14-year-old to their academy.
But Mbappé’s parents decided against the lucrative offer, instead choosing to send the wonderkid to AS Monaco. There, he got the chance to make his professional debut at 16, before the giants of French football PSG came calling and snapped him up for a reported fee of around £160 million.
Nestled in the expansive Rambouillet forest, an hour southwest of Paris, Clairefontaine is the factory where French football is produced
Clairefontaine training centre pictured in 2016. Teenagers can train at the Clairefontaine base between the age of 13 and 15, before forging a professional career for themselves
This undated photo shows French footballing legend Thierry Henry with a young Mbappé
Kylian Mbappé and Brazilian football legend Pelé pose together ahead of a meeting in Paris, France, 2019. Mbappé’s charitable foundation Inspired by KM sponsored the event
While much of the success of Kylian Mbappé can be accredited to Clairefontaine, much of the accreditation much also be given to his parents.
Mbappé was born to a Cameroonian father and Algerian mother.
His father Wilfred just so happened to be a coach at local club AS Bondy, a team in the 10th tier of French football. Knowing the opportunity that lay ahead of his son, Wilfried strapped a pair of football boots onto his son’s feet at age five and took him to his first training session.
Just four years later, Wilfred Mbappé knew he was destined for greatness and along with his family had carved out a plan to get there, according to French football journalist Ronan Boscher.
Wilfried may have got Mbappé started on the football field, but his mother, Fayza Lamari, who was a professional handball player for the French national team, understood the rigours of what goes on behind the scenes of top level sport.
Together, Mbappé’s parents doubled as agents and representatives for their son, helping him to negotiate deals and guide his development to the top flight of French football.
Even though Mbappé has a sports management agency, his parents still maintain an active role in his entourage, with mother Fayza remaining particularly outspoken in her pride for her son and her opinions on his career.
With outstanding talent, a fervent work rate and parents devoted to building his career, it should come as no surprise then that Mbappé has become one of the world’s best players – if not the best currently.
Now, the French star will be hoping to break English hearts on his path to clinching a second successive World Cup.
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