A short walk from the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, on the road to Paris, there are wild scenes. It’s the night before the Champions League final and a youth tournament has been disrupted by the arrival of Zinedine Zidane.
The nearby stadium was the scene of his two goals against Brazil in the 1998 World Cup final, the event that sealed his status as a French hero. He is a hero to the crowds gathered in the field of five named in his honor.
Songs of Zizou soon fill the air. The event was organized by adidas but the passion feels authentic enough. The youngsters have traveled from the various arrondissements of Paris to show off their skills – and that skill is often eye-catching.
“There is a lot of talent in Paris,” says Laurent Fournier Sky Sports.
He should know. Fournier is a former team-mate of Zidane at Bordeaux and a French title-winning player at Paris Saint-Germain. He later became the club’s manager in 2005. The 57-year-old has since dedicated much of his career to nurturing talent.
Nowhere are players produced as well as in Paris.
“This is also due to the high number of district champions, teams and very good players,” he explains. “The level of training is good, also with great coaches.”
What’s the matter?
The day before the Champions League final, adidas organized the Grand Paris Final 2022. The event took place at Zinedine Zidane’s playground in Saint-Denis, where adidas created a unique Champions League setup and pitch. It hosted an elite grassroots tournament involving eight local teams from the greater Paris area, each representing a neighbourhood.
This begins a legacy project designed to support the city’s football communities by providing a home and place to play and increasing visibility and access to football at all levels. In addition to the renovation of Zinedine Zidane’s playground, adidas also announced its support for Saint-Denis Sport Academy and its founder Yssa Dembele, to whom adidas will hand over the pitch after the renovation as part of the Grassroots Support Initiative.
This coaching is not the focus of Playground ZZ10, this special place for sports and street culture. The skills feel self-taught, the limits of the court, with little leeway, encouraging the kind of ingenuity Zidane himself so often aspired to.
The games are fast, the pace faster. Teams include Pirate FC and Tiki Taka FC, while the entire tournament – matches last just 10 minutes – is played to a background of noise, with the rhythm provided by the accompanying beat provided by the in-house DJ.
Tournaments like this are not uncommon in Paris. Next month Tonsser, the popular app developed to allow amateurs to log their performances, will host an event for 90 non-signed players to play against the top clubs.
At the Vinci Cup near Paris in 2019, Tonsser, the brainchild of two Danish students, put together a scratch team of undocumented teenagers that scored against the strongest U15 side Paris Saint-Germain. It was an indication of the depth of talent.
It also speaks to their hunger. The stats on academy players not making it are alarming, but games like the one Zidane presided over on Friday night and the exploits of that Tonsser team three years ago are a reminder that many others are still dreaming.
In the arrondissements of Paris, football is hope. “If I were rude about Denmark,” says Tonsser co-founder Peter Holm Sky Sports“We don’t have that entitlement because we’re born into a system that’s so safe and secure. We don’t necessarily have that grind.
“Sometimes I think Tonsser is best made for the countries where it’s built into their hopes, dreams and aspirations. That’s why it suits France. You have too many good players here considering how many clubs you have Has.”
“When I see French football today, I see a lot of similarities with favela football in Brazil. There’s this urban trend with people playing in the streets. There’s this exciting culture around football. This street football is thriving in the neighborhoods around Paris.
“In the bigger cities, players don’t necessarily have access to pitches. So how do you build that skill, that culture, that humor among the players? It’s the DNA of modern football that we’re seeing in Paris today by ticking all the boxes.”
Recognizing this talent isn’t always easy for clubs like PSG. “Things are complicated when they stay in their bubble,” says Fournier. But in a city with an estimated population of over 13 million, there are many breaking through.
Examples abound. Eight of the 2018 World Cup winners learned the game in and around Paris, and that doesn’t include players like Riyad Mahrez, the Algerian international and four-time Premier League winner who grew up in Sarcelles.
He was poised for a poignant return to Paris when he scored against Real Madrid in the semifinals. It wasn’t meant to be but Liverpool’s Ibrahima Konate managed to do it. Growing up in the 11th arrondissement, he made balls out of paper and tape and played in the cages.
Konate is trying to emulate N’Golo Kante, a Champions League winner with Chelsea last season and another Parisian. What they all have in common is that they never played for Paris Saint-Germain, a high-profile talent that the city’s premier club missed.
All of this is enough to make you wonder if, despite all their financial capabilities, PSG might still be missing a trick to squander this opportunity. Even if they are able to attract the best young talent into their system, the problem for the club is what happens next.
Kingsley Coman started a trend when he left PSG for Juventus in 2014 aged just 18. Since then, others have gone elsewhere in search of better opportunities. Moussa Diaby joined Bayer Leverkusen in 2019. Christopher Nkunku joined RB Leipzig that same summer.
The PSG project is based on signings of superstars like Neymar and Lionel Messi. It helps explain why Kylian Mbappe, the boy from Bondy in the city’s north-east, is so important to the club despite being an expensive signing himself rather than a local.
“Is PSG making a mistake to focus on superstars? No, I don’t think so,” said Fournier. “But a mix of both would be good. Players from the Paris region raise high expectations, especially at Paris Saint-Germain. That makes it difficult to move up the ranks.”
However, Fournier acknowledges the problem. “If they join foreign clubs or just other clubs, there’s a lot more stability for them.” In search of opportunities, more and more talented players with huge potential are venturing away at a very young age.
Tanguy Kouassi had only played half a dozen games for the club when he decided his development would be better served by a move to Bayern Munich. Adil Aouchiche acted once, was nominated for the Golden Boy Award and went to Saint-Etienne.
“We saw that the boys from the academy did well this year, but they only played small roles in games,” said Fournier. “It’s the environment at PSG, with a lot of people around the players that put them in a difficult position and make them lose focus.”
Now Edouard Michut, just 19 and seen as the next PSG star, wants to leave after just a few appearances. For some fans, it increases the frustration with the big names from abroad. This is the context of Messi and Neymar’s boos.
Although sporadic, some saw it as a claim, proof that fans were losing perspective in a season that saw them reclaim the French title. But while the Qatari owners take a globalist view, the need for that local connection remains.
PSG has many advantages. But the thought remains. If Zidane watches ahead of a Champions League final without PSG involvement, is this club wasting their greatest resource by failing to prioritize the talent on their doorstep?