Auxerre’s fabled youth academy has produced a string of great players over the years, among them Eric Cantona, Djibril Cisse, Bacary Sagna and Abou Diaby. The latest starlets to roll off the club’s production line have also begun to make an impact, with four Auxerre apprentices appearing in the France squad for last week’s FIFA U-17 World Cup warm-up match against Congo DR, a quartet led by central defender Raphael Calvet.
Auxerre born and bred, it was Calvet who skippered Les Bleuets in their 2-2 draw with the Africans, a reflection of the high regard in which he is held by the team’s coach, Patrick Gonfalone, himself a former denizen of the Stade Abbe-Deschamps. “He’s very mature for his age,” said Gonfalone of the uncompromising defender, who sets the standard in the France team with his work-rate, commitment and modesty, the values that are the hallmark of Auxerre’s finishing school.
“You can’t do well for your national team if you’re not happy at your club,” says Calvet in an interview with FIFA.com. “If your club doesn’t get you in the right shape, then there’s no way you can be competitive in the type of games we’ve got coming up. It’s absolutely essential to be fit and in the right frame of mind, and that’s why Auxerre is the perfect place to be. Our coaches give us the physical training we need to be on top of our game and they remind us of the need to keep a cool head.”
As far as Calvet is concerned, keeping a cool head and your feet on the ground is part and parcel of being a young professional: “At our age, there’s always the danger that you feel you’ve made when in fact you’re only just starting out. We get the same thing drummed into us every day: don’t get too fired up.”
Calvet and his team-mates have already learned a lesson or two en route to Mexico 2011. Qualifying for the UEFA European Under-17 Championship in Serbia in fine style after racking up a competition-record 9-0 win over Belarus, they only scraped a place in the world finals after finishing third in their group. A case of over-confidence perhaps? “I really can’t say what happened,” says the centre-half in reply. “All I can say is that we couldn’t find our form and get into the groove that we found against Belarus. We couldn’t find our game, and we’ve got work to do before the World Cup.”
It’s not something that comes along ten times in your career.
Though they missed out on the semis at those European finals, the French at least achieved their primary objective of reaching Mexico, booking their ticket thanks to draws against England and hosts Serbia. “We knew how fortunate we were to qualify for the World Cup,” continues their skipper. “You hear those three words and you start to dream. After all, it’s not something that comes along ten times in your career, and we know that this World Cup is a chance for us to make up for the EUROS.”
Ten years on
“We’ve got the resources to go out and do well,” he adds, looking forward to their Mexican adventure. “Our forte is that we don’t have any weak points.” And should they have any weaknesses, there to cover will be their defensive cornerstone, who is just one part of a formidable backbone that also features club team-mates Sebastien Haller, whom he describes as a “terrific striker”, and Soualho Meite, “a versatile midfielder, who can sit deep or create play”.
France have the potential to go far and they have recent precedent to inspire them too. It was ten years ago when another former Auxerre man Anthony Le Tallec pocketed the adidas Silver Ball in helping Les Bleuets to glory at Trinidad and Tobago 2001.
Discussing that achievement with FIFA.com Le Tallec said, “Winning a World Cup is an unforgettable experience,” before pointing to the contribution his youth coaches played in his outstanding tournament: “I wouldn’t have achieved that without the trainers who supported me. No one had ever heard of us, and all of a sudden we were stars. I’ll never forget that tournament because it made my name.”
A decade on, it could well be fellow Auxerre disciple Raphael Calvet’s turn to make his name on the very same stage.