A short walk from the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, on the road towards Paris, there are wild scenes. It is the night before the Champions League final and a youth tournament has been interrupted 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 occasion that sealed his status as a French hero. For the crowd gathered at the five-a-side pitch named in his honour, he is a hero.
Chants of Zizou soon fill the air. The event has been organised by adidas but the passion feels authentic enough. The youngsters have come from the various arrondissements of Paris to showcase their skills – and those skills are frequently eye-catching.
“There is lots of talent in Paris,” Laurent Fournier tells Sky Sports.
He should know. Fournier is a former team-mate of Zidane’s at Bordeaux and a French title winner as a player with Paris Saint-Germain. He later became the club’s manager in 2005. Now 57, he has dedicated much of his career since to talent development.
Nowhere produces players quite like Paris.
“It is due to the high number of district championships, teams and very good players, too,” he explains. “The training level is good, with great coaches as well.”
What’s the story?
The day before the Champions League final, adidas organised the Grand Paris Finale 2022. The event took place on the Zinedine Zidane playground in Saint-Denis, where adidas created a unique Champions League setup and pitch. Here, an elite grassroots football tournament took place with eight local teams from Greater Paris, each representing a city neighbourhood.
This begins a legacy project designed to support the city’s grassroots football communities by offering a home and place to play, improving visibility and access to the game at all levels. In addition to the refurbishment of the Zinedine Zidane playground, adidas announced its support of the Saint-Denis Sport Academy and its founder, Yssa Dembele, which adidas will be handing the space over to following its refurbishment as part of the grassroots support initiative.
That coaching is not the focus at Playground ZZ10, this dedicated space for sports and street culture. The skills feel self-taught, the confines of the court, with little room for manoeuvre, encouraging the sort of ingenuity that Zidane himself so often looked to employ.
The games are quick, the tempo quicker. Teams include Pirate FC and FC Tiki Taka, while the entire tournament – games last for only 10 minutes – is played out against a backdrop of noise, the accompanying beat from the resident DJ providing the rhythm.
Tournaments such as these are not unusual in Paris. Next month, Tonsser, the popular app designed to give amateurs the opportunity to log their performances, will hold an event featuring 90 unsigned players, allowing them to compete against the top clubs.
It was at the Vinci Cup near Paris in 2019 that Tonsser, the brainchild of two Danish students, assembled a scratch team of unsigned teenagers that earned a result against Paris Saint-Germain’s strongest U15 team. It was indicative of the depth of talent.
It speaks to their hunger too. The statistics about academy players who do not make it are alarming but games such as the one Zidane presided over on Friday evening and the exploits of that Tonsser team three years ago are a reminder that many others still dream.
In the arrondissements of Paris, football is hope. “If I were to be rude about Denmark,” Tonsser co-founder Peter Holm tells Sky Sports, “we don’t have that aspiration because we are born into a system that is so safe and secure. We don’t necessarily have that grind.
“Sometimes I think Tonsser is best made for those countries where it is built into their hopes, dreams and aspirations. That is why it is suited to France. Here, you have too many good players given how many clubs you have.
“When I see French football today, I see many similarities with the favela football in Brazil. There is this urban trend with people playing on the streets. There is this exciting culture around football. This street football in the districts around Paris is flourishing.
“In the bigger cities, players do not necessarily have access to playing fields so how do you build that skill-set, that culture, that humour among players? It is the DNA of modern football today that we are seeing in Paris. It sort of ticks all the boxes.”
Identifying this talent is not always straightforward for clubs such as PSG. “Things are complicated when they stay in their bubble,” says Fournier. But in a city with an estimated population in excess of 13 million there are many who are breaking through.
Examples are plentiful. Eight of the 2018 World Cup-winning squad learned the game in and around Paris and that does not include players such as Riyad Mahrez, the Algeria international and four-time Premier League winner who grew up in Sarcelles.
He was set for a poignant return to Paris when he scored against Real Madrid in the semi-final. That was not to be but Liverpool’s Ibrahima Konate has made it. He grew up in the 11th arrondissement, fashioning balls from paper and tape, playing in the cages.
Konate is seeking to emulate N’Golo Kante, a Champions League winner with Chelsea last season and another Paris native. What they all have in common is that they never played for Paris Saint-Germain, top-class talent that was missed by the city’s premier club.
All of which is enough to wonder whether PSG, for all their financial capabilities, may still be missing a trick in wasting this chance. Even when they are able to bring the best young talent into their system, the problem for the club lies with what happens next.
Kingsley Coman started a trend when he left PSG for Juventus aged just 18 in 2014. Since then, others have left in search of better opportunities elsewhere. Moussa Diaby moved to Bayer Leverkusen in 2019. Christopher Nkunku left for RB Leipzig that same summer.
The PSG project is built around superstar signings such as Neymar and Lionel Messi. It helps to explain why Kylian Mbappe, the boy from Bondy, in the northeast of the city, is so important to the club, though even he is an expensive signing rather than home-grown.
“Are PSG making a mistake in focusing on superstars? No, I don’t think so,” says Fournier. “But a mix of both would be good. Players from the Paris region generate high expectations, especially at Paris Saint-Germain. It makes it difficult to come up through the ranks.”
Fournier acknowledges the problem, however. “When they join foreign clubs or just other clubs, there is much more stability for them.” In search of opportunity, more and more talented players of vast potential are venturing away at a very young age.
Tanguy Kouassi had made only half a dozen appearances for the club when he decided his development would be better served by a move to Bayern Munich. Adil Aouchiche played once, was nominated for the Golden Boy award, and departed for Saint-Etienne.
“We saw the academy lads perform well this year, but they only got to play bit parts in games,” says Fournier. “It is due to the environment at PSG, with many people around the players who put them in a difficult position and make them lose their focus.”
Now, Edouard Michut, just 19 and seen as the next PSG star, wants away too after only a handful of appearances. For some fans, it exacerbates the frustration with the big names from abroad. This is the context of the booing of Messi and Neymar.
Sporadic though it has been, some saw that as entitlement, evidence of supporters losing perspective in a season in which they reclaimed the French title. But while the Qatari owners take a globalist view, the need for that local connection remains.
PSG have many advantages. But the thought persists. Watching Zidane oversee the next generation of talent, ahead of a Champions League final not involving PSG, is this club squandering its greatest resource by failing to prioritise the talent on its doorstep?