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When Tottenham Hotspur’s new recruit, Tanguy Ndombele, made his professional debut for Angers three years ago in a French League Cup game against Clermont, there were just 1,508 people in attendance. Only 4,436 spectators saw a tall, elegant striker called Olivier Giroud make his first-team bow for Grenoble in March 2006, while scarcely 5,000 people watched Kylian Mbappe’s first run-out for Monaco in December 2015.
There isn’t a great deal of glamour to go around when you’re starting out as a professional football player in France, and this is the contradiction that sits at the heart of the French game. French domestic football is often accused of lacking broad appeal, yet the players it produces make fans across the world go weak at the knees. The France national team’s victory at last year’s World Cup showed that the country’s talent production line is in rude health, but the signs were there even before Hugo Lloris hoisted the gold trophy aloft beneath the Moscow rain.
There were 52 French-born players present in Russia for the tournament, making it the fourth successive World Cup at which France has supplied more players than any other competing nation. More than a quarter of the players whose teams reached the semifinals had come through French youth academies, while a study published by the CIES Football Observatory in May this year revealed that France is the second-biggest global exporter of professional footballers behind Brazil. In turn, France’s Ligue de Football Professionnel has put the bankability of the country’s young stars squarely at the heart of its marketing strategy, announcing last year that Ligue 1’s new slogan would be “The League of Talents.”
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Increasingly, the Paris region serves as French football’s engine room. Eight of the 23 players in Didier Deschamps’s triumphant France squad last summer grew up in the capital’s suburbs, with several high-profile Parisiens — among them Adrien Rabiot, Kingsley Coman and Anthony Martia
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