how Real Sociedad made France its playground to recruit young players

Despite the border, the Spanish club which faces PSG on Tuesday is probably one of the most attractive and influential teams in the French Basque Country.

France Télévisions – Sports Editorial


Reading time: 6 min

Antoine Griezmann launched his career there. Robin Le Normand tried again before exploding. Opponent of PSG in the round of 16 second leg of the Champions League, Tuesday March 5, Real Sociedad is one of the foreign clubs most involved in the training of French players. Many have trained at Zubieta, the Basque club’s highly renowned training center, which has launched a large number of Spanish internationals like Xabi Alonso.

At the start of 2022, a CIES study showed that Real was the club in the five major European championships which relied the most on its training, which 63% of players used in the league had followed at the time. Mikel Oyarzabal and Martin Zubimendi, who will take to the pitch on Tuesday evening, are among them. All this stems from a demanding strategy imposed by the sports management: not to go below 60% of players trained at the club. A ratio which obviously includes a majority of Spanish players, but also the French who arrived very young.

The advantage of proximity

“It is undeniable that France, in its reality, is a place of interest for Real Sociedadassures Luki Iriarte, director of the training center and present at the club since 1999. We have two goals. One is the proximity to the French Basque Country and this possibility of welcoming very young players from the U13 category. The other is the French market in its entirety, from the age of 16″a scenario which concerns Antoine Griezmann and Robin Le Normand.

Antoine Griezmann, in the colors of Real Sociedad, celebrates his goal against Barcelona, ​​February 22, 2014. (JUAN HERRERO / EFE)

Article 19 of the FIFA Player Status and Transfer Regulations normally prohibits transfers of minor players, but certain exceptions may apply. La Real meets one of the conditions to circumvent this regulation, only in the case of young players whose “the family lives less than 50 km from the national border”. Thus, the entire area going from Irun in the South to Capbreton in the North is a gold mine for the current 7th in La Liga.

The only major club in Gipuzkoa to be able to look across the border, Zubieta – where the club’s training center is located – being around forty kilometers from France, Real Sociedad sensed the opportunity to get out of strong regional competition. “In Spain, within a 100 km radius, we have four first division teams (Real, Athletic Bilbao, Osasuna and Alavés), two second division teams (Eibar and Amorebieta). “extricate ourselves from strong regional competition for a population of barely 3.5 million inhabitants. And not all of these clubs have a training policy as developed as ours”analyzes Luki Iriarte.

La Real also benefits from the fact that, despite the border, it is much closer to the French Basque Country than the two most influential French clubs in the region. For a young person from Bayonne, San Sebastian is only 58 km by car compared to 183 for Bordeaux and 300 for Toulouse. Franceinfo: sport interviewed three French players who joined the ranks of Real Sociedad in the youth categories, and for all the argument of proximity weighed heavily in the balance.

Field work with young people in Iparralde

Proximity in the broad sense and not just geographical. Courted by Bordeaux and Athletic Bilbao, Benoit Cachenaut confides having opted for the Txuri-urdin thanks to the support of the hyperactive Belgian Sylvain de Weerdt, then director of his football section at college and recruiter for Real Sociedad in France. Jérémy Blasco followed in the footsteps of his brother, five years his senior and a resident of Zubieta. As for Théo Lucbert, the partnership that his club Aviron Bayonnais maintained with the Spanish team meant that the latter was the first to make him an offer.

Real Sociedad is proactive and materializes its presence on the other side of the border. Since 2010, the club has increased its investments in France. A team led by Sylvain de Weerdt, whose workforce grew to 10 people, controlled up to 2,500 players per year, trained educators and maintained relationships with clubs and agents. Sometimes schools and associations have had the opportunity to come to Anoeta all expenses paid, visit to the center and photos with the professional players included in the package.

Today, five French Basque clubs are in partnership with the Spanish club: Anglet, Hasparren, the Croisés de Saint-André de Bayonne, Hendaye and Saint-Jean-de-Luz. President of the Croisés de Saint-André de Bayonne, club agreement (partner in French) for ten years, Lionel Cabot evokes a relationship “give and take” allowing you to learn “a methodology for training young players” in exchange for a “provision” club players during tournaments. “This results in the intervention of Real technicians in our U11 and U13 categories and in training sessions for our educators”he explains, seduced by the tactical philosophy of Real and “the idea that the player must be an actor in his football” in the field.

“It’s not the factory”

“When the Real Sociedad educators intervene, you just have to see the number of parents present on the sidelines. All this makes the club more attractive, also for outside players who want to join us. VSmade young people dream and that brings us to us. Today, all our categories of young people aged 14 to 18 are playing at the highest regional level.”welcomes Lionel Cabot, who saw two young people from the team, “one born in 2010 and one in 2006”signing at the Real Sociedad training center for the last three years.

Since the establishment of these partnerships, the level of Basque clubs has increased in the regional divisions in France. Aviron bayonnais was the only club with R1 youth and national U17 training. A milestone has been reached with the development of a performance center in France where 120 players from the U10 to U17 categories are supervised. As Real Sociedad does not have a team before the U13 category, the youngest are controlled throughout the year, for the first time this season.

The Basque team is the type to anticipate. Young people, for example, have an obligation to continue their studies. “I can’t thank them enough. I went into marketing and saw that I loved it”, appreciates Benoît Cachenaut. Théo Lucbert spent eleven years at the training center and remembers the trust placed by the sports management: “It’s not the factory. If a player has a bad season, he won’t necessarily be let go.”

The idea of ​​a second chance is particularly important. Currently a defender at Stade Poitevin in N3, Benoît Cachenaut remembers the criticized debut of Robin Le Normand, today an essential link in the club: “Everyone talked bad about him and said he didn’t have any feet. It took him a good year to integrate tactically.”

“Our policy is not to attract players for the sake of attracting them. We want to ensure that they stay at Zubieta for several years. The club makes all these efforts so that they are not only players, but also men”, supports Luki Iriarte. A vision that is reflected in the words of first team coach Imanol Alguacil, when he expects his team to show “identity and personality” Tuesday, while his team must erase a two-goal deficit after the first leg.

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