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Exclusive | Fabrice Abriel: “Around just 7% of academy players in France sign a professional contract. But what do we do for the rest?”

Speaking in an exclusive interview with Get French Football News, ex-professional central midfielder Fabrice Abriel talked about his greatest career moments in depth, as well as touching on the current French footballing landscape.

Nationality: French

Born: July 6th 1979 (40)

Current club: Retired

Former clubs: Paris Saint-Germain, Servette (SWI), Amiens SC, Guingamp, Lorient, Olympique de Marseille, OGC Nice, Valenciennes.

First of all, let’s start with something that has hit the headlines lately. You’ve played at Amiens between 2002 and 2004. It is a club that has a special place in your career. So how do you react to Amiens’ relegation after Ligue 1’s cancellation, knowing that there were still 10 games to go?

Well, we’re surprised, in the first place. It seems to be a hasty decision with plenty of consequences and that will involve tough choices to make.

Of course…

So, concretely, what we did was, first of all, launched a petition named “Amiens en Ligue 1.” Then, through our president (Bernard Joannin), we took this to the court and filed an appeal to legally contest the league’s decision. We also try to defend our cause through a popular movement, we’re trying to make people realise that this situation is unfair… Recently, the club hosted a Facebook video chat that gathered several French football personalities such as Laurent Blanc, Jean-Michel Larqué and Luis Fernandez who [all] felt as well that this decision was taken prematurely.

One of the main topics of discussion, which was also suggested in the petition (which has reached approximately 20,000 signatures), was a 22-team Ligue 1 for next season. In other words, only ups between Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 next season. And to even out, why not, the season after (2021-22), four teams going down either directly or through play-offs. That could be interesting. I know that some Ligue 2 clubs are pushing in the same direction and are willing to experiment this 22-team league format as well.

Anyways, I think finding a solution would be an opportunity for all the parties involved in this situation and save the hundreds of jobs that are closely, or not, related to the clubs facing this situation.

And, in your opinion, does seeing other leagues on the verge of restarting, such as Bundesliga (on May 16th) for example, rules in Amiens’ favour?

I think it does, indeed. In England, I believe they found the French decision a bit rushed. Unlike France, the other countries have had the reason to let things go and wait. But I think that stopping the league was absolutely necessary. But just stopping it, not cancelling it…

The virus aside for the moment, do you think Amiens could have avoided relegation if the league had gone the full way?

Personally, I’m not sure, but who knows? I think it was going to be difficult for them this season… But, they had a chance. With ten games to go, they had a chance. Mathematically, it was not over, they were four points away from the 18th place and even maintaining themselves in the league through a play-off was still a decent option… Nobody can ever anticipate those type of things, but the truth is here: with ten games to go, they still had their chances.

But I personally had a bad feeling because they lost several important games against other teams fighting against relegation… I’m thinking of the two games against Toulouse for example, the ones against Metz as well…

And for a “smaller” club like Amiens, without a lot of economic resources, going down in Ligue 2 would have an even bigger impact on the club’s finances…

Clearly… The academy’s budget would be cut in half, the club would have to sell some players, which means that the team would lose a lot in terms of quality and quantity…

Like a “double penalty”?

Yes, exactly. It would endanger the jobs affiliated to club as well. But, on the other hand the club would keep its professional status and would still have the opportunity of coming back in Ligue 1 someday. People tend to forget it but Amiens is still a young Ligue 1 outfit and fighting against relegation in their first 4-5 years in the top flight was part of the plan.

Coming back to you now, you were born in Ile-de-France (Paris region) and spent your youth career at PSG. However, you never really had your chance in the first team. Is this a regret? 

It’s not a regret, it’s a reality. PSG has never been a club that gives youngsters a chance and it never will. It’s the capital’s club which generates a lot of buzz… You need good results quickly, it’s become a global brand and shirts with fancy names on the back have become really important as well. However, there are still one or two young players graduating from the academy each year. It shows that the club has a good academy, but it is not enough…

For my part, when I graduated, Nicolas Anelka was already playing, the team was quite young with players like Pierre Ducrocq, Aliou Cissé, Grégory Paisley… So there was no place for me. Also, there was a change of manager when I arrived, as Philippe Bergeroo was replaced by Luis Fernandez (former PSG captain) who brought several Spanish players in during the winter break. So I had to find some game time elsewhere, at Servette Genève and Amiens.

By the way, your loan at Servette was your only experience abroad…

Yes. It’s another type of football, another city… Well, I was not that disoriented to be fair. Geneva is a French-speaking city, a lot of guys spoke French in the dressing room… Guys like Yohan Lachor who was on loan from Lens at the time and Nigerian midfielder Wilson Oruma who had played a lot in France and spoke French too. So I really enjoyed my time there. It was a real journey and a good test for my wife and me to leave the Paris region. I won the Swiss Cup, we ended up as runners-up and I also met Lucien Favre, who had methods that were new to me.

So you met Lucien Favre, who at the time, was quite unknown… Did you think back then that he would become the coach he is now?

He already had the same ideas, the same way of doing things. He had a very specific vision of the game, with quick counter-attacks, 3-4-3… So, as a player, it was very interesting to train with him during the week and reproduce the things he’d taught us on the pitch every weekends.

Even though you spent a lot of time on loan during your time in Paris, you met several very talented players at PSG throughout the years. I’m going to mention three of them especially, who all share the particularity of having played in England…

I’m going to start with Jay-Jay Okocha, whom many people of my generation mostly saw on YouTube…

Clearly, [your generation] missed something. He was spectacular, with an exceptional talent. He arrived at the club from Fenerbahce for about 100 million francs after having played for the Super Eagles in the 1998 French World Cup. He is a player with a big set of skills, an unbelievable technique…  He had everything: vision, shot power, good passing… For a young player like me to be able to train with such a player every day was kind of special.

Despite being very talented, he was a bit inconsistent…

That’s the genius. Players labelled as “geniuses” are inconsistent, they are so creative that people get used to seeing incredible things from them on the pitch. And it is always difficult, even for them, to create like that something all the time. Also, players like Jay-Jay are playing to enjoy themselves first and foremost, to put entire stadiums on their feet and create… they seek something else. So that’s why they can be bored on the field sometimes…

So you think we can forgive their inconsistency just because they produce some moments of magic?

Well, they can do simple things as well, of course. But the moment they are really shining is by doing spectacular and decisive things. But you know, they take so many risks that when it doesn’t work, people get angry. Look what we’ve remembered about Jay-Jay: his first goal for PSG against Bordeaux where he dribbled past the defence and lit up a rocket from 27 yards. And he did similar things at Bolton as well, I believe.

Yes, those were the videos I was talking about… But let’s now mention another player who graced the grass of France and England: Laurent Robert. Like you, he’s from the Réunion and has the particularity of being the player you came on as a substitute for in your first ever Ligue 1 game in January 2000 against Bordeaux.

Exactly, he was playing on the left, we were leading 1-0 with ten men. We needed extra energy from the bench and so I replaced “Lolo” who is more attack-minded than me. We had to hold the two lines of four with the striker upfront and counter-attack. So the coach wanted to bring a fresh player from the bench and thought my profile was the one that suited the most our strategy.

Laurent is someone who is like a big brother to me. We were always together, on and off the pitch. We hung out together, we ate the same creole dishes… So it was very beneficial for me to learn from someone experienced like him. Then I met his brother at Guingamp (Abriel’s second Ligue 2 club), Bertrand Robert, whom I proposed then (to the board) when I was playing at Lorient because they were looking for a midfielder. So Laurent was someone great to meet, something that turned into a great friendship.

A third player I want to talk about is Nicolas Anelka. Like the previous two, he played for PSG and in the Premier League. You met him quite early in your career, right?

I met him when I was probably nine or ten years of age… I entered PSG’s academy when I was nine, he was playing at Trappes (a city in the western Parisian suburb) and we met several times in the Yvelines teams (French ‘county’ located inside the Paris Ile-de-France region). So we developed a strong bond, as we were going through the rounds with the Yvelines squad until the final of the counties tournament at Clairefontaine. We would play together at PSG and became very close. He is more than a teammate, he is a brother in football.

So as you know him very well, do you think that he reached the heights his potential was supposed to lead him to? I mean, he had a great career, but do you think he entirely fulfilled his potential?

His “potential”, well, he had the potential to play for Les Bleus, for the biggest clubs in the world like Real Madrid, Arsenal, Chelsea, Fenerbahce, Juventus, and PSG… and so he did. You know, I believe Nico’s career was a real “journey.” I think his biggest strength was that he managed to stay the same person during his entire career.

He always made the choices that were necessary for his career. I always say that “we have the career we deserve.” I think Nicolas is someone who is passionate about football and doesn’t care about the rest. Sometimes even rejects it. So that’s why he may have been clumsy sometimes, or misunderstood.

Right. Now, coming back to you, after several years in Ligue 2 with Amiens and Guingamp, you discovered the top flight aged 27 with Lorient. Was it a dream come true to finally discover the top level?

Not a dream, but the logical consequence. It was a logical progression after having played all the games, after having maintained the same level of performance and having been one of the league’s best players, having captained the different teams and scored goals… it was necessary. That’s the path I’d chosen. And you know, having reached Ligue 1 with all my experience acquired in Ligue 2 made things easier for me, in terms of adaptation, etc…

Ironically, you played your first game for Lorient at the Parc des Princes versus PSG. I guess the feeling was even more special for you, to play against the club that didn’t trust you back then…

No, no. Those things happen, I didn’t have any animosity towards PSG. I’d left PSG five years ago and I’m a person who understands quickly, who is bulletproof…

… So no hard-feelings?

No, no at all. You know, in football, hard-feelings or bitterness are negative feelings that can restrain you. You better choose a positive motivation and learn from those experiences than hold a grudge against someone or something. A good mentality is the thing that drives you during your career, you know. An athlete must push his limits and always seek to go further. So there’s no place for bitterness, because it’s a short career and you don’t have time to regret.

That’s why, I think, I was meant to be an athlete… because I’ve always tried to push myself to the limits. I’ve always had ambition. So when I come back to the Parc, it is not a feeling of revenge, firstly because I’m focused on the team’s objective which is to grab a result here, and secondly because as I said, I want to enjoy myself and show the team’s qualities. We arrived there with ambitions and it turned out to be a positive result for us in the end (Lorient defeated PSG 3-2 August 5th, 2006 at the Parc des Princes).  

At Lorient, you became Christian Gourcuff’s main man. Funnily enough, he is an emblematic Ligue 1 character, but remains a perfect unknown outside of France… You worked with him for several years, so how was he? Did he always have this appetence for “beautiful football”?

Well, we’d need hours and hours to discuss Christian Gourcuff… But to make it short, he’s unknown abroad because he never coached there. Or, better put, in a major league like the Premier League for example. He’s been to Qatar and Canada I believe, but that’s all.

Christian Gourcuff is someone who has, just like Favre, a certain vision of the game. He always tries to create something, to create a collective intelligence. He wants his players to be spontaneous. But, in the meantime, this spontaneity is made possible by Gourcuff’s tactical rigour. I mean, once you’ve assimilated his tactics and once there’s a good chemistry between the players, everything becomes easier and it’s a real life-changing experience to play for him.

And about the fact he’s never coached in another major championship?

Well, you know he is a coach who needs comfort and the best setting to do what he does best. I think that the language barrier played an important part in him staying in France as well, as he would not have been able to explain his vision and thoughts properly. 

Also, it’s never easy to arrive in a new championship when you’re a foreign coach…. There’s always a sort of distrust from a league towards a philosophy that is very often deeply rooted. For example, Arsène Wenger became a legend in England but it took him some time before clearly winning unanimous support…

I agree… By the way, there are similar patterns here in Ligue 1. Coaches coming from abroad is not commonplace. Even if, Amiens’ Luka Elsner is the perfect example that things are slowly changing..

You know, the Premier League, when Arsène arrived, was mostly “kick and rush”. He arrived and changed everything, from the players’ diet to the way the ball had to be passed and the runs players were supposed to make during the game… With Wenger, it was more than simple changes, it was a revolution. And revolutions are never soft, you know. So, of course, some people disagreed with its methods… But I think, in some way, he played a part in professionalising the league and the way to apprehend trainings, etc…

It’s always difficult to change things, even more in a championship like the Premier League, where people come to the stadium to see the players run, fight and shoot from outside the box… they want to be entertained. The only manager who’s managed to calm it down and have a very different approach is Pep Guardiola at Man City… But look how many foreign players he’s had to buy?! You need the right players to materialise your ideas…

Some PL clubs have changed their philosophies, like Arsenal and City of course, but also Spurs or Liverpool who have kept the English philosophy but added precision and projection. So it’s very different for teams like Bolton for example, when Jay-Jay and Nico (Anelka) played there and it was all about rebounds and second-balls.

Let’s focus on you again. After several seasons in Brittany, you had become a safe bet in Ligue 1. You decided to move up a notch and signed for Olympique de Marseille in 2009, only a few weeks after Didier Deschamps’ appointment. What motivated you to sign there?

What motivated me? (Laughs) Well, after having played almost every game at Lorient, I wanted to move up the table and win some titles. I believe I had proved on the pitch the kind of player I was and winning titles in a career is important, whether you like it or not. Then, going to OM was a good way of testing myself…

I needed to experience the highest level, I needed a new kind of pressure. I wanted to win titles, share the pitch with established Ligue 1 players and play in the Champions’ League. Those were the three “parameters” that pushed me to sign for Marseille.

Speaking of those “parameters”, you finally played European football, and your first ever Champions’ League game was at the Santiago Bernabeu against the great Real Madrid in the group stage (September 30th, 2009).  Not bad for a first time!

Indeed. We’re talking about the highest level there.

It must have been incredible, as a man and a football player, to meet all these stars…

Xabi Alonso, Marcelo, Casillas… Not a bad side indeed. If I remember correctly, Pellegrini was in the dug out. We met them in the group stage, there was also AC Milan with Inzaghi, Pirlo, Ronaldinho, Pato, Gattuso…

You know, when you play those type of games, you kind of understand, in a way, what “football” is. And you realise that playing Ligue 1, Ligue 2 games is different… I mean it’s always important to play those games, but Champions’ League is just something else. There’s a special feeling… Playing on Tuesday, being the only French club, watched by millions around the world… And even more when it is Real Madrid, because you play against a special club in a special competition.   

And that night, at the Bernabeu, which player impressed you the most?

Not any player in particular. I mean there was Ronaldo but it’s pointless to talk about him. He is “Mr. Champions’ League”. But that night, what impressed me the most was Real’s maturity, and their ability to accelerate and step up at the right moment, whenever they wanted. They have a way of handling those games, you know… Unlike us. We couldn’t afford to game manage. We had to be flat-out during the entire game. The difference is right there.

Yes, they have the luxury of managing the game, when you’re running behind the ball…

Exactly, they know that they can score from every situation, on corners, on free-kicks… they’re capable of creating danger all the time. At half-time, in the dressing room, we felt it. We knew we were having a great game, we had just played a great first-half… But we had not scored and we thought “how can we play even better?” In the second-half, they upped their level and netted three times… that’s the mark of great teams.

Speaking of OM, still, a couple of days ago marked ten years since the club’s last Ligue 1 title. What memories do you have of this?

First and foremost, the “human adventure” and the fact we dealt with so many things off the pitch… I remember this title as a group of friends having fun. Also, this anniversary brings back memories such as the Coupe de la Ligue final, a first trophy in 17 years… that game was a turning point in the season. Finally, this title highlighted the role of the people who are by your side daily like the security staff, the chefs in the canteen… All those people who play a very important part in journeys like these. When you sign for Marseille, you enter a big family.

What’s your take on OM this season? They’re finally playing in the Champions’ League after missing it for several years…

Firstly, it’s a pleasure to see them at this level. For the first time in years, they’ve had a season with consistency, no big blunders. Except for the Englishman incident (Paul Aldridge) which could have destabilised them, it was a great season. Marseille have been trying to come back to the best level for years now, and I think this second place is a just reward for their relentless efforts. Furthermore, Marseille is a team that matters in France and in Europe. So we’re all happy that they’re back!

Yes, France need OM in the Champions’ League…

But lessons must be learned. Because we’re never far from making the same mistakes.

You must give credit to Villas-Boas who’s done an incredible job under a lot pressure, expectations (as is the norm in Marseille) but limited finances…

I think he is a really smart man. He quickly understood the club’s DNA. He realised that the players he had at his disposal needed confidence, calm and transparency… He’s really comfortable with the media. He communicates very well and most importantly, he is not replicating Garcia’s mistakes. The interesting thing is that he didn’t launch a revolution inside the club. He just made a couple of adjustments that were necessary. And, look, that was enough to bring back Marseille to the top.

And he made some tactical adjustments that were smart…

Yes, he made Payet his main man. He was already very important at the club, but with André he’s become even more vital. He had the idea of putting Kamara in midfield as well, which turned out to be a good one, he gave more time to Caleta-Car and made Alvaro a real boss at the back. Kamara reinforces the midfield, protects the defence axis and frees Sanson and Rongier from defending too much and allows them to express their attacking qualities… So everything seems to be going smoothly again. But OM being OM, we should not get too enthusiastic, you know… (this was proved shortly after the interview was conducted by Zubizaretta’s resignation as Sporting Director)

How do you see OM next season?

Well, the major issue, I think, is the budget and the finances. This generates loads of questions about the transfer window, but also challenges Villas-Boas’ presence next season…  If he doesn’t have some guarantees from the board, will he take the risk of remaining there for one more season? This season, he didn’t have a lot of room for manoeuvre. Even though many things worked out pretty well, we saw that OM had faced troubles against PSG, more problematically against Nantes at home… We saw that without Thauvin and Alvaro it was complicated… So I think he would like to have the financial guarantees to buy extra players to complete his squad in case of major injury. So there are many doubts nonetheless, in terms of coach, squad and finances…

You played the entirety of your career in France (except for your short Swiss spell). Did you ever face the possibility of playing abroad again, did you have the will? If so, where?

The will… No. I’ve never wanted to move from France. And the possibility… Well, do you know how an offer works?

There’s a written offer when I give my say-so. There are many proposals, there are enquiring clubs and from then on I say yes or no. Some clubs enquired, I won’t say which ones, but I decided to stay.

I reckon that Ligue 1 is very… eclectic. You know, for me Germany is about transition, Spain is about possession, Italy is about defence and England is like “box-to-box”, very desultory… And I don’t like when everything gets out of control, when there a sort of mayhem on the pitch like in England.

Personally, I like to be in control. And funnily enough, the French championship is full of teams with very different style of play. You can have defensive teams like Angers or Montpellier, total control like PSG or Lyon, counter-attack like Lille the year they won the league. This league is a little bit of everything.

Except for PSG, when you win a game, you never know if you’re going to win the next one… You have to restart everything after each game. And that’s what I liked about it. Unlike leagues like the Bundesliga or Spain’s Liga where I see sometimes 8-0s or 5-0s…

You have to be careful, restart and play the game like it was the last. So that’s why I decided to stay here in France. I loved this unpredictability.

So after your career, you initiated a process of becoming a coach. You’ve had several experiences in Paris’ area, in Paris’ 13th district and at Poissy.

I passed the UEFA B, which is the European equivalent of the French BEF (Brevet d’Entraineur de Football) in order to become a coach just after my last club Valenciennes. I remained in the Valenciennes area (in northern France) and started with a team in Senior PH, which is like the 6th division, just to see how it was to be on the bench and not on the field. It went down really well, so I went back to the Parisian region and took les Gobelins in the French 5th division (Division d’Honneur, “DH”), then Poissy in the division above (National 3). And last year, I started coaching Amiens’ reserve team. The reserve team is made of professional players, which was an essential criteria for me. I wanted to enter a professional structure to be in the best conditions to pass my UEFA A diploma.

So that’s your aim, eventually, to coach a professional team?

Yes, exactly. I’m going to pass all my diplomas and then start looking for a club. So, in that case, you got to use your network and look for opportunities.

I had a couple of last questions before we end this interview. The first one is that I saw you on RMC’s show Le Vestiaire (the Dugout) a couple of years ago; you were talking about how to manage your post-career life financially.

Do you think young players should be more prepared? That they should be taught on how to deal with earning millions at such a young age? 

You know, first of all, as a player, what is important is what is around you, who is around you… Your personal context. If you handle it properly, it is a big win. Having money issues isn’t good for you and can impact your performances on the pitch. But the opposite is true as well, when your money is handled nicely, it’s like a burden going away.

What matters is visibility. Being financially prepared allows you to manage your salary and the other sources of income a footballer can have, like sponsors, commercials… It allows you as well to peacefully consider your retirement and the upcoming years. Because a career is very short. It lasts, on average, seven and a half years…

There are many failures and disappointments after the first professional contract, which lasts three years generally… More than half of the players who sign their first contract do not a sign a second one after. So what are you going to do when you’ve spent all your life playing football and haven’t had the chance of going properly to school?

In other words, many are disappointed…

Yes, around just 7% of academy players in France sign a professional contract. But what do you do for the rest? They return to society, as normal civilians…

And for the minority that does make their way?

Well, at 35 you’re retired. You still have approximately 40 years ahead to live. Some, but few, manage to live on what they’ve saved… that is a minority though.

Media training, as you said in the interview, is also very important…

Definitely. Young players think they can master social media because they were born with it… But look how many players make mistakes these days. That’s why I chose to set up a media-training workshop for the guys I’m coaching at Amiens… Like role plays in which we simulate a press-conference, interviews, etc…

To wrap up this interview, let’s end up with quick fire lightning questions…

The best player you’ve played with?

I’d say Nicolas Anelka. As an athlete and a human being.

The best player you’ve played against?

I’ve always said Lyon’s Tiago. The Portuguese midfielder who played at Atletico. He was unplayable. You couldn’t read his game. He could dribble, pass, defend… he was in my zone of influence each time and I couldn’t figure out whether to leave him on the ball or proactively defend against him.

Your best memory as a footballer?

Surely when we finished 4th with Nice and reached Europa League. It was a great accomplishment because the club had fought against relegation for years and we were in the 6th spot on the last day. We played Ajaccio away, we defeated them and in the meantime, Lille drew against league cup holders Saint-Étienne which guaranteed us a place in Europa League, 57 years after the club’s last participation. That game really was the starting point of the Nice’s project we know today. To be a part of it was a proud moment.

Your worst?

Valenciennes. I signed for this club, but around September or October, the manager was kicked-out and new owners arrived, with a new president… From this point, the project was complete nonsense. They put a new coach in February who didn’t have any diploma… They were in a hurry and went for something completely different. The project was not focused on football, and football only. So I wasn’t interested anymore.

A coach that left a mark on you?

They were all important in some way to me. I took everything, I learned everything from them, from Puel, Fernandez, Deschamps… No one had a bigger influence than another. But, if I really had to choose one in particular, one that really suited my philosophy and my style au play, that coach would be Christian Gourcuff. I loved everything about his approach of the game and I learned a lot playing under him.

And by the way, I forgot to mention one of the managers you played for: Didier Deschamps.

He is always confident. Marseille suited him perfectly. He had won the Champions’ League as a player there. The word that would best qualify him is “control.” He always has everything under control and is a guy you can rely on, even in the toughest moments. The way he deals with big events such as finals is incredible. He never overreacts, he always makes the right decisions… He’s always had this winning mentality. As a player and as a coach.

And last, but not least, your best goal? Or the one that mattered the most in your career?

My best goal? Surely the one when I lobbed (Fabien) Barthez. I was at Lorient and we were playing Nantes at La Beaujoire. I got a nice through ball from behind, I ran past the defender and I chipped Barthez from outside the box. Everybody thought I was going to cross but I chipped him. It also kind of sealed our spot in the league and sent Nantes into the relegation zone.

A.D.

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