In French class, the Serbian Ognjen Lukic, the Australian Mohamed Touré, the Ecuadorian Maiky de la Cruz and the American Kobi Henry cannot even pronounce “Reims.”
These four young professional players regularly laugh out loudly with their teacher, Anca Mandi-Bredy.
“She is almost full-time with us and puts on four to five classes a day. Little by little, we made the club English, even the physiotherapists,” says Mathieu Lacour, Ligue 1 side Reims’ CEO since the start of 2018.
This season, Reims boss Will Still has named a starting XI with as many as 10 different nationalities represented within it. When Lacour began his job with SDR, there were only 12 different nationalities represented across the whole 1st team squad. Now that figure stands at close to double.
Lacour continues, in an interview with L’Équipe:
“With Pol-Édouard Caillot (Sporting Director), we are executing on a five-year project, based around international talent. The first phase of the plan saw Stade de Reims focus on Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal and French-speaking areas (as evidenced by the signings of Engels, Foket, Konan, Doumbia, Romao in 2018). The second phase saw the arrival of English speakers (Rajkovic, Maresic, Donis, Zeneli, Munetsi in 2019). But not just for the sake of it. We recruited Miguel Comminges as sporting coordinator in the summer of 2019. He knows the DNA of the club (he played at Reims from 2003 to 2007) but also played six years in England and in the United States (Swindon, Cardiff, Carlisle, Southend, Stevenage, Colorado Rapids). In 2020, Yann Kombouaré followed, notably to become the director of international development.”
Kombouaré, who is indeed the son of FC Nantes coach Antoine Kombouaré, continues:
“We want to extend our network as much as possible by finding bridges to build with as many clubs as possible. Arsenal pushed for Folarin Balogun (21, on loan without an option to buy last summer and revelation in Ligue 1 with 17 goals scored) to come here because they know how we work. We want to put our project front and centre, put the club on the world map. It’s time-consuming, but our sporting success is making it easier.”
Reims operate entirely without a recruitment department or scouts. Instead, it is the triumvirate of Lacour, Kombouaré and Caillot (the latter is the son of the president, Jean-Pierre) who believe that they are performing well in the transfer market because of their network and leveraging of technology (data analytics and video analysis tools).
“We use TransferRoom a lot, a platform that connects clubs and organises three annual conferences where we meet other individuals at clubs in a sort of speed dating, which allows for the efficiency of a reduced decision-making chain. As a three, we are agile. We save time, and therefore money, by not overpaying players because we are often the first onto them. There are no intermediaries. We are moving at a cruising speed,” Kombouaré adds.
In addition to this core team, the club also employs a Head of Loans (14 players are currently out on loan) and a Deputy Sporting Director who is in charge of the club’s reserve set-up, which employs eight full-time people. Created in the summer of 2018, this structure, whose team is currently playing in National 2 (the French 4th division), represents an a stepping stone for player development, especially for foreigners. It is a holistic structure, which has initiatives like classes in nutrition and assistance with administrative issues included within it. “It’s an incubator, where we were able to take bets like Boulaye Dia, El-Bilal Touré, Axel Disasi, Nathanaël Mbuku, Hugo Ekitike, Dion Lopy,” adds Lacour.
The Director of the Youth Academy, Yannick Menu, dives deeper into the reserve set-up:
“In this reserve group, there are Africans, Australians, North Americans. This level of diversity first strengthens the person, but also the player. When you take a boy out of his environment, you destabilise him. The shock is immense in terms of the change of culture, their way of life, their food, their education, their relationship with adults and, of course, their game. Thus, they are frequently injured because of the shock to the change in atmosphere (the Australians Mohamed Touré and Yaya Dukuly saw snow for the first time in their lives this winter during a training session) or the change of playing surface. It takes a lot of time to integrate them from a sporting perspective.”
Lacour is keen for it not be described merely as a “reserve team.”
“It’s not a reserve team, it’s specialised post-youth academy training. It welcomes 18-year-old foreigners, who need time to adapt to Ligue 1, to France, but who are faced with tough internal competition, when in fact they are actually supposed to come up against this level of competition on a daily basis much later in their development.”
Ecuadorian left-back Maiky de la Cruz, the first Spanish-speaker recruited by a club that will now switch to the Spanish and Portuguese phase of their 5-year recruitment expansion policy, admits to have suffered despite these accommodations made by the club.
“Everything was new, I started from scratch. It was complicated,“- he admits that he suffered from very poor mental health during his first six months when placed into an education system where nobody spoke his language.
“Even the rice is different here. Mealtimes weren’t even fun. It was a total upheaval compared to everything he had known. Leaving your family to go to the other side of the world at 18 is very complicated. We know how to manage players coming from African better, for example.”
In recent years, Reims has, for example, forged strong links with Mali (Moussa Doumbia, El-Bilal Touré) and a three-bedroom house has been made available to players from this country. A Franco-Malian assistant has been put in charge of it. She cooks local dishes, teaches them how to shop, how to manage an apartment.
Menu explains: “They call her tata or mum, she is in touch with the families. It leads them to take on more responsibilities, earn independence. When the player is ready, he becomes autonomous and gets an apartment of his own. Thus in January, Kamory Doumbia gave way to Abdoulaye Gory (in the house), who arrived from the AFE Academy (Bamako).”
Reims have another asset that has become important in their international development: the partnership signed in 2020 and running until 2024 with Portuguese 1st division club Paços de Ferreira.
Lacour explains: “This opens a third phase in the Latin markets. Signing a Brazilian and putting him there before, after or even instead of the reserve set-up would make sense. We are going to spend a week in Argentina. We feel ready for that.”
This strategy is part of an ambitious overarching plan for the club between 2023 and 2028, where the goal is for the club to “settle in Ligue 1 and make it into Europe every three or four years.”
James Thorpe | GFFN