FROM SAN SIRO… TO THE VOSGES: HOW AC MILAN CULTIVATES ITS TRADITION IN FRANCE, BETWEEN INTERNSHIPS AND TRAINING

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After a decade-long slump, AC Milan has been back in the limelight for a little over two years. The Lombardy club, winner of its 19th Scudetto last May, remains one of the most popular clubs in the world. In France, it cultivates its great tradition by organizing training courses to train young players. Report.

It is a small town of a little less than 7000 inhabitants located in the Vosges. Its name is even rather charming: Neufchâteau. Although slightly slowed down for several years, between a population that is inexorably decreasing and an economic crisis that is still visible, the heart of the city started to beat a little faster in mid-April. To understand this sudden effervescence, it was enough to go to the city’s stadium, which in the 80s had seen a 16th final of the Coupe de France against Red Star. If the Neocastrian club is now far from the D4 where it was then, it still managed to achieve a new feat. And not the least: to bring in… AC Milan.
Yes, we are talking about the seven times Champions League winner. The club of Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Marco Van Basten, Andriy Shevchenko, Filippo Inzaghi and many others. The club that was crowned Italian champion last May. Of the club that has finally finished its journey through the desert. So, a rather obvious question arises: what is the Lombardy club doing in a small village in the Vosges in the middle of April?

BETWEEN 15 AND 20,000 CHILDREN PER YEAR
In the heart of the main stadium in Neufchâteau, dressed in red and black for the occasion, with banners, flags and AC Milan equipment, the president of the club with 280 members tells of this unusual event. “I was in a seminar with a friend, and he told me about a course for “kids” that he was going to organize: the “Milan Junior Camp”, explains Emeric Préau. When I heard ‘Milan’, I said to myself that I couldn’t miss this opportunity, especially since we have been playing in red and black like them for several decades. And in their honor. In the aftermath, I got in touch with the person in charge of this camp for boys and girls, from U6 to U18.”
These camps take place all over the world. From France to Belgium, from Italy, of course, through Spain, the United States or even Nepal. They usually take place during school vacations. We use the ‘Milan’ brand to introduce the club’s methodology to children,” says Giorgio Beltrami, head of the ‘Milan Junior Camp’. We are managed by a branch of the club: Milan Entertainment. This branch, which relies on four-five managers like us, is in direct contact with the training center. It’s a project that started in 1998 and aims to bring young people closer to soccer. In particular, we want to give a young player all the necessary tools to become a “thinker”. That is to say: to decide in a specific game situation the best decision to take. During one week, he will live like a pro and learn all the secrets of the most beautiful sport in the world. It is also a chance for children who only follow soccer on TV to see how a big club works with its training center. To sum up, we have two goals: to instill fundamental values and to carry the ‘Milan’ brand around the world.”
The problem is that the club’s image has been somewhat tarnished in recent years. A team adrift, changes in ownership, results at half-mast: from 2012 to 2020, the Rossoneri have lived through an eight-year long nightmare. “This has been a problem,” explains Giorgio Beltrami. The results of the first team inevitably had a negative influence. Then there was the pandemic. Before, it was a project that involved between 15 and 20,000 children per season. Today, it’s slowly but surely moving forward again.” “And for us, it’s an opportunity to professionalize the club with certified educators,” Emeric Préau follows suit. It means being able to count on their advice and experience, but also their vision. For our young players but also our employees, who could see the way a professional club works.”

 

In Neufchâteau, the registrations were very successful. If the minimum threshold was 60 participants, it was largely exceeded with a total of 75. The price? 270 euros for three days of training, including equipment. “As soon as a player registered, we filled in a form with age, weight and height. When the educators from Milan arrived, they had the equipment to give to the children: jersey, shorts and socks. It’s a souvenir for them, as well as a diploma”, confides the FCNL president. It’s also an opportunity to introduce the club to the younger ones. It’s like planting a seed in their heads to make it germinate over the years. And thus make them potential tifosi.
“We deliver an authentic kit of the club, the brand “Milan” can not be confused in the world, confides one of the educators. When a kid goes to training during the week, he always chooses a shirt, right? Now, in his collection, he will have a Milan shirt. Maybe he’ll become a PSG fan, maybe he will, but at least he’ll know how to distinguish our club from the others. And if, one day, he should support a team in Italy, it will probably be Milan…” However, other Italian clubs, such as Inter or Juventus, also organize this type of event abroad. “But our footprint is strong with almost twenty-five years of experience,” retorts Beltrami.

On the menu: tactical and technical exercises for the different groups (divided according to age category), workshops, work by position, matches, lectures, discussions and a lot of advice distilled by the five Milanese educators. At the very least, you need a diploma issued by the FIGC (Italian Football Federation) to be an educator in our courses,” explains the manager. But sometimes we have also had former players from the club come and talk about their experience. Most of them also have the UEFA B or A diploma.
For the 75 participants, both children and teenagers, the imperative is to come with the equipment issued by the Lombardy club. “I sent about 15 of them back for forgetting to bring their equipment. They went to change in 30 minutes and then came back,” says one of the instructors. In France, we are used to training with different shirts. Not in Italy. We have an image and we impose our rules for three days.”
If the atmosphere remains good-natured, however, there is no question of joking. A big club has rules. And they have to be instilled from an early age. Just like the art of defending the Italian way. I’ve been taught how to mark a striker,” says one of the U17 players. When an opponent goes to one side on a set piece, you mustn’t hesitate to hold his shirt a little to mark him, but always in a discreet way so as not to be seen by the referee.” This is also what a “Milan Junior Camp” is all about.
AN AUTOGRAPHED JERSEY FROM ZLATAN
Having travelled the world and, above all, to France, where several training camps are organized every year, the Milanese educators have inevitably noticed certain players who stand out from the crowd. But, they assure us, no name has ever come up to the management of the club.
That’s not the purpose of this course,” says Giorgio Beltrami. Scouting is something else and a separate sector. We do not want to give illusions to children or teenagers, nor do we want to make promises. That would be the opposite of what we want to transmit. We are not here to bring players back to Milan, but to give them a sense of belonging when they wear this jersey. The important thing is that the participants go home with a smile. A good player may leave just as good. A not-so-good one might be a little better. But the goal is that they understand that soccer is above all fun and socialization. As I said at the beginning of my speech: “you will see that after three days, you will discover friends whose names you didn’t even know a week earlier”. That’s kind of the spirit we’re looking for.”

 

To end on a high note, a big graduation ceremony is organized. Each participant is then called by his or her first and last name, not without an Italian accent. Afterwards, a souvenir photo is taken with the educators. When I see all the players, big and small, sitting in a circle like this to exchange and discuss, I am happy,” concludes Giorgio Beltrami, who also gave the Neocastrian club an autographed Zlatan Ibrahimovic shirt. If I had to sum up this course in three words: fun, professionalization and socialization. A soccer player, big or small, must have fun in training and in matches. Don’t forget one thing: the youngest of them have a very low concentration capacity. It’s on the order of five minutes out of sixty. If you lose them in that five minutes, it’s over. So we have to be good and stimulate them throughout this clinic, which will be an indelible memory for them.” And for the Neufchâteau club, too.

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