Four grey Renault 13-seater vans stand parked outside the tiny main stand at Les Ulis, a semi-professional team with a thriving youth set-up 24km southwest of Paris.
“Thank Manchester United for them,” Tshimen Buhanga, Patrice Evra’s best friend and the coach of Les Ulis’ under-13 teams, told me.
“Anthony Martial started here and we received some money when Anthony moved from Monaco to Manchester.”
So that’s where some of the £50 million went — it certainly wasn’t down the drain, as the United fans’ sarcastic song goes, laughing at those who wrote him off so soon.
Signed shirts from former Les Ulis players adorn the wall of the modern club house: Thierry Henry, Patrice Evra, Martial, Yaya Sanogo, Sega Keita and many more lesser-known current professional footballers. Has any tiny area, a banlieue of only 24,000 people, produced as many footballers?
A decade ago, Arsene Wenger reckoned that only Sao Paulo produced more professional footballers than Paris, which has only half the Brazilian city’s population, and one top-flight club, Paris Saint-Germain.
Paris is surrounded by social housing projects that breed brilliant footballers. Add to the list above Paul Pogba, Kylian Mbappe, Benjamin Mendy, Riyad Mahrez, N’Golo Kante, Lucas Digne, Nicolas Anelka, Moussa Sissoko, Blaise Matuidi, Adrien Rabiot, Kingsley Coman — they all grew up around Paris. As did Wissam Ben Yedder, whose two goals for Sevilla knocked United out of the Champions League last week.
Several of those players spent their formative years in Les Ulis, an isolated project of mid-20th Century tower blocks, without its own train station, where thousands of immigrant families from Africa and Arabia arrived in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.
A walk around these blocks with Tshimen is an eye-opener. From everywhere, young boys who could look intimidating approach the 36-year-old, shake his hand and ask how he’s doing. They’re polite and the respect is clear for this pillar of the community, the football coach — one with proper qualifications displayed on the door of the clubhouse.
“You start to live football here when you are in the womb,” says Tshimen as we walk across playgrounds full of kids playing football. There’s a mother in a hijab acting as a goalkeeper, there’s the brother of Porto’s Moussa Marega with his son playing on a football pitch paid for by Thierry Henry, France’s record goal scorer.
A lady drives past and beeps.
“That’s the mother of Iloki, who plays for Nantes,” Tshimen says.
“The kids here are always outside playing football, the most popular sport in France. They get good coaching from the age of 6, coaches like me who care about them as people and about their schooling. There are excellent facilities.”
A large poster hangs in the clubhouse advocating that the young boys eat well, sleep well, have their kit well organised and brush their teeth twice a day. And all around, photos of former players who have gone on to success — the grinning Henry in an oversized Nike jumper, the tall Martial.
“We knew Anthony was very, very good,” Tshimen says. “He was fast and his feet were so quick, with good ball control.”
Martial, who is also featured on a framed cover of France’s leading daily L’Equipe in the clubhouse, also started on a tiny grass pitch outside his tower block. There are places to play football everywhere — even the trees in the school playground have been spaced apart so that they can make goalposts.
“Martial is from a family of good footballers,” Tshimen points to a signed shirt of Anthony’s older brother, Johan Martial, currently in Israel’s top flight.
“Les Ulis we have right in front of our youngsters’ eyes the perfect examples of all the boys who have become professionals. I gave Martial some of Patrice’s boots to wear when he was 12, to wear the boots of a real pro. He loved that. And once they become professionals, the key is that they stay grounded and humble.”
We go into the shopping centre among the tower blocks, where one of Evra’s many brothers once worked and gave him leftover food at the end of the day.
We see Mahamadou Niakate, another of Evra’s gang of scallywags who stayed a close knit group of friends throughout their childhood. These kids were no angels, but several stayed on to become leading lights in the community. Mohamadou is now the coach of Les Ulis’ first team in France’s fifth division.
There doesn’t seem to be a male who doesn’t know him, who doesn’t approach with a polite “ca va?” and a handshake. It’s great to see football coaches as respected pillars of the community.
Mahamadou, who played alongside both Henry and Evra, worked with Martial from when he was 6.
“He was very talented,” he recalls. “We put him into more advanced groups and we could see his determination to be a footballer from the age of 12 because he worked so hard. He was fast — and he was always desperate to win. He’s from a good family and he had a good education. That makes for a good footballer.”
Martial visited Manchester City at 12 and left Les Ulis to live in Lyon at 14.
Football gives the boys a focus outside school. The ones this writer chatted with on Wednesday claimed to support Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester United (because of Evra and Martial). They love Neymar as much as PSG, but going to PSG matches is another world — the stadium, set amid the wealthy arrondissements of the French capital, has long been alien to the culture of boys from Les Ulis. They play football rather than watch it.
Yet the best often have to leave Paris, with only one top-flight club, to find their way. Henry went to Monaco, Martial to Lyon and then Monaco, Evra to Italy after being missed not only by the Clairefontaine, the national academy outside Paris, but by every professional French club. The rejections made him more determined to make it as a footballer — determination is not lacking among the often underprivileged inhabitants of the drab concrete towers of Les Ulis.
Rachid Khlifi, a coach and scout mostly based in and around Paris, most recently as the head of scouting at the Paris FC academy, pinpoints several significant factors which make Les Ulis and other areas like it a breeding ground for talent.
“Youth football is very well organised around Paris and the standards are very high.
“The coaches are excellent, even those coaching the 6-year-olds — they all have proper coaching qualifications. Boys train three times a week, then play on a Saturday, but the clubs have agreements with the schools for two more training sessions. They’re playing structured football every day — and they’re playing street football when they finish.
“These areas are a real melting pot of people. You have people from all over the world — French people coming to Paris for a job, black people coming from the old French colonies like Mali or Senegal, from the French Caribbean. They started arriving in the ’60s. In the ’90s you had people from Congo and Zaire. There are a lot of people, like me, with roots in North Africa — Morocco or Tunisia. This mix produces every type of footballer. You can have big physical players that can do well in England, smaller technical players like Ben Yedder, who are better suited for Spain.
“A lot of immigrants and sons of immigrants dream of being professional footballers. They are determined because life is tough, every day is a fight. That makes players with a strong mentality — and there are lots of very good youth teams for them to play for — it’s just sad that there’s not a lot of money beyond youth football. France only woke up to football in 1998 after winning the World Cup, so there hasn’t been that traditional of families following clubs for decades that you have in England.”
At Paris FC, the second team in Paris and doing well in France’s second tier, average attendances are just 2,818.
The glut of talent leaves Les Ulis, leaves Paris and often leaves France. But they never forget where they’ve come from and what they learned there shapes them for life.