PARIS — In a clearing of the thick Rambouillet forest some 30 miles southwest of Paris sits Clairefontaine, the legendary training grounds of the French Football Federation.
It is home to seemingly endless, perfectly manicured practice pitches (including some indoors), not to mention medical and fitness buildings, locker rooms, state-of-the-art coaching technology, plush dormitories, cafeterias and anything else a soccer team trying to win a World Cup could dream up.
The weather is cooler. The isolation invites focus.
It is a best-in-the-world facility.
“The training ground, it is beautiful, I’ve played there before,” said American forward Tobin Heath, who has competed as a professional in France. “I think it is magnificent for a country to have the resources that they do in order to have such a beautiful training ground that has such a rich history.”
It is the pride and joy of French soccer, perhaps a reason they are the reigning men’s World Cup champions.
And for much of this tournament, including this week in preparation for a massive Women’s World Cup quarterfinal match-up Friday (3 p.m. ET) between France and the United States, Clairefontaine has also served as a central training ground and base camp for France’s women’s team.
It makes sense. Why wouldn’t you train there?
Except Clairefontaine is exactly the kind of place that FIFA tried to eliminate from this Women’s World Cup.
Due to the vast disparity in funding between top teams and developing teams, FIFA banned countries from establishing base camps during the tournament – a common practice during the men’s World Cup.
Essentially, it stopped wealthy countries such as the United States or Germany from renting out a modern, opulent facility of a French professional team to set up shop for six weeks, because doing so was deemed an unfair advantage over less-wealthy (or committed) federations such as Thailand, who might be stuck just renting a municipal park or some other inferior grounds.
It was a reasonable attempt to take money (at least a little bit) out of the competition.
Yet in a pre-tournament ruling, FIFA allowed the French to use their national training grounds for the duration of the Women’s World Cup. Part of the argument is that this is what they own, not what they are renting out. Essentially, it’s a host nation benefit. It certainly gives them the exact type of consistent camp that everyone else was barred from seizing.
Is this a big deal? It’s hard to say.
The Americans have lobbied no known complaints and are trying to remain focused on preparing for Friday’s game. If they think it matters, they either aren’t acknowledging it or at least don’t want the French to know they feel that way.
However, a French assistant coach has deemed it “an advantage” in part because temperatures have soared into the mid-90s all week.
"Yes it's an advantage over a team in the center of Paris, especially with the weather," Philippe Joly, an assistant coach on the team, told reporters this week. "We have Clairefontaine over five days to prepare for this match. ... It's an advantage, because we are at home, it's our home. We have our benchmarks, we have all the tools to recover.”
And the French media are discussing it. Tobin Heath was even asked about it at a press availability on Wednesday – she didn’t really understand the question and essentially had no comment.
In a game that is expected to be as close (the U.S. and France are the two favorites to win the tournament), isn’t any “advantage” a big advantage?
Maybe. The Americans have had to take their camps on the road, training for a few days in whatever city their next game was scheduled to take place.
All that moving presents logistical challenges, for sure. A central base would be preferable, especially since the Americans’ first five games (including Friday’s) have all been either in Paris or within a two-and-a-half-hour drive of the city.
However, the U.S. is very well-funded and very well-organized, especially by women’s soccer standards. They note they have everything they need. This week they have been staying at a four-star hotel and spa on the outskirts of Paris and training at quite suitable facilities nearby.
The disparity can’t be that great. Can it?
That remains to be seen – if it’s even possible to quantify. What’s clear though is even if the Americans are saying nothing, the French are quite pleased that FIFA granted them the opportunity, and perhaps the sliver of an advantage, to use their hallowed and preferred grounds in the long, grueling tournament.
“We take Clairefontaine willingly,” Philippe Joly said.
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