Clairefontaine, to every French football fan, is a legendary name. When you hear it, it’s almost like the sound of Vincent Candela’s impeccable singing of Gloria Gaynor’s classic song “I Will Survive”, (the unofficial hymn of the World Cup win in 1998) echoes around the halls. We spent 24 hours behind the scenes as l’Équipe de France prepared for their International showdown with Sweden. Let the words of Matthieu Morge Zucconi guide you.

As we reach Clairefontaine, on a cold and rainy Monday morning, the souvenir of the World Cup in ‘98 is thrown at our faces: a gigantic reproduction of the world’s most sought after trophy stands on fresh-cut lawn at the entrance of the complex, where l’Équipe de France are staying during this international break.

Clairefontaine is the place where the French National Team are staying, but it’s also where the finest up-and-coming French players can be found. The U21 team, led by defender Presnel Kimpembe, are on location as we are, to prepare for their forthcoming fixtures. As time passes and we move into the late afternoon, we also get a glimpse of the youngsters from the INF Clairefontaine - France’s finest youth academy, which has shaped players such as Anelka and Diaby to name just two - training on one of the facility’s numerous fields. One of them, barely aged 15, tells us that when you’re one of the few talented enough to have entered the INF programme, your goal is to “live in the castle one day”. At this point, he’s still only allowed to see it from outside.

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The place has its own set of rules, especially on the morning of the players’ arrival. Journalists - us included - are supposed to stand behind a security line, cameras ready to shoot the ballet of black cabs and Range Rovers stopping just in front of the Château, the castle around which the complex is built and that has served as a residence for the French national team for years. Security guards are here to make sure no one oversteps this boundary. The team’s arrival is swift: players rush to reach the castle, quickly greeting the press and trying to dodge a heavy rain that could mess up their impeccable haircuts.

The players too are subject to strict guidelines: they’re supposed to arrive between 10 and noon. On this day, two guys were allowed to be fashionably late: Rennes’ goalkeeper Benoît Costil, stepping in to replace Alphonse Aréola, injured the day before, and Patrice Evra, called at the last minute to address the withdrawal of Layvin Kurzawa.

'The Return of the Pat'

“Tonton Pat”’s comeback was on everyone’s lips. After the Euro, Deschamps seemed decided to make room for Kurzawa and Digne, the two young guns from PSG and Barcelona respectively, in order to prepare them for the World Cup in Russia. This put Patrice Evra definitely out of the picture - but it turns out Evra never really is out of the picture. With Kurzawa injured, calling the Juventus left-back to replace him was self-evident. When asked why he chose him and not someone else, Deschamps simply replied “Why not?”. He might not want to say it, but Evra is much more than a third wheel. In the locker room, he’s a “big brother” according to Kevin Gameiro, and “a really important figure”, as Olivier Giroud puts it.

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As a matter of fact, he’s always hanging with the youngest team members, laughing, making sure the rest of the team is happy and having fun. On this Monday, he seems to be in a particularly good mood, endlessly repeating his favourite sentence: “I love this game”. With a bright smile on his face, Evra was ready to do what he does best: be the big brother.

'A New Generation Enters the Pitch'

The French national team undeniably needs a big brother, a strong figure that can serve as a backbone for a young generation of players that are slowly but surely finding their place in the team. The Euro 2016, lost in the Final against Portugal, was the occasion for a few players to become central figures of this new era, but they are still a bit too young to have the mental impact of a player like Evra. Sissoko, whose excellent Euro performance paved his way out of Newcastle, or Umtiti, who managed to make himself almost irreplaceable at Barcelona, arrive at Clairefontaine with a new status in the locker room.

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The team also welcomes new faces: Thomas Lemar, who’s currently enjoying a really good first part of the season at Monaco, and obviously Adrien Rabiot, the PSG player who’s showing talent that could make him the future go-to option for the French midfield position. He was - alongside Evra - the attraction of the day, calmly attending a long list of interviews, looking relaxed, as if his destiny of becoming the elegant midfielder that France has been waiting for since Petit and Makelele’s retirements was no big deal.

Behind them we spot Dortmund’s wunderkind Ousmane Dembélé and Lyon’s winger Nabil Fekir, two names that should also be kept in mind when analysing French football’s nouvelle vague.

'A Special Match'

Neither Rabiot nor Lemar will play a minute during the qualifier France won against Sweden. Deschamps probably didn’t want to rush things - especially given the game’s importance. It’s been one year since the terrorist attacks struck Paris and Saint-Denis, a night “we will never forget” as captain Hugo Lloris puts it. The pre-game was emotion-filled and the minute of silence impeccably respected.

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The team though, doesn’t look like one that enjoys dwelling on the past. Euro 2016 is now forgotten, according to Giroud, speaking to the press in the mixed zone after the match. It’s time to think about what’s next: Russia. With this success against Sweden, France is leading its group and can now start thinking about booking flights for 2018. Although they might want to wait a bit: who knows who’s going to be on the plane?

Photography by ISNKC for SoccerBible. With thanks to Equipe de France.