Jean-Marc Guillou. Many might never have heard of him, but after reading this, you will remember the name.
Guillou is a former French football player, but it’s not as a player he left his imprint on the world of football – even though he was a part of the 1978 France World Cup squad that fought for the prestigious golden trophy in Argentina. No, it was after his playing days Jean-Marc Guillou revolutionized football. And whilst it was he who gave a young Arsène Wenger his first break in coaching when he made Wenger his assistant manager at AS Cannes in 1983, that’s just a side note to this article’s true intention.
In 1993, Guillou founded the first football academy in Africa of its kind and named it JMG academy. Guillou had recognized that Africa was a continent full of talent, but many of the talents didn’t have the means to pursue a career in football.
This epiphany struck Guillou during his days as a manager in the 1980s. Guillou was never a top manager; he was limited and not adept enough tactically. But he had, on the other hand, established a good reputation as someone with a great eye to spot talent and scouting efficiently. When Guillou signed Ivorian forward Youssouf Fofana in 1984 who became a big hit in France, Fofana’s success gave Guillou a vision to revolutionize football. So, in the early 1990s, he packed his bags and moved to sub-Saharan Africa to execute that vision: start a football academy to refine raw footballing talent in Africa, the same raw talent he had seen in Fofana.
Jean-Marc Guillou academy (JMG Academy) was founded in Ivory Coast’s capital Abidjan in collaboration with football club ASEC Mimosas. But in 2002, following a disagreement between Guillou and ASEC, it became independent from ASEC.
The academy primarily recruits players between the ages of 11 and 12-years-old. In Sub-Saharan countries, the players must weigh under 34kg to prevent players from committing age fraud, which according to JMG’s website is “a rampant issue” in the Sub-Saharan region.
Guillou’s plan was to then take in the African talents he identified at his academy and hand them training, education, food, accommodation, medical care, schooling – totally free of charge. The student-players take classes in math, history, geography, physics, French, English, and Spanish and live in dorms during the week and have two training sessions a day. He provided African talents the commodities for basic needs in order to give them a chance and the right conditions to develop as football players and pursue careers.
However, that wouldn’t be free and Guillou needed funding. So, who did he call? The first person Guillou phoned up was his prodigy, the man he had introduced to the world of football – Arsène Wenger. At the time, Wenger had moved on from Cannes and was the manager of AS Monaco. He loved Guillou’s idea and vision, so he repaid the favor and trust Guillou had given him and convinced the Monegasques to fund Guillou’s project.
The next step thereafter was to implement methods and a philosophy for how the academy was going to develop the talents they had taken in. The methods are to this day divided into three categories that walk hand in hand: education, character, and football.
- Education: The players must undergo education on-site the facilities where the players live and train. Succeeding academically is equally as important as making progress on the football pitch.
- Character: you must live after the rules that you do not lie, you do not steal, and you do not cheat. The academy’s motto also emphasizes humility, for the players to remember where they came from.
- Football: the players begin their education barefoot, without shin pads and matches without goalkeepers. The first two criteria are to develop the right touch, and the last criterion is to force the players to attack and defend as a unit. Offensively it forces an advantage and defensively it serves as an incentive to standardize regaining possession further up the pitch. Otherwise, you will have to defend in a pressured situation as there is no goalkeeper.
The academy became a massive success and has since been dubbed the “crown jewel of African youth football”. Guillou had created a hotbed for African football talents. Some examples out of the plethora of players who’ve come through the JMG academy’s Ivoirian division are Yaya Touré, Kolo Touré, Gervinho, Emanuel Eboué, Salomon Kalou, Romaric, Didier Zokora, Arthur Boka, Copa, Aruna Dindane, and Baky Koné.
To further the players’ development, Guillou’s connections came in handy. Wenger amongst many in Europe followed the academies closely. “Le Professeur” quickly spotted Touré brothers, Kolo and Yaya, and wanted to bring them both to Arsenal. Kolo, an established national team player for Ivory Coast at the time, had no problem moving and being granted a work permit. Yaya, however, was a different story. There was no question of him not being good enough, it was clear as day that he was more than good enough. Wenger wanted him at all costs. But he hadn’t played for the national team, so Arsenal had to take the long and complicated route to make him eligible to play. Yaya lacked the patience though, and in the middle of the process of applying for a UK passport, he moved to Ukraine and Metalurh Donetsk instead. But, even though his impatience cost him a move to Arsenal, his immense talent and dedication to the craft took him to the top in the end nonetheless.
Today, JMG has expanded and has ten academies all over the world: Ivory Coast, Mali, Algeria, Egypt, Ghana, two in Vietnam, Belgium, Madagascar, and Thailand. The Thai, Egyptian and Vietnamese academies have been founded in cooperation with Arsenal FC.
The commitment remains the same all over the globe; to provide unprivileged talents with training, education, food, accommodation, medical care, schooling totally free of charge. The funds to operate the academies come later in time when clubs come knocking to sign JMG’s players, and income is accumulated from the transfer fees. All academies bar the JMG academy in Mali – which is entirely funded by JMG themselves – are also backed financially by third parties.
JGM, however, strives to fund its own academies as they believe that is the best method to “achieve sound sporting and financial results as it allows them to fully control the process of recruitment, training, and promotion themselves”.
On average, JMG’s players leave the academies after seven to ten years of education and training. Notable current players from the JMG academies worldwide are Diadie Samassekou (RB Leipzig), and Amadou Haidara (RB Leipzig) of JMG Mali, Jason Denayer (Lyon) and Théo Bogonda (Celta Vigo) of JMG Belgium, Youssouf Koné (Lyon) of JMG Ivory Coast, and Ramy Bensebaini (Borussia Mönchengladbach) of JMG Algeria.
Jean-Marc Guillou has revolutionized football and given chances to star players, past and current, who otherwise wouldn’t be able to pursue their dream because of the adversity and conditions they were fighting against. He’s made an irrefutable difference in the world of football.
Kolo Touré summed it up perfectly with the following quote:
“He’s our father. Our spiritual father. Without him and his utopian idea of coming to Africa, we would have never had a chance. He facilitated it all. It’s evidence that there is talent in Africa, but we need serious people like Jean-Marc Guillou”.