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Christian Damiano, the man who revolutionised grassroots football in France

Christian Damiano (white shirt) speaks to the refugees' team during training at the Centenary Stadium.

French coach Christian Damiano is back in Malta to lead a refugees selection in the UEFA Unity Tournament next week. Valhmor Camilleri sat down with the experienced coach who shared his football experiences in working with the French football federation as well as assisting top coaches such as Gerard Houillier, Aime Jacquet and Claudio Ranieri among others…

Over the past decades, football has produced some of the greatest superstars such as Diego Maradona, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, who have caught the imagination of their followers with their scintillating performances on the pitch while we also had coaches such as Marcello Lippi, Aime Jacquet and Claudio Ranieri who led their teams to great results on the international stage.

However, in football there are also those who I describe as the unsung heroes who work in silence and without any fanfare to ensure their players are ready to give their 100 per cent and help the team achieve unprecedented success.

Christian Damiano is the perfect example of an unsung hero in international football as the affable Frenchman has nurtured some of the best talents in French, Italian and English football without ever enjoying any kind of spotlight on his work.

For the past two years, Damiano has been working with the Malta FA’s Football Social Responsibility Department where he was part of the PASS refugee project which is one of the Malta FA s inclusive projects .He also visited the Ballun project at Hal Safi

Last year, he accepted to take charge of the refugee selection that competes in UEFA’s Unity Tournament in Nyon.

In 2022, the Maltese team performed very well and managed to beat Belgium and Ireland and this time around the Frenchman is again looking forward to another valuable experience.

“When I was first approached by Peter Busuttil and Bernard Graeff to take charge of the MFA’s Refugee selection, I didn’t need much time to accept,” Damiano told the Times of Malta.

“During my career I always had one mission, to try and push people to maximise their potential and I have to say that last year’s experience was great for me as the atmosphere was fantastic and everything was very well organised.”

“I may have had some big moments in my career as coach, but I never forgot from where I came from,” Damiano continued.

“I always held the same attitude to try and help people and this experience is another opportunity for me to hopefully make a difference to these people’s lives. I come from a normal family in France who gave me the best conditions to work hard and learn my trade and be the best I can be.

“I lived in southern France and at 15 years of age I joined Nice where I was given a contract that helped me become a professional player and at the same time continue with my studies.

“However, eight years later I decided that it was time for me to stop playing football and started my coaching badges as I wanted to learn new things and progress further in my career.”

Damiano took his coaching badges at the French federation and his talents where spotted by the French Federation.

In the 1990s he was appointed as one of the scouts of French national team coach Aime Jacquet, with whom he worked for five years, and was part of the staff that steered Les Bleus to the World Cup triumph on home soil in 1998.

Throughout his career he worked with some great French coaches such as Roger Lemerre, before joining Jean Tigana at Fulham, Gerard Houillier at Liverpool, and then with Claudio Ranieri at Parma and Juventus.

“I worked very hard throughout my career as coach,” Damiano said.

“The most sacred thing for me in coaching is to build a personal relationship with the players and coaches I work with. Every time I was offered a job, be it with Jean Tigana, Gerard Houillier or Claudio Ranieri, I always made it clear to them that I would remain in the job until they stayed there. If they were sacked, I would be sacked too.

“I had many offers in my career to take bigger jobs but I have always been loyal to the people I worked with. My role has always been to protect the relationship between the head coach and the players.

“There were several times when I would speak with unhappy players who were not playing to try and instill in them tranquility as well as motivation to work harder to force their way into the team.

“My message to them was always the same. Work hard every day to improve your technical ability and show the hunger that you want to succeed, and you will see that you can make it.”

One player who needed Damiano’s guidance to succeed in his career was former Juventus defender Giorgio Chiellini.

“When Chiellini came to Juventus, I was working at the time with Claudio Ranieri,” Damiano said.

“He joined Juventus from Fiorentina and in the beginning, Giorgio was more focused to show his aggressiveness with his opponents on the pitch than focus on his tactical responsibilities. One day, I pulled him on the sidelines and told him that he needed to change his attitude and start respecting his opponents and try and play the game because that is what it is all about.

“I told him that if he started to work seriously with me on his technical abilities he had the potential to be selected in the national team that at the end of the season would play in the Confederation Cup in South Africa.

“Giorgio started to work harder and became a mainstay of our defence. At the end of the season, he was selected by the Italian national team to play in the Confederations Cup.

“Five days later he phoned me and told me ‘Coach I want to see you, give me your address.’ I accepted and a few hours later he was in front of my doorstep. He gave me the Italian national team shirt that he wore at the Confederations Cup with his signature as a sign of gratitude and for me winning the respect of your players is more important than winning trophies.”

Asked what he wants to transmit to the players he will guide at the UEFA Unity Cup, Damiano said: “My biggest wish is that through this experience they will start to believe more in themselves. Many of the players in the team had a very rough past and I am sure that this experience will help them to have a more positive mindset towards their future.”

While throughout his career, Damiano has enjoyed some memorable moments, however, he feels that his biggest contribution came more than 40 years ago at the French training base in Clairefontaine.

“In 1974, I was one of a number of French coaches that started a professional football school within the French Football Association,” Damiano recounts.

“Among the coaches I worked with was Arsene Wenger. The philosophy behind our concept was that we attracted the best young talent from around France and work with them to improve their technical ability.

“We built a structure that would see players aged 13 sign two-year contracts that would see them come to work with coaches on their individual ability. By this I mean the very basics of the game – ball control, passing, shooting, etc.

“Young players came to Clairefontaine, trained with us and then when they returned to their families, they could play with their local teams. It was a long journey but French football reaped the fruit of our work in the 1990s. Those players that won the World Cup for France in 1998 came through our system.

“The success of the French national team in the last few years didn’t come by coincidence, but it’s all after years of hard work at our grassroots.

“It was a long process but now French football is at the top. Other countries are following our example, such as Portugal, Spain, and England, who are doing a lot of technical work with their youngsters.

“To have been one of the coaches to start this process is something that fills me with great pride as it has changed the future of French football.”

Asked to send a message to the hundreds of Maltese coaches working in youth nurseries in our country, Damiano said: “Help the young players individually, on their football technique.

“Do not look at the results of your team, winning or losing is not important at a young age.

“Remember this is a long process but if you are patient and you put all your football passion into helping these kids, results will come. You just need to believe in your players.”


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