In the French Ligue 1 youth academies, soccer is synonymous with life itself.
For young, talented hopefuls looking to break into their respective professional teams, soccer defines who they are.
As a native of Strasbourg and a product of French Ligue 1 side RC Strasbourg Pro Academy, USF freshman forward Victor Claudel knew this all too well.
“We lived in the same place, had training together,” Claudel said. “We ate and slept soccer every time of day.”
Soccer has been a part of Claudel’s life since before he was 5 years old. His father also played in the third tier of French soccer, and Claudel attended every one of his games.
“I was always with him at many games,” Claudel said. “I’d always have a ball at my feet, playing around at his games.”
After over a decade of unwavering dedication and plenty of blood and sweat, Claudel eventually found himself in the ranks of RC Strasbourg Pro Academy, one of the most competitive academies in France.
He recalled his toughest match, an under-19 match against Olympique Lyonnais’s youth academy, which is often hailed for having one of the best academies in France.
“The team was very, very, very strong. Now the players play for the French national team or play pro,” Claudel said. “That was a good experience to learn from that type of game.”
In that match, Claudel went up against players who are now at the professional level, including current Olympique Lyonnais striker Amine Gouiri.
Claudel was also teammates with defender Mohamed Simakan and midfielder Youssiuf Fofana, who both play for RC Strasbourg Alsace in the French Ligue 1.
Rubbing shoulders with top prospects seemed to help Claudel develop into a dangerous forward.
During his time with RC Strasbourg, Claudel racked up 20 goals and 11 assists, which caught the eye of USF coach Bob Butehorn.
“We got wind of him back in late December, maybe early November, last year and just started pursuing him,” Butehorn said. “We tried to get video on him. And then we went to see him and then we had snowstorms, so we were a little bit unlucky with that.”
Claudel wasn’t offered an official contract by RC Strasbourg, and he came across a dilemma — continue to grind in the French academy or get his education.
“I came to the United States because it’s the best way to study and play a high-level sport,” Claudel said.
As a highly-touted prospect, there were numerous schools and clubs after Claudel. But he chose to study at USF and was recruited by Butehorn and USF.
“[We] just got lucky that he liked our place, so it worked out,” Butehorn said. “He’s a very good player with a good pedigree to him.”
Butehorn’s choice looks like it has paid off, as Claudel has scored two goals in four starts. He has also broken himself into the first team, averaging more than 71 minutes played.
Claudel’s impact on the team is a product of his individual skill and also his connection with his teammates, specifically one of his fellow foreign striking partners.
Junior striker Adrian Billhardt, a native of Berlin, instantly found common ground with Claudel. In Claudel’s hometown, many people speak both French and German, due to its location near the French-German border.
Billhardt and Claudel instantly formed a bond with each other.
“I try to give him as much information and as much experience as I can,” Billhardt said. “I tried to connect with him as well as possible.”
Claudel and Billhardt’s relationship off the field goes deeper than just being teammates.
“At the end of the day, we’re a family off the field. Everyone’s close with each other,” Billhardt said. “But I think for me, especially with Victor, it’s like a little brother thing.”
Despite the shared language, Claudel and Billhardt speak very little German with each other. Billhardt has shouldered the responsibility of improving more than just Claudel’s soccer skills.
“I’m trying to improve his English a little bit,” Billhardt said with a smile.
Between going to the mall and getting smoothies together, Claudel said that the time he spends off the field with Billhardt has helped improve his game on the pitch.
“Off the field, we’re friends and we talk a lot and on the field,” Claudel said. “We feel that we want to play together, which I think is good.
“We need to keep this connection, and I think I have a good relationship with the team … we need everyone in the team to succeed and do something great.”