- Men's Olympic Football Tournament kicks off in exactly six months
- We talk to Sylvain Ripoll, coach of France’s Espoirs (U-21) team
- "I’m part of a generation that dreamed of going to the Olympics"
This Friday 22 January marks six months to the day before the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament kicks off in Tokyo. The tournament will see France back on the Olympic stage 25 years after reaching the quarter-finals at the Atlanta Games in 1996.
So what has caused such a prolonged absence from the Olympics? "I can't give you an exact answer, since I wasn't there," says Sylvain Ripoll, coach of the France Espoirs (U-21) team since 2017. "Qualification for such a prestigious competition is always on a national federation’s wish-list, but for some reason we’ve been unsuccessful in recent times. In any case, we’re delighted to be back with the French team in a major tournament like the Olympics," said the 49-year-old strategist.
"I'm part of a generation that dreamed of the Olympics – just talking about it always makes our eyes light up," says the man who was not yet 13 when Les Bleus won gold at Los Angeles 1984. "And I think it's the same with my players," he adds. "It generates so many memories and great moments that just being part of it is bound to be an honour."
For now, though, it is still too early to be focusing on Tokyo, with tournaments looming before then both for the U-21s and senior team. "We have the EURO (11 June-11 July) taking place shortly before the Olympic Tournament (22 July-7 August), so one event will influence the other. Before that, there’s the European U-21 Championship, which we’ve qualified for, starting in March in Hungary and ending in June. So, the best thing we can do is to deal with those in the order they come."
There is no point then in Ripoll looking too far ahead or contemplating which three players over the age of 23 he might include in his squad for Japan, as permitted under the rules of men’s tournament. "Logically, the priority will always be the France senior team," says the Rennes native, who was nevertheless amenable to remarks last year by Kylian Mbappe, who expressed his desire to take part in the Tokyo Olympics. "We can only rejoice that we have a player in France of the calibre of Mbappe who thinks this way."
An insatiable talent scout, Ripoll carefully monitors a good 60 players, including 20 who play abroad. He works closely with France’s World Cup-winning coach Didier Deschamps, who is always looking for new blood to energise his squad. "Didier and I talk a lot about the Espoirs’ potential to establish themselves into the senior team. You need to be performing regularly at the highest level for some time to break into the senior side, whereas with the Espoirs, that process can happen much more quickly," he explains.
"Didier and his staff keep a very close eye on the Espoirs and watch a lot of their matches. We talk a lot about the players’ mentality, commitment and potential," adds Ripoll, who takes immense pride in seeing one of his young players called up. He also regularly talks with the selectors of the younger age-category teams to try to progress the most promising talents through the ranks.
If we add to the mix the exemption that allows the inclusion of the 1997 generation that was eligible for the postponed Olympics last summer, then there will be a particularly large group to choose from when deciding on the final squad for Tokyo.
For all that, Ripoll already has grounds to be satisfied with his current crop. "This is the second generation I’ve been in charge of since I arrived four years ago. Apart from being gifted, which has been the case for many years in France, given our enormous reservoir of talent, I find them to be very dependable and committed. For now, I feel my players are very focused on their goals, and I hope that remains the case," says the coach, whose aim is not to assemble only a squad of big names for Tokyo.
"There are a lot of criteria that come into play when you put together a squad for a tournament like this. There are performances, of course, but the priority is to have the best possible squad, which doesn’t always mean you only take the best players. We have to assess how squad members complement each other and perform together."