Fifty weeks from Wednesday, the men’s finalists in the Olympic Games football tournament will be plotting how to make the difference between gold and silver. All things going to plan, one of those squads will be anticipating a wave of patriotic fervor at the Parc des Princes, venue of the final.
Logic points to France claiming gold. The Games are taking place in Paris, which has a legitimate claim to being the most productive talent hub in the world’s most popular sport, the Olympic version of which prioritises young players – teams can field only three players who fall outside the under-23 category in the men’s tournament – and, come 2024, the host nation is determined to show off the best of itself.
France’s so-called "Bleuets", the junior Bleus, will have full institutional support at France’s own Games. Ligue 1 clubs will be pushed to release players, even if it means absenting them from pre-season practice. Players themselves are committed to make a home Olympic experience their focus next July and early August.
Among them, Kylian Mbappe, captain of France’s senior side, born in greater Paris and earmarked to take one of the three "over-age" berths in the 18-man squad. And to complete this all-star cast, there is Thierry Henry, who during his playing career held the status of France’s greatest ever international goalscorer. He has been appointed manager of France’s Olympic team and the country’s under-21s.
Henry, 46, was chosen unanimously by the French Football Federation’s selection panel for the job on Monday, ahead of candidates with longer experience of coaching in club football. An impressive interview helped, as does his aura, as a genuine great, and a World Cup winner with France in 1998. As anybody who ever spent time in Henry’s company would testify, he is also an insatiable observer, thinker and analyst.
The downside, the risk in the appointment? Henry’s scant, and rather chequered history as the main man on the touchline: 49 matches in charge of club sides, across his two jobs, first with a Monaco team struggling in France’s Ligue 1 in 2018/19 and then with Montreal Impact of MLS during a period disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
That body of work yielded almost twice as many defeats – 27 – as victories – 14 – a mixed start to a coaching career Henry had pursued with studious gusto and, because of his leadership, his playing background and the distinguished learning he had under Arsene Wenger, his manager for over seven years at Arsenal, and Pep Guardiola, with whom he won every prize available at Barcelona, a career path that seemed tailor-made.
But equally appropriate for the tasks Henry now assumes are his stints as assistant coach with the senior Belgium national team, working under Roberto Martinez. His input there earned praise from players such as Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard.
The potential springboard of the twin campaigns he now takes charge of – the Olympics next summer and the 2025 European under-21 championship – is huge. Succeed and Henry would become a lead candidate to take over from Didier Deschamps, long-serving coach of Les Bleus.
Henry has top-class allies to work with. Even besides the prospect of unleashing Mbappe on raw, opposition defences with a roaring crowd behind France’s "Bleuets" at the Games, the nation’s talent pool at under-21 level is enviable.
This year alone, six French starlets – strikers Elye Wahi and Hugo Ekitike, Chelsea midfielder Lesley Ugochukwu and defender Malo Gusto, and RB Leipzig centre-backs Castello Lukeba and El Chadaille Bitshiabu – have fetched combined transfer fees of more than €160 million.
Were Edu Camavinga, of Real Madrid, not a regular with the senior Bleus squad, he would, at 20, still qualify for Henry’s potential Euro 2025 squad. Warren Zaire-Emery, the prodigious Paris Saint-Germain midfielder, is, at 17, already a Champions League footballer, as is the 18-year-old Bayern Munich striker, Mathys Tel.
As Sabri Lamouchi, the former France player and much-travelled club coach who was one of the unsuccessful candidates for the under-21 job, put it to L’Equipe: “This generation is already at a very high level, and only once in a lifetime do you get to aim for a gold medal at your own Olympics.”
Rivals, particularly from North Africa, will note Henry’s appointment to a key pathway role in French football. Part of his job is to be the charismatic persuader of the many dual nationals eligible for Les Bleus or Bleuets that they should commit to France once a decision has to be made, under Fifa rules, to only play competitive senior international football for one country.
In the last European under-21 championship, where France underachieved, the squad included strikers Rayan Cherki, Amine Gouiri and defender Yacine Larouci, all eligible for Algeria, and Bayer Leverkusen winger Amine Adli, courted by Morocco.