Egypt’s qualification for next year’s London Olympic Games was a perfectly-timed success for Egyptian football fans, who were yearning for something to cheer about in a barren year for national teams.
The U-23 side ended a 20-year Olympic absence after claiming a 2-0 victory over Senegal to finish third at the African Championship in Morocco, highlighting the first achievement of Hany Ramzy since he began his coaching career in 2007.
Ramzy, who was a promising defender the last time Egypt took part in the Olympics in 1992 in Barcelona, presided over a successful African Championship campaign for a team that shoulder hopes of replacing some ageing players at a faltering senior side.
“We proved our doubters wrong and showed that we are a promising side,” Egypt midfielder Hossam Hassan said, in reference to the criticism the team received following their disappointing 3-2 defeat by hosts Morocco in the semi final.
“We were worried about the response of our fans, but the criticism motivated us to do better. We proved that our new generation gives us hope for the future,” added the Masry midfielder, a regular starter in Ramzy’s roster.
Egypt’s senior side failed to replicate the heroics of recent years, starting 2011 in the worst possible fashion.
Seemingly suffering the ill-effects of January’s popular revolution which overthrew autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak, Egypt endured the worst case scenario after stunningly failing to qualify for next year’s African Cup of Nations in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.
The Pharaohs finished at the bottom of a qualifying group which included South Africa and minnows Niger and Sierra Leone, missing out on a tournament they won a record seven times, including the last three editions in 2006, 2008 and 2010.
Egypt’s U-20 side had a chance to restore some pride during the World Cup in Colombia last summer but bowed out at the last-16 stage after losing 2-1 to Argentina despite producing some promising and lively displays earlier in the tournament.
The national Olympic team, which included many players from the U-20 World Cup side, were hardly convincing during the group stage but they eventually managed to get the job done.
They laboured to a 1-0 victory over Gabon in their opener before slumping to a 1-0 defeat by Ivory Coast after another lacklustre and error-ridden display characterized by lack of spark and creativity in midfield.
Egypt roared back in their last group match to beat South Africa 2-0 and set up a tough semi-final meeting with hosts Morocco, who produced a formidable attacking display to outclass their North African rivals 3-2.
Morocco were unlucky not to win with a wider margin after exposing the gaps in Egypt’s defence, which was uncommonly shaky, to leave their opponents needing a win over Senegal in the third-place playoff to secure automatic qualification for the Olympics.
Inspired by the dazzling Mohamed Salah, the Arab Contractors’ winger who stole the limelight at the World Cup with his eye-catching tricks and darting runs down the right flank, Egypt overcame Senegal to clinch the bronze medal and book their place in London.
“I’m satisfied with the performance of most of the players in the African Championship,” Ramzy said in a brief television interview after the match.
“We will not be going to London to just make a good impression, we are eyeing good results.”
Egypt’s new coach Bob Bradley, who replaced Hassan Shehata earlier this year, might have reacted with excitement every time Salah bamboozled his challenger or defender Ahmed Hegazy towered to clear the danger.
But the American tactician’s closer eye was probably on in-form guardian Ahmed El-Shennawy, who pulled off a string of impressive saves throughout the tournament to play a key role in Egypt’s progress.
El-Shennawy, who is reportedly targeted by French giants Marseille, made his senior team debut in a high-profile friendly against Brazil last month, which the five-time world champions won 2-0.
“I need to coordinate with Mr. Bradley during the coming period,” Ramzy added when asked about the possibility of a mix-up between Egypt’s World Cup qualifiers and the Olympic Games.
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