Egypt’s U-23 team are yearning to give Egyptian football fans something to cheer about, but their task could not have been more difficult after they were drawn to face Brazil in their first Olympic match in 20 years.
The Pharaohs, who suffered a first-round exit in their last appearance at the 1992 Games in Barcelona, open their Group C campaign with a tough clash against gold medal favourites Brazil at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff on Thursday, one day before the opening ceremony of the London Games.
They will be looking to make up for the disappointments that have haunted Egyptian football since last year’s popular uprising, which toppled autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak but left domestic football in a state of disarray.
Egypt’s senior team stunningly failed to qualify for two successive African Nations Cups, a tournament they won a record seven times, including three on the trot in 2006, 2008 and 2010.
“We have to show that despite the problems in our country we are still proud to play for Egypt,” Olympic team coach Hany Ramzy, a prominent and versatile defender in the 1990s and early 2000s, told a news conference on Tuesday.
"We have to show that football in Egypt is still alive. Hopefully in the end we can show that we still have the sport of football in our country,” he added, referring to February’s Port Said tragedy which led to an indefinite suspension of domestic football.
Veteran playmaker Mohamed Abou-Treika, who is one of the three over-age players in Egypt’s squad, echoed Ramzy’s sentiments.
“The country needs something to smile about. We have a great team with a lot of motivation and I think we will have a great participation in these games,” said the Ahly man, who scored the decisive goals which handed Egypt the 2006 and 2008 Nations Cup triumphs.
“Obviously what happened in Port Said was tragic but everyone needs some kind of motivation.
“We can take the negatives and turn them into something positive. That gave me a push to make something happen for the people who died there. It pushed me and other people to work harder,” he added.
Abou-Treika’s club teammates Ahmed Fathi and Emad Meteb are the other over-age players in Egypt’s squad. But it remains to be seen whether the trio would be able to remain in London if the team reach the knockout phase, given Ahly’s African Champions League commitments.
Egypt’s roster also boasts several promising players, including Fiorentina’s newly-signed defender Ahmed Hegazy and attacking midfielder Mohamed Salah, who signed for Swiss side Basel but is uncertain to start against Brazil due to a shoulder injury.
Brazil are favourites to progress as the winners of the group, which also includes minnows Belarus and New Zealand.
The Selecao are seeking to win the only gold medal which is missing in their trophy-laden cabinet. Their squad includes highly-rated forward Neymar, midfielder Ganso and striker Alexandre Pato.
“The under-20 team played Egypt last year and it was a complicated game [they drew 1-1]. I believe they will have a lot of those players in the Olympics and the fact it will be our first game in the competition makes it trickier,” Brazil coach Mano Menezes said in an interview with World Soccer magazine.
Egypt last met Brazil in a friendly game in November last year, with the latter claiming an easy 2-0 victory in Qatari capital Doha.
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