CAIRO: The second Egypt’s Under-23 (U23) football team qualified for next year’s Tokyo Olympics, the guessing game as to whether star player Mohamed Salah would be included began.
Since Olympic football squads can take three players older than 23, there was near unanimity that Salah, one of the world’s best players, would make the cut.
The team’s head coach, Shawky Gharib, said it was too soon to make a decision on Salah, 27, but that an announcement would be made in due course.
But the prospect is not universally popular. Ramadan Sobhi, the U23 captain, rejected the idea of Salah joining the squad.
“The team has 21 players, they fought to reach Tokyo. They deserve to be there more than any other player,” he said.
Abroad, there is also less enthusiasm, with the media in the UK suggesting Salah was on a collision course with his Liverpool coach, Jurgen Klopp.
Taking part would rule Salah out of Klopp’s plans for the start of next season, as he would miss the entirety of the club’s pre-season and their start to the top flight campaign. It would also mean the player spending another summer playing for his country, instead of getting well-needed rest.
Egyptian TV sports show host Ahmed Shobeir said: “Salah’s team won’t refuse his participation in Tokyo.” The UK’s Daily Mirror, though, said Salah’s previous run-ins with the Egyptian FA, coupled with his commitment to the Reds, could prevent him featuring in the tournament.
Salah might relish the opportunity to play in Tokyo, just like he did at London 2012. To represent one’s country at the Olympic Games is an opportunity that does not come knocking often. But to avoid burnout and injury, a Salah no-show would not be that surprising either.
Olympic football also rarely exhibits glamor names. Neymar helping Brazil to the gold medal in Rio in 2016 was an exception.
Normally, the games do not attract world class players, mainly because FIFA, world football’s governing body, wants to keep it that way. FIFA insists that the Olympics does not rival the World Cup.
To ensure that, FIFA allows only three senior players to join U23 teams as opposed to when it opened the doors, decades ago, to basketball and tennis professionals. That created extremely popular appearances at the Olympics by the NBA “Dream Team” and the great Steffi Graf.
Olympic football must also share the spotlight with over 30 other sports. So, in the Olympics, interest is not concentrated solely on football.
Salah may actually have a more pleasant experience playing with the U23 team. Egypt’s young charges are certainly doing better in their age group than their elders.
The junior “Pharaohs” beat Mali, Ghana, Cameroon, South Africa and Cote d’Ivoire en route to the crown and Tokyo.
Salah’s involvement with the senior national team, meanwhile, has been mixed.
He was Egypt’s hero when he scored the penalty that got them to the 2018 World Cup following a 28-year hiatus from the tournament, but Egypt then finished last in its group.
A shoulder injury sustained playing in the final of the 2018 UEFA Champions League clearly limited him then, but when he returned to full fitness at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, Egypt was again humiliated, knocked out in the last 16 on home soil.
Although Salah is third on the list of international goalscorers for his country, accusations abound that he does not play as well with Egypt as he does with Liverpool. The explanation is obvious: He plays and trains much more with his club than country, in a system that suits him, with better players than Egypt have to offer.
The bar is set so high for Salah that expectations from Egyptians are sometimes too high.
It would surely please Egyptians to see him in Tokyo, but how effective would Salah be in a team of youths not able to match his level, with whom he has never played before?
Moreover, his inclusion would mean another, younger player, not getting the chance, and experience needed, to perhaps grow into the next Mohamed Salah. That would be unfair, considering how far the 22 players who currently make up the U23s have come by themselves.
It’s not likely that Egypt will win in Tokyo, even with Salah around. It has never won an Olympic football medal. It has made 12 appearances — an African record — but its best finish was fourth in Amsterdam 1928, and again in Tokyo in 1964.
Salah’s inclusion might change the nation’s fortunes. But it is far from a guarantee.