RIYADH: If Egypt and Saudi Arabia are not at their best this summer, then their stay at Tokyo 2020 will not be a long one.
When there are only 16 teams at an international tournament then there can be no room for error — Wednesday’s draw for the upcoming Olympic football tournament was evidence of that.
There are three possible reactions for fans in Cairo and Riyadh and throughout the two countries: Fear, excitement, or a heady mix of both.
For Saudi Arabia, the first place to check out the history of their opponents is to watch the final of the 2016 Olympics as both teams are in their group. Brazil beat Germany in the gold-medal match in Rio and both will take on the young Green Falcons in Japan.
Saad Al-Shehri’s team is probably going to have to win the opening game against Ivory Coast. Three points on July 22 in Yokohama will provide hope going into the game against Germany three days later.
That will be easier said than done but there is hope for Saudi Arabia, a team that has no players in Europe and does not have to worry about the Copa America that takes place from June 13 to July 10.
After the most hectic and physically punishing season in the history of modern football in Europe, clubs there may not automatically release all the players that national team coaches want — there is sure to be some negotiation.
Ivory Coast are there because of their performances at the 2019 Africa U-23 Cup of Nations. They may not have won the tournament, but they came as close as it is possible to get. The final against Egypt was all square after 90 minutes but the Young Pharaohs got the all-important goal in extra-time. The preliminary squad chosen by Les Petits Elephants is full of European-based players.
But it is Germany next for a Saudi team that has not appeared at the Olympics since 1996.
There is a wealth of talent available to the team that finished runners-up at the 2019 European U-21 Championships. Suffice to say that whoever goes to Japan, there will be a team with the kind of top-level international experience that Saudi Arabia cannot match. Most, or almost all, of the squad, will be Bundesliga-based.
There had been suggestions that Thomas Muller might be one of the squad’s overage players, but the Bayern Munich star has ruled himself out. Mats Hummels of Borussia Dortmund and Christoph Kramer of Borussia Monchengladbach should be there.
German coach Stefan Kuntz is under no illusions as to the tough task ahead.
He said: “Eighty to 90 percent of the players in the Ivory Coast play in Europe. I saw Saudi Arabia at the Asian Championships in Thailand; the team has an unusual style and a special mentality.
“And you don’t really have to say much about Brazil — we all remember great duels between the senior national teams and the final of the 2016 Olympic Games.”
Brazil’s players certainly remember. The gold-medal winners from 2016 usually take the tournament seriously but then there is the Copa America that finishes just before the Olympics start. What can be said for sure is that the country has an embarrassment of riches at home and at big clubs in Europe’s big leagues. Coach Andre Jardine is going to find it hard deciding who to leave out.
If Saudi Arabia have been grouped with the runners-up of South America and Europe, then Egypt are not going to have much sympathy as they find themselves with the champions of both continents.
The African titleholders, who reached the quarterfinals in 2012 in their first appearance at the Olympics since 1992, will take on Argentina, Spain, and Australia.
Argentina are two-time gold medalists and last year finished above Brazil in South America’s qualification tournament, winning six games out of seven. Co-hosting Copa America may complicate things, especially in terms of overage choices but coach Fernando Batista has lots of talent to call upon. This is likely to include Brighton and Hove Albion midfielder Alexis Mac Allister, New York City’s Valentin Castellanos, Julian Alvarez of River Plate, and Granada’s Nehuen Perez.
Spain need no introduction. Even if the likes of Sergio Ramos and Jordi Alba will not, as have been discussed, head east as overage players, there will be some top-class talent from the big leagues. Stars such as RB Leipzig’s Dani Olmo, a standout in the 2019 European U-21 win; Ansu Fati is just 18 but has already played for Barcelona; and Ferran Torres, the winger who joined Manchester City for around £20 million ($27.7 million) last year. Also on City’s books, and perhaps the plane to Tokyo, is center-back Eric Garcia.
And Australia? The Olyroos will not get many headlines ahead of the tournament but are not just there to make up the numbers and they will be competitive.
It all adds up to a formidable challenge for the Arab nations.