Arab interest in the men’s Olympic football tournament ended on Saturday as Egypt lost 1-0 to Brazil in Saitama. The South Americans progress to the last four while the North Africans head home, but there was plenty to think about on the plane back to Cairo.
Here are five things we learned from the Egypt under-23 football team’s participation at Tokyo 2020.
1. Egypt survived the Group of Death
It wasn’t the most exciting of rides, but it should not be forgotten that Egypt got out of the Group of Death. There was a hard-fought draw with Spain, a valiant 1-0 defeat against Argentina and then the all-important win over Australia. To finish second behind Spain and above the South Americans in Group C is a significant achievement, and it should give the players a huge confidence boost going forward.
Like the rest of Africa, the senior team is in qualification action for the 2022 World Cup in September and should have few problems getting past Angola, Libya and Gabon into the next round. The confidence and experience from Japan should stand those players who went to the Olympics and are also part of the senior team in good stead to ensure that they make it to Qatar next year.
2. Defense was an understandable strategy, but Egypt could have done more
In four games played, Egypt conceded just two goals but scored only two as well. That tells the story of this tournament. Coach Shawky Gharib set up the team not to concede. It may not have been pretty, but it was understandable given the absences and the quality of the opposition.
Ideally, Egypt would have done what it did in the group stage — similar to England at the Euros — and then move up a gear in the knockout rounds. It is difficult when you are facing a talented Brazil team, but had the Pharaohs attacked a little more in the three group games, then they would surely have been a little more fluid going forward in the quarterfinal, which could have made all the difference. The coach could have used attacking midfielder Nasser Maher more than he did.
3. Egypt missed Mohamed Salah
It’s an obvious point, but Egypt lacked a cutting edge in attack. Defensively, the team was solid and played to those strengths. There was criticism of these tactics from some journalists and former players who felt that the team should have attacked more, and while that is easier said than done against Spain, Argentina and Brazil, they did have a point in the Australia game.
But had Mohamed Salah been present, then not only would the team have been more dangerous in attack, but the opposition would have been warier too. The Liverpool star is perhaps the Egyptian striker who can put half-chances away on a constant basis.
Brazil may have been a little more conservative had Salah been loitering with intent, and it would have relieved some of the pressure on the backline. The whole atmosphere around the game would have been different. Richarlison caused lots of problems for Egypt, but the Everton man can’t match Salah in the English Premier League. He may not have managed it in Japan either.
4. Hegazi and El-Shenawy shine
While there is little doubt Brazil deserved to beat Egypt, there is no disgrace to lose 1-0 to the South Americans. The fact that the scoreline was so tight was, in no small part, due to the heroics of goalkeeper Mohamed El-Shenawy.
The Al-Ahly No. 1 made many saves to keep out Richarlison and company. The main duty of overage players is to bring something to the team that the younger folk can’t do, and the 32-year-old did that and more.
Ahmed Hegazi was just as much of an influence. The Al-Ittihad defender rivals the goalkeeper for the most impressive performance in the four games. It is not just about his intelligent positioning and hard work but the leadership that helps inspire the whole team. Egypt conceded just two goals in four games against some quality opposition and attackers, and these two overage stars deserve plenty of credit for that.
5. Africa falls short on the big stage once more
The Olympics is a more democratic football tournament than the World Cup. In the quarterfinals, there were two African teams and two from Asia, with South America, Oceania, Europe and Concacaf having one each. That was a good showing from Africa, but both Egypt and the Ivory Coast failed to make the last four. All the other confederations will have one representative each in the semifinals, but not Africa.
If you take Nigeria out of the equation, then the continent’s performance in recent Olympic tournaments has not been great, with talented teams going so far but failing to stay until the end. It is the same with World Cups. The best of Africa need to start turning good tournament performances into great ones.