The Pharaohs’ Olympic tale

Egypt have now qualified for the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament no fewer than 13 times, withdrawing on two of those occasions (Melbourne 1956 and Moscow 1980) for political reasons. In the ten appearances they have made to date, they progressed beyond the group phase on four occasions and twice finished fourth.

The Pharaohs’ first Olympic adventure came at the Antwerp Games in 1920, where they went out in the first round, a performance they improved on four years later in Paris by reaching the quarter-finals. They went one better in Amsterdam in 1928, beating Turkey 7-1 in the first round and then Portugal 2-1 in the quarter-finals before losing 6-0 to Argentina in the semis. Their quest for the bronze medal ended with a heavy 11-3 defeat to Italy.

Their next four Olympic appearances, at Berlin 1936, London 1948, Helsinki 1952 and Rome 1960, all ended in first-round elimination, a sequence they put an end to at Tokyo 1964, advancing to last four under the stewardship of Yugoslavian coach Josef Vandler. Drawn into Group C, they drew 1-1 with Brazil and lost 5-1 to Czechoslovakia before thrashing Korea Republic 10-0 to set up a quarter-final meeting with fellow Africans Ghana.

There’s still something special about taking part in the Olympic Games.
Hady Khashaba talks about playing at Barcelona 1992

“It was a very difficult match because Ghana have always been one of Africa’s strongest sides,” said former Al Ahly and Egypt player Abdelat Elsherbini, in conversation with “We found ourselves in a tough situation just half an hour into the game, when Taha Ismail picked up an injury and had to leave the pitch. In those days no substitutions were allowed and we had to play the rest of the game with ten men.

“They [Ghana] went 1-0 up just after he went off, and we feared the worst. But just five minutes later Mohamed Badawi scored an equaliser. He got his second after half-time, and then Ibrahim Riad and Rifaat Elfanagili found the back of the net, all inside eight minutes. Elfanagili added another late on to make it 5-1 and cap one of our best Olympic performances.”

When caught up with the unfortunate Taha Ismail, a striker with Al Ahly, he had a fascinating story to tell about his injury: “I was at a conference in Ghana in 1998 and this very tall gentlemen came up to me in the hotel corridor and said: ‘My name is Dodoo Ankrah and I would like apologise for injuring you 34 years ago’. He was Ghana’s goalkeeper in that game and I was amazed he was able to remember the incident after all those years. We had a chat and shared our recollections of that unforgettable game.”

In their next outing the Egyptians came up against the mighty Hungarians, who swept them aside 6-0 before going on to win gold. In the subsequent match for the bronze medal the Pharaohs came off second best to West Germany, going down 3-1.

After a 20-year-absence, Egypt returned to the Olympic stage at Los Angeles 1984 with a team featuring a clutch of prominent players, among them Mahmoud El Khatib, Taher Abou Zaid, Magdi Abdel Ghani and Ibrahim Youssef. Defeated 1-0 by Italy in their Group D opener, the Egyptians then beat Costa Rica 4-1 and drew a goal apiece with the USA. That was enough to take them into the last eight, where they went down 2-0 to eventual gold medalists France.

The last time
The north Africans’ last Olympic appearance came at Barcelona 1992. And though results did not go their way, with respective 1-0 and 2-0 defeats to Qatar and hosts Spain being followed by a thrilling 4-3 win over Colombia, former Al Ahly star Hady Khashaba, the scorer of two stoppage-time goals in that final game, has good memories of it all.

“There’s still something special about taking part in the Olympic Games,” he said. “You get to stay in the Olympic Village with your country’s delegation, which is made up of sportsmen and women from all events. And you also get to watch them and support them in their respective competitions.

“As for the football, our game against the Spanish was unforgettable. Even though we lost and we had to play with ten men for 70 minutes, it was a pleasure to come up against a team like that. A lot of the players from that side went straight up to the full Spain team and played for the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona, like Pep Guardiola, the former Barça coach. We were already out by the time our last game against Colombia came around, but we were absolutely determined to come away from the tournament with a good result. Thanks to God I was able to play a part in the win. We were losing 3-2 when the game went into stoppage time, but I managed to score in the 91st and 94th minutes.”

Today, 20 years on from the last time they graced the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament, the Pharaohs are asking themselves if they can make the semis again, just like they did in 1964, when they began by drawing against Brazil, their first opponents in London. Perhaps they can even break new ground by collecting an Olympic medal for the first time. All will be revealed in just a few weeks’ time.