Whether or not you believe in fate, there are certain events that seem to be written in the stars. Egypt qualifying for the Olympic quarter-finals on 1 August, six months to the day after being devastated by the disaster in Port Said, had that kind of feel to it.
For no-one was the triumph more poignant than the team’s captain, Mohamed Aboutrika. It is hardly surprising to hear that the 33-year-old will never forget what he saw that dreadful night, which ended with him comforting the injured and dying in a chaotic Al Ahly dressing room. What is unexpected is to hear him say that he doesn’t wish to forget.
However, as Aboutrika explained, it is his desire to honour the 79 who lost their lives in Port Said which compels him to keep them uppermost in his thoughts as he leads the national team onwards at London 2012.
“Those people are always in my mind because we held them as they were dying,” he recalled. “They are always with us and they give us strong motivation to honour them and give everything we have. We try to help their families in whatever way we can, and hopefully winning here will provide the all people back home with some happiness.”
Aboutrika didn’t always see things this way. Indeed, so sickened was he by the tragedy in Port Said that he retired from football altogether in its immediate aftermath. “I did think about stopping for good,” he admitted. “But I changed my mind because I decided that I needed to play on for the people who died that night.”
It is unlikely that any of the other remaining teams have a more powerful source of motivation, although it could argued that none is in greater need. After all, as well as being ranked among the tournament outsiders, Egypt are also the team in the quarter-finals affected greatest by the energy-sapping requirements of Ramadan. Not that their captain believes that impact be wholly negative.
“Fasting definitely has an affect on the body, and it’s natural that we feel that later in matches,” he told FIFA.com. “But on the other hand, I think it gives us a lift spiritually because we are doing something for God.”
Aboutrika’s assessment appears to be borne out by the fact that Egypt stepped up a gear in the second half of their crucial win over Belarus, scoring three times in a dazzling 15-minute period. That victory, thoroughly merited on the balance of play, has allowed the Pharaohs to dream of something they haven’t managed in ten previous attempts.
“We know that we are trying to do something special because Egypt’s footballers have never won an Olympic medal,” said Aboutrika. “This tournament is also very important because we are building all the time towards the World Cup in 2014. We all want to do well here.”
Standing in Egypt’s way are a Japan side that beat Spain en route to topping Group D and have strung together three successive clean sheets. But Egypt’s captain knows from recent experience that the in-form Asians are far from infallible.
“Japan are a very good team with lots of fast and strong players,” he said. “They are well organised too, so it will be a very difficult game for us. But we played against them recently in a friendly in Toulon, and we won 3-2. That will give us belief.”
High on confidence and with a cause to fight for, this Egyptian team might yet make history here at London 2012.