Ramzy: Egypt are among the favourites
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Former Egypt international Hany Ramzy is relishing the challenges that face him as coach of his country’s U-23 team. FIFA.com caught up with the legendary centre-back before his side begin the final round of African qualifiers for the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament London 2012, which are set to take place in Morocco between 26 November and 10 December this year. The former Kaiserlautern defender spoke of the U-23 team’s preparations for the tournament and their participation in the 2012 CAF African Cup of Nations qualifiers in lieu of the senior team.  

FIFA.com: How are Egypt preparing for the CAF U-23 Championship that serves as the African qualifiers for the 2012 Olympics?
Hany Ramzy: We start off with a couple of friendlies in Cairo against Senegal and Nigeria before travelling to Morocco on 18 November. We’ll have a game on 21 November against one of the sides from the Moroccan league and then contest the tournament’s opening match against Gabon on 27 November.

Did the decision to move the competition from Egypt to Morocco just a month before it was due to start affect the morale of the players, especially given the loss of home advantage that entailed?
It did have an effect because we were forced to make a number of changes to our training programme. For instance, we would have preferred to travel to Morocco at least ten days in advance to acclimatise. And of course, I won’t deny that we wanted the tournament to be held in Egypt. Playing at home in front of your supporters would have given our young players a huge boost, but we just have to take this as a new challenge. Morocco is an Arab country and I know the Moroccan public will get behind us, especially since we’ve been drawn in Group B with Gabon, Côte d'Ivoire and South Africa.

Which of your Group B opponents present the biggest threat to you?
All three sides are technically very gifted. However, it’s usually the opening game that’s the hardest, and that will be against Gabon, who have already knocked out a very resilient Zambia team. Côte d'Ivoire are one of the strongest sides on the continent in this age group and we’ve got reason to believe that South Africa are also very talented and play attractive football. All three are strong sides and there’s not much difference between them. Moreover they all have a lot of Europe-based professionals. The matches will be tough but, as I said before, if we get off to a good start in the opening game against Gabon, it will be a huge boost for us.

Does the dearth of professionals in the Egypt squad put you at a disadvantage?
I’ve got complete confidence in the players. At the 2006 African Cup of Nations in Egypt, you’ll recall that most of the African sides fielded a large number of European-based professionals, while Egypt relied on local talent. Despite that, we still won the title, so it’s not really an issue for me. We’ve got some excellent players in our squad, and the challenge for our youngsters will be to prove their worth on the pitch and perhaps earn a move to Europe if they do well in London.

Your team’s last two games were against Niger and Sierra Leone in the 2012 CAF African Cup of Nations qualifiers, where the U-23’s stood in for the senior Egypt side. What did you make of that experience?
I was very pleased. I thought the benefits of facing a side like Sierra Leone outweighed losing to them 2-1. We benefited in terms of skill and fitness, not to mention the experience of travelling abroad, the nerves, and playing in front of a packed stadium. The 3-0 victory over Niger restored the team’s self-belief, especially since Niger ended up qualifying from that group. It was Egypt’s first and only win in the qualifiers and all credit to the youngsters and the coaching staff. It was the perfect start to our preparations for the qualifying campaign for London 2012.

The team has received some criticism lately for lacking punch up front. Is this a problem in the national team at all age groups and have you managed to find a solution?
I don’t happen to agree with that assessment. We’ve got at least three forwards: Marwan Mohsen, who is Petrojet’s main striker, Ahmed Sherwida from Al Masry and Ali Afifi from Arab Contractors. Marwan is one to watch in the future and he’s been in excellent form recently, with two goals against Niger. I should also mention Mohamed Hamdy who was in the Egypt U-20 squad that went to Colombia. 

And what about your goalkeeper? Your first choice, Mohamed Abougabal, has been having some difficulties with his club, ENPPI.
Ahmed El Shenawy has been playing well recently and I hope he can maintain his high level of performance. I’m also looking at Aly Lotfi and Mohamed Bassam. Mohamed Abougabal has been with us for a long time now. He played in the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2009 and has been in my side for the last 20 months. Every player goes through patches when their form dips a little, that’s only natural. He might be having problems, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a promising player. The emergence of Ahmed El Shenawy’s only makes the other goalkeepers more competitive, which ultimately benefits the side as a whole.

Finally, how do you see next month’s qualifying tournament in Morocco panning out?
I expect it will be a very hard-fought tournament. All eight sides are looking to progress and qualify for London 2012. Moreover, they all play outstanding football, in particular Nigeria, who have a lot of experience at Olympic football tournaments. Morocco, of course, have home advantage and Algeria are not far from home themselves. Egypt are considered one of the favourites to go through, but I should add that everyone has a fairly equal chance of success. To be perfectly honest, I hope all three Arab teams make it through.