Ahmed Hegazi is Egypt’s captain at Tokyo 2020
At the heart of an experienced defence that subdued Spain
Argentina and Australia next up for the well-organised Pharaohs
Shawky Gharib is a man who knows his football - and knows what he wants.
A vastly experienced coach and highly decorated player, the Egyptian’s first experience of the Olympic Football Tournament came on the field, and as far back as 1984. And if the intervening decades in the game have taught him anything, it’s the importance of a solid and dependable defensive base.
That knowledge is reflected in the squad Gharib selected for Tokyo 2020. Like every coach, he had three overage players to pick from and had to think carefully about where to stack those precious cards.
Eventually, and having been thwarted in his attempts to bolster his attack with Mohamed Salah, the Egypt coach stacked the deck at the other end. Goalkeeper Mohamed El-Shenawy and the defensive duo of Ahmed Hegazi and Mahmoud Hamdy were picked to complement the team's youngsters, with Hegazi - as captain - identified as the rock on which Gharib’s Olympic team would be built.
They were crucial decisions, and each was immediately vindicated by a flawless defensive showing in the Pharaohs’ opening match against Spain.
“Tactically, we had a good match,” said Hegazi, reflecting on a goalless draw in which the star-studded Spaniards created next to nothing. “We’d studied Spain very closely and, although they have several good players, we managed to stop their key men.
“It was a good start and we gave a very good defensive performance. Our coach likes to play with three at the back - it’s the system he’s used for the past four years – and he chose overage players who can implement his plan. We always speak to each other and try to guide the young players.”
Now, of course, comes the challenge of striking that elusive and much sought-after balance between defence and attack. And while it was their rearguard that earned deserved plaudits following Egypt's first Tokyo 2020 encounter, Hegazi insists there is another side to Gharib’s Pharaohs.
“We have several excellent players in this team, with six or seven already playing for the senior national team,” he said.
“These players have been playing together for the past four years and the coach has successfully brought through a really great generation. The harmony in this group is another big advantage; the boys know each other well after playing together for four years now, often in tournaments and big matches.”
As a veteran of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ and the 2012 Men’s Olympic Football Tournament, Hegazi knows all about showpiece competitions and high-stake encounters. That’s why he didn’t flinch when Egypt were placed in an Olympic group widely described as one of the competition’s toughest.
“We qualified for these Olympic Games as the champions of Africa and, having played against the European champions (at this age level), we will now play against the South American champions (Argentina),” he said. “Then it’s Australia, and we saw how strong they were in their first match against Argentina.
“We watched the game and it’s clear Australia have very good organisation and excellent players with great speed and fighting spirit. They are one of the teams that should not be underestimated.
"But we will go into these matches looking to win, as we always do – favourites or not. And we are optimistic that we can achieve something good here.”