Africa’s wait for Olympic gold in the football event will extend at least until Paris 2024 after the continent’s last two sides standing — Egypt and Ivory Coast — were eliminated at the quarterfinal stage of the Tokyo Games on Saturday.
South Africa and Zambia’s women had already been dispatched in the group stage before the Pharaohs and the Petits Elephants were ousted by Brazil and Spain respectively in their Last Eight bouts, meaning that — for only the third time since 1988 — Africa will not have a team finishing in the medal positions.
When Nigeria (1996) and Cameroon (2000) won back-to-back gold medals in the men’s football event at the turn of the century, there was optimism that Africa — at least at U-23 level — could compete with the world’s biggest nations.
Yet despite some memorable moments at the 2020 Games, the continent’s quartet have again fallen short of the podium places, with a few familiar failings returning.
Broader questions about the place of Africa’s nations — even at U-23 level — will surely follow, but in truth, the continent’s four representatives broadly overachieved at the ongoing tournament.
Quarterfinalists Ivory Coast and Egypt both had to qualify from their group ahead of a genuine footballing heavyweight — Germany and Argentina respectively — and negotiated tough draws effectively to reach the knockouts against the odds.
Familiar failings for Ivory Coast
The Petits Elephants, in particular, put themselves in the driving seat with four points against Saudi Arabia and Brazil, and then held their nerve to send Germany packing with another 1-1 draw in their final group game.
Unfortunately, the game management and defensive rigour that had characterised their group-stage campaign deserted them against Spain in the quarters.
They twice led La Roja, and looked like they’d secured progress when Max Gradel fired them 2-1 ahead in the 91st minute, only to capitulate once again as Rafa Mir equalised two minutes later following a defensive disaster-class by Eboue Kouassi and Eric Bailly.
It was reminiscent of the senior side’s late, late collapse against Greece at the 2014 World Cup, when Georgios Samaras’s 93rd-minute winner denied them a place in the Last 16.
Again, concentration was the culprit.
Deflated in extra time, Bailly, who had been outmuscled by Mir for the late equaliser after scoring the Ivorian opener, was guilty of handballing in the box — his arm flailing unnecessarily to concede a penalty — to put Spain in the ascendancy.
La Roja ultimately ran out 5-2 winners, and while they were the stronger side in normal time — let alone the prolongation — the Elephants will rue a golden opportunity to build on their excellent results against Brazil and Germany to compete for the medals.
It was an all too familiar feeling for the Ivorians, who have not only had ample experience of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, but also replicated their quarterfinal exit at the 2008 Olympics – their only previous attempt.
A bridge too far for Egypt
Egypt can take encouragement from their showing at the Games, even if their run in the tournament ended on something of an anticlimactic note against Brazil, with the Pharaohs rarely looking like challenging in a 1-0 defeat.
There were hopes that the North Africans could have replicated their punchy 2-1 victory over Australia — as the Olyroos struggled to deal with their fast interchanges, direct approach, and the innovation of Ramadan Sobhi — but saw precious little of the ball against a Brazil side who largely controlled the contest.
Matheus Cunha’s strike on the counter was enough to send the Selecao into the semis, although Brazil felt hard done by to have had an earlier penalty appeal rejected.
It’s telling that goalkeeper Mohamed El Shenaway, so impressive during the group stage, was again Egypt’s star performer after the break, while this appeared one match too far for a Pharaohs side who lacked the legs in the final third when rare opportunities did arise.
“We did our best, and I thank the Egyptian people for their support,” wideman Sobhi told beIN Sport after the defeat. “God willing, we will make them happy in the coming period.
“All of these players will fight for a place in the senior team,” he added. “All of them are good enough to play with the seniors, and I’m looking forward to what’s next.
“I am happy with the time that I’ve spent with this wonderful group of players.”
Heads held high for Zambia
Zambia’s women, widely ridiculed for being annihilated 10-3 by the Netherlands in their tournament opener, were firm outsiders heading into the tournament – 104th in the Fifa world rankings – and still managed an admirable draw with China and a narrow defeat by Brazil.
Superstar forward Barbra Banda was introduced to a broader audience after breaking the record for consecutive hat-tricks in the women’s event in the Games’ history, while she also equalled the record set by Christine Sinclair for goals scored in a single edition of the tournament (six).
Zambia deserve immense admiration for the courage and adventure they demonstrated on their maiden appearance at a major tournament, even if their defensive failings will perhaps live longest in the memory.
There were mitigating circumstances behind South Africa’s group stage exit – not least a swathe of coronavirus cases within the camp on the eve of the Games — and despite a lack of adequate preparation, they were still competitive in narrow defeats by Japan and France.
The 4-3 defeat by Les Tricolores was one of the matches of the tournament, and while Amaglug-glug capitalised on France’s limitations at the back, they were utterly undone by an Andre-Pierre Gignac-inspired forward line.
It’s to their credit that they were still alive in the tournament heading into their final match — a 3-0 defeat by Mexico — but were ultimately unable to impose themselves with the regularity required to progress.
There were bright moments for each of Africa’s quartet in Japan; collectively, they overachieved, although each will have reasons to regret the opportunities that passed them by.
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