CARDIFF, Wales – For the Egyptian men's soccer team, the Olympic tournament is more than an attempt to win a gold medal. It will be about trying to restore pride in the sport despite political unrest back home and the killing of more than 70 fans in a stadium riot.
The team is hoping a good performance at the London Games will help give Egyptians reason to celebrate again and show that soccer in the country is still vital. Egypt, playing in the Olympics for the first time since 1992, opens against Brazil on Thursday at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales.
Coach Hany Ramzy said Tuesday the players want to "send a message to the world" and show they still have pride in playing for the country.
"We have to show that despite the problems in our country we are still proud to play for Egypt," he said. "We have to show that football in Egypt is still alive. Hopefully in the end we can show that we still have the sport of football in our country."
Captain Mohamed Aboutrika said the setbacks have given him and his teammates extra motivation.
"The country needs something to smile about," Aboutrika said through a translator. "We have a great team with a lot of motivation and I think we will have a great participation in these games."
Aboutrika was one of the players involved in the deadly match between Cairo powerhouse al-Ahly and al-Masry at the Mediterranean city of Port Said in February. Fans stormed the field spurred by the political revolution that forced the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. Clashes led to dozens of deaths and about one thousand injuries.
"Obviously what happened in Port Said was tragic, but everyone needs some kind of motivation," he said. "We can take the negatives and turn them into something positive. That gave me a push to make something happen for the people who died there. It pushed me and other people to work harder."
He added: "We've been through a lot in Egypt recently, but every player is proud to be in the team and to be here in the Olympics," he said. "Egypt at the moment needs something to celebrate."
The fan violence led to the cancellation of the national league, causing even more problems for coach Ramzy in trying to put together his team for the Olympics. He is upbeat, however, and counting on a promising new generation of players.
"Everybody has been waiting to see this good generation representing Egypt," he said. "Not only for the Olympics but also for the World Cup 2014 in Brazil."
A good outing at the Olympics could also help the fans forget the team's recent failure to qualify for the 2012 and 2013 African Cup, a competition it had won three straight times.
"The result in the Africa Cup of Nations was particularly bad," Aboutrika said. "But the Olympics for us is a second chance to make ourselves proud."
Egypt's senior national team is coached by former U.S. coach Bob Bradley. The Olympic soccer tournament is played by under-23 squads but each nation can use three overage players.
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