EgyptCoach: Roberto Garcia Parrondo
Egyptian men’s handball and Ahmed Elahmar have been inseparable ever since the right back made his full senior debut well over 300 games ago.
1,500 goals later, the captain of ‘The Pharaohs’ has one last national team engagement after announcing his international retirement back in April – the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
And it could provide an opportunity to go out on top with an Egypt team who find themselves once again on the edge of the global elite, having finished seventh at the 2021 IHF Men’s World Championship and following their gold medal at the 2019 IHF Men’s Youth World Championship in North Macedonia and bronze at the junior edition in Spain the same year.
It was the same in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The Egyptian men’s senior side finished in the top seven at four consecutive IHF Men’s World Championships – including fourth place at the 2001 edition – and grabbed sixth and seventh at the 1996 and 2000 Olympic Games respectively. In 1999 the junior team also won world championship bronze.
Former captain Hussein Zaky, who appeared at the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games with Egypt has described Elahmar – who was the flag-bearer for Egypt at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio – as the “Lionel Messi of Egyptian handball” in recognition of the Argentinian football superstar and he will be coach Roberto Garcia Parrondo’s lieutenant on court in Tokyo as they prepare to face Portugal in their opening game, followed by their other group B opponents, Denmark, Japan, Sweden and Bahrain.
Sweden are not unknown in recent Olympic history, with Egypt shocking the Swedes in the Rio 2016 group stage, coming from 12:13 behind at half-time to win 26:25, but a one-goal loss (26:27) to Slovenia in their first game and a 27:27 draw with the hosts ultimately saw the North African side miss out on the quarter-finals. That Sweden victory remains their sole win since Sydney 2000 after failing to win any at Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 and not qualifying for 2012.
The two northern European sides in their Tokyo 2020 group highlight the recent quality of Egypt on the world stage with two one-goal losses against the 2021 IHF Men’s World Championship finalists, Sweden and Denmark.
A 23:24 loss against Sweden in the preliminary round could – should – have been a win with the host nation 12:9 up against the Swedes at the break, and then having a chance to equalise in the last seconds having lost their lead, while the quarter-final against eventual champions Denmark was one of the classic world championship matches in the modern-day game with the Danes winning only after penalty shots, 39:38.
Despite their best ranking in 20 years, a medal was potentially in their grasp and that pain of missing out will be etched in the minds of 37-year-old Elahmar, Parrondo and the rest of the squad in Tokyo.
To prepare for Tokyo 2020, Parrondo first gathered the non-professional players in Hurghada from 18-31 May, then added more at a camp in Cairo from 5 June. A squad of around 20 players then travelled to Spain on 27 June where they defeated Croatia 31:28, before losing 29:30 to the hosts in a close match.
From 2-8 July they were scheduled to be in France, including a friendly against the hosts on 5 July, before moving to Germany on 9 July to play fellow Tokyo 2020 side Brazil (10 July) and the home nation (12 July). They return to Cairo on 12 July for their final preparations before heading out to Asia.
Parrondo has minimised his team down to around 20 for the 15 positions allowed for the Games, and it includes the recognisable left back Ali Zein, rapidly approaching his 300th senior game for his nation and who completed a transfer to European champions Barça in early July, a move the 31-year-old described as a “dream”.
Another member of the 30+ club is Al Ahly’s line player Ibrahim Elmasry, with the 32-year-old joined by the Romanian-based pair of 33-year-old goalkeeper Karim Hendawy and 32-year-old line player Mohamed Mamdouh (30 goals at Egypt 2021).
But there is abundant youth too for Parrondo to choose from, not least the sensational Telekom Veszprém HC right back Yahia Omar (23 years old) – scorer of 33 goals at Egypt 2021 – who is joined by Zamalek’s North Macedonia 2019 top-scorer and All-star left back, Hassan Walid Kaddah (21), USAM Nimes Gard centre back and North Macedonia 2019 MVP Ahmed Hesham (21), Zamalek centre back and Spain 2019 gold medallist, Seif Elderaa (22) and 22-year-old Al Ahly right back Mohsen Ramadan.
While all of the youngsters are all unlikely to be chosen, Parrondo – who won the EHF Champions League with HC Vardar 1961 back in 2018/19 – knows a mix of youth and experience will be needed as he prepares to face the tough opposition.
“Only 12 teams can qualify for the Olympic Games and all of them have shown great performances during the last few years in all the tournaments they played in,” he said to ihf.info. “Even before the draw it was impossible to decide which teams it would be better to play against, but I’m satisfied with the draw [anyway] because everybody can now say that Egypt will participate in the Olympic Games.
“Our group has the first and second teams from the last world championship – Denmark and Sweden – plus we will also play against Portugal, who qualified instead of Croatia. Bahrain have been in all the big tournaments during the last years and the remaining team, Japan, are the hosts and will have the home support. I expect five very tough matches in the preliminary group and we will all do our best to demonstrate that Egypt can compete against all the teams in the world.”
With Elahmar stating “we accept the challenge – sure we can” and Zein exclaiming that “the Pharaohs are ready to write history” immediately after the draw was completed, it will be exciting to see if the almost exclusive European grip on Olympic men’s handball medals can be broken for only the second time in history, following the Republic of Korea silver in 1988 in Seoul – the only medal out of the 39 gold, silver and bronze medals won in the history of the Games.
Egypt qualified for Tokyo 2020 after winning the 2020 CAHB Men’s African Championship, beating host nation Tunisia in the final at the beginning of last year.
Elderaa, Omar, Zein and right wing Mohammed Sanad were all named in the 2020 CAHB Men’s African Championship All-star Team highlighting the dominance their side has on continental soil in the perennial battle with Tunisia and Algeria.
However, a medal on the global senior stage continues to evade them. Could Tokyo 2020 prove to be the first time?
Key players: Yehia Elderaa (left/centre back), Yahia Omar (right back), Ahmed Elahmar (right back), Ali Zein (left back), Karim Hendawy (goalkeeper), Hassan Walid Kaddah (left back), Mohamed Eltayar (goalkeeper)
Qualification for Tokyo 2020: 2020 CAHB Men’s African Championship – 1st place
History in Olympic Games: 1992: 11th, 1996: 6th, 2000: 7th, 2004: 12th, 2008: 10th, 2016: 9th
Group at Tokyo 2020: Group B (Bahrain, Egypt, Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Japan)