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September 24, 2017

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African clubs draw on recent success

JOHANNESBURG -- Egypt, Gabon, Morocco and Senegal can draw strength from African soccer achievements at recent Olympics when they set off this month in search of medals.

Nigeria won gold and silver, Cameroon gold and Ghana bronze since the soccer tournament was revamped ahead of the 1992 Barcelona Games with three over-age players allowed in under-23 squads.

The make-up of the African quartet is a surprise with no Nigeria, Cameroon or Ghana, who were eliminated during a lengthy elimination process that included three knockout rounds and an inaugural eight-nation CAF championship.

Gabon emerged shock winners of the first African under-23 tournament and runners-up Morocco and third-place Egypt also gained automatic entry to the Olympics.

Senegal came fourth and had to overcome Oman 2-0 in a Coventry playoff to seal their place with substitute Abdoulaye Sane scoring a late second goal after Ibrahima Balde had given the West Africans the lead after just 90 seconds.

With foreign-based soccer players who were unavailable for qualifiers now eligible as only over-age stars need permission from clubs to compete, some of the African squads have been overhauled.

France-based Sane only made the list of four stand-by players and did not win promotion when Danish club FC Copenhagen refused to release over-age striker Dame Ndoye.

Senegal appear long shots to reach the quarterfinals having been drawn in Group A with Ryan Giggs-captained hosts Great Britain, a Uruguay squad including star strikers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani and the United Arab Emirates.

After hopes of including Newcastle United goal poachers Papiss Cisse and Demba Ba were dashed, coach Karim Diouf opted for new West Ham United midfield signing Mohamed Diame as one of his over-age trio.

Egypt are back at the Olympics after a 20-year absence and tackle tournament co-favorites Brazil, Belarus and New Zealand in Group C with a squad led by 33-year-old national team midfield star Mohamed Aboutrika.

Defender Ahmed Fathy and striker Emad Meteab are the other "seniors" among the Baby Pharaohs and coach Hani Ramzy knows all about big tournaments having played for his country as a centre-back at the 1990 World Cup in Italy.

"We are not going there just to do well," warned Ramzy, whose preparations have been hampered by a domestic soccer ban since 74 spectators died on Feb. 1 during post-match Port Said rioting.

While Egypt have chosen only locals and Gabon have included 10 domestic stars, Dutch coach Pim Verbeek chose only three in a Morocco squad that includes senior team captain Houssine Kharja for Group D clashes with Spain, Japan and Honduras.

The presence of the Fiorentina midfielder bolsters an already strong area with Madrid-based Abdelaziz Barrada one of the outstanding players at the CAF under-23 championship.

Former South Korea and Australia handler Verbeek is upbeat despite the absence of injured midfielder Younes Belhanda from French champions Montpellier, saying he is aiming for a medal without specifying the color.

Gabon are the great unknowns ahead of Group B games against Mexico, South Korea and Switzerland. Was the CAF title a flash in the pan or does greater glory lie in store for coach Jean-Claude Mbouronot and his Baby Panthers?

Striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang should catch the eye not only because of his original hairstyles, but also his predatory instincts which made him one of the most dangerous strikers when his country co-hosted the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations.

"Playing attractive, lively and spectacular football at the Olympics will be our aim," says Mbouronot. "A good result for us would be to get past the first round — to be among the last eight."

Although Egypt and Morocco must contend with Brazil and fellow favorites Spain, they appear most likely to survive the three-fixture mini-league phase with Senegal dark horses and Gabon outsiders.

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