Olympics postponed: How will 2021 date affect Africa's football qualifiers?

On Tuesday, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) confirmed the painful but inevitable decision to postpone the 2020 Olympic Games in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

The event will now take place in the first half of 2021, although it remains to be seen how the men's and women's football tournaments will integrate with the rest of the game's calendar once regular competition resumes.

The revised scheduling will affect the various competing athletes to varying degrees, but it certainly changes the complexion for the football competition given its age-restriction on eligible competitors.

Olympic football restricts squads to under-23 players -- with three overage exceptions allowed in each squad -- meaning that players had to have been born on or after Jan. 1 1997 in order to play at the 2020 event as originally scheduled.

It's a rule that Australia coach Graham Arnold has called upon FIFA and the IOC to change, in order not to deny any player the chance of becoming an Olympian.

Arnold has been talking to Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) president John Coates about adjusting the age limit since the call was made to shift the Games. It's a view shared by AOC chief executive Matt Carroll and Football Federation Australian chief executive James Johnson, who will "open up discussions" with FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation.

If their pleas are ignored, and if the IOC is to limit the newly rescheduled tournament to include only under-23 players, then the cut-off date will change and players born in the early part of 1997 will become ineligible.

Already, this would rule out several key players from the three African squads -- Egypt, South Africa and Ivory Coast -- that qualified for the Olympics by finishing in the final three at the 2019 Under-23 Africa Cup of Nations.

Sobhi's redemption tale

One player who will be affected is Al-Ahly winger Ramadan Sobhi.

The 23-year-old Egyptian was named Player of the Tournament at the Under-23 AFCON on home soil, in one of African football's most heart-warming stories of 2019.

The dribbling sensation burst onto the scene at Al-Ahly as a 16-year-old in the 2013-14 season, but lost his way after moving to Stoke City in 2016.

A move to Huddersfield Town on loan represented another false dawn, and Sobhi returned to Ahly in early 2019 with his tail between his legs, a shadow of the vibrant player who had departed two-and-a-half years earlier.

Sobhi's decline ultimately led to him being overlooked for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations on home soil, but he rebounded in style as captain for the under-23 event four months later -- at times showcasing the technical prowess that had made him such an unplayable talent during his early years in Cairo.

The privilege of captaining Egypt at the Olympics, and completing this redemption tale, will now be denied Sobhi -- born Jan. 23 1997 -- unless he's selected as one of the Pharaohs' three over-aged players.

Egyptian defender Ahmed Ramadan, born May 23 1997, is another player who may be affected, and South Africa and Ivory Coast could also be denied key components of their under-23 squads.

Malepe may be denied second Olympic showing?

Ivory Coast defender Kouadio-Yves Dabila, currently on loan at Cercle Brugge from LOSC Lille, was born on the existing cut-off date and may only be able to travel as an overage player, while South Africa Under-23 captain Tercious Malepe, born Feb. 18 1997, is another who may miss out unless the rules are altered.

Malepe represented South Africa at the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil, but he was set to miss the Under-23 Afcon after his club side, Chippa United, refused to release him.

But the Limpopo-born defender picked up a suspension picked up a suspension ahead of the competition, ruling him out of domestic action and freeing him up to travel to Egypt, where he led Amaglug-glug to third place and the Olympics.

"Obviously we're disappointed with what's happened, with the postponement of the Olympics," South Africa and Ajax Cape Town defender Kegan Johannes told ESPN.

"But there's nothing we could do to prevent this. It was not in our control at all. I think they will be fair and give this year's boys another chance."

There are great expectations of David Notoane's South Africa, who are being tipped as a potential 'Golden Generation', but they will already lose the momentum generated in late 2019 and it will be a bitter shame if 22-year-old Malepe was 'aged out' of the competition as well.

Johannes was unequivocal about the importance of having the Orlando Pirates loanee and some of the squad's older players with the team.

"[Having] him and more experienced players around you is always good for any footballer's development," he said.

Kazier Chiefs defender Siyabona Ngezana also called on the authorities to do the right thing.

"Some of us are at risk because next year we won't qualify to play at the event because [we'll be] overage," he told ESPN. "I wish that they come up with some rules for those players [affected]."

Good timing for Kouame

By contrast, Ivorian attacker Christian Kouame will benefit from the Olympic date switch.

The striker headed to Egypt as one of the most accomplished players in the tournament -- having already struck nine goals for Genoa in Serie A -- but disaster struck in North Africa.

The 21-year-old damaged his anterior cruciate ligament in the Elephants' second group game, and returned to Italy for treatment.

He left Genoa for Fiorentina for an initial €10 million in January, and is yet to return to action as he continues his rehabilitation.

The postponement of the Olympics, however, potentially gives the explosive forward the opportunity to lead the line for the Elephants in Tokyo, and he has the quality to transform the West Africans' prospects at their second Olympics.

Where does this leave Salah?

One of the fascinating subplots heading into the Olympics was Mohamed Salah's mooted participation as an overage player for Egypt, with the nation's federation outlining their desire to take the Liverpool superstar to Tokyo.

"Salah is one of the top three players in the world and any team hopes to have a player of his capabilities and skills in the squad," Egypt Under-23 head coach Shawky Gharib said in February.

"I have chosen Salah in an expanded list of 50 players to select 18 players heading to Tokyo."

Surprisingly, considering Salah has played in an international competition in every year since 2016, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp didn't dismiss the idea out of hand.

"Do I want to lose a player in pre-season? Of course not. That's clear," he said, as per BBC Sport.

"But we have to consider different things. I'll speak with Mo and all that stuff."

The disruption to the 2019-20 season, and the subsequent knock-on effect that the coronavirus pandemic will have on fixtures in 2021, significantly reduces the possibility of Salah being able to compete for Egypt.

The IOC outlined on Tuesday that the Olympics would be completed next year before the northern summer, by which point both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons will have to be wrapped up in order to accommodate the rescheduled European Championship finals.

The 2021 Africa Cup of Nations -- currently planned for January and February next year -- will also limit Salah's availability, and the small chance that Liverpool would release him to Tokyo has surely now been extinguished.