Olympics 2021: Ivory Coast, Egypt inspire bounce-back day for African football at Tokyo Games

Africa's fortunes in the Olympic football competition improved starkly on Thursday as the men's tournament began, with all three of the continent's 2021 representatives impressing, just a day after Zambia's women were on the short end of 10-3 defeat to the Netherlands.

Olympic football holds a special place in the heart of continental football fans, with the gold-medal successes of Nigeria in 1996 and Cameroon four years later contrasting with their failure to make their mark on the latter stages of the World Cup.

Ivory Coast, Egypt and South Africa are Africa's three men's representatives at the 2020 Games in Tokyo, but how did each get on as they began their quests for gold on Thursday?

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Ivory Coast

Africa's only winners on Matchday 1 were the Ivory Coast, who dispatched of Saudi Arabia 2-1 in Yokohama to kick off their Group D campaign with all three points.

Considering the presence of Germany and Brazil, the two finalists in 2016, in the Elephants' group, it's a victory that could prove vital as they look to advance. AC Milan's Franck Kessie was the hero -- as he was on so many occasions for the Rossoneri this season -- when he sent a left-footed strike into the bottom corner after being picked out by Manchester United wonderkid Amad Diallo for the winner in the 76th minute.

Saudi centre-back Abdulelah Al-Amri's own goal had given the Elephants a 39th-minute lead, but Salem Al-Dawsari had levelled the contest five minutes later with a delightful curling effort from outside the box. Ivory Coast came under increasing pressure during the latter stages of the contest as the Falcons sought an equaliser, and substitute Aboubacar Doumbia was shown straight red after being involved in a fracas deep into stoppage time.

The Ivorians -- making their first appearance in the tournament since 2008 9j Beijing -- will know that sterner challenges lie ahead, as they face Brazil on Sunday before a showdown with Germany next Wednesday.

Kessie came into the tournament amidst ongoing speculation regarding his future at Milan, and took to social media to celebrate at the final whistle.

"Beautiful victory to get started," he wrote on his Instagram account. "It's the best way to start the Olympic Games."

Positive results in their upcoming fixtures could prove even more beautiful...


Mohamed Salah-less Egypt may consider themselves to be in an even stronger position than the Ivory Coast after their strong start to their Group C campaign, as they held one of the favourites, Spain, to a 0-0 in the first kick-off of the day.

Up against a Spain team that have twice medalled at the Games -- the Pharaohs held their own in Sapporo to take a 0-0 draw that leaves them firmly in the running for the final eight.

The contest was marred by injuries to Spain duo Oscar Mingueza and Real Madrid's Dani Ceballos, but the North Africans held firm to regularly stymie Spanish attacks. Doubtless, the loss of two key players affected Spain's rhythm, but they nonetheless tested the Pharaohs, with Emam Ashour contributing a vital block to deny Mikel Merino in the 48th minute following excellent work from Marco Asensio.

Ahmed Hegazi was also called upon to deny Mikel Oyarzabal early in the second half, although Egypt did threaten themselves -- Taher Mohamed making space late in the first half only to send his effort over the bar.

Ex-West Bromwich Albion defender Hegazi had his heart in his mouth 13 minutes from time after bringing down Juan Miranda on the edge of the box, although the referee waved away Spanish appeals for a penalty and La Roja were ultimately unable to find a way past Mohamed El-Shenawy.

"We improved a lot in the second half of the game, but during the first half we missed a lot of passes," Egypt coach Shawky Gharib told beIN Sports. "After half-time, we made progress going forward.

"We were facing the European champions, they have multiple senior internationals in their team, so a point is a satisfying result," he concluded.

Egypt face another stern test against Argentina - surprising 2-0 losers in their opener against Australia -- on Sunday morning, before meeting the Olyroos in their final group game.

South Africa

Amaglug-glug were handed arguably the best draw of Africa's quartet after being pitted against Japan, Mexico and France in Group A, but now have it all to do after losing their opener 1-0 against the hosts in Tokyo.

Admittedly, Japan only opened the scoring inside the final 20 minutes, when Real Madrid starlet Takefusa Kubo cut in from the right flank to power a fine effort beyond goalkeeper Ronwen Williams and off the post, but this was a one-sided contest in which the Blue Samurai bossed the possession throughout.

While a depleted South Africa largely held firm, frustrating the hosts, they did rely on several last-ditch challenges as Japan increasingly carved out chances. Williams -- the only overage player in a South Africa squad ravaged by COVID-19 withdrawals -- was increasingly heroic to deny Koji Miyoshi with a strong hand after a defensive error, before later thwarting the same player again from close range.

South Africa's defence will once more be tested on Sunday in Saitama against a France side licking their wounds after a 4-1 mauling by Mexico on Thursday, but David Notoane must also find a way to unlock his forwards, as they offered precious little going forward against Japan.

"We lost a few players [with Covid] and the quality of the team was diluted a bit, so we had to mentally pull together as a group," said Notoane in his post-match news conference.

"I said to the players that we had to take the spirit of the African lion into this tournament."

South Africa were only able to name six players on the bench due to absentees, and captain Tercious Malepe believes the coronavirus restrictions placed on the team did affect them against Japan.

"We couldn't go out to train and that limited our preparations," he told assembled journalists. "It wasn't easy just sitting in the room, but overall, I'm happy with the team.

"We responded very well, we were unfortunate to get the result today, but it was very positive."