07/23/2012 11:26 EDT | Updated 09/22/2012 05:12 EDT

Egypt football team at Olympics after traumatic year and on slow road to recovery

CAIRO - The revolution in Egypt toppled a president, and essentially brought about the end of a football team.

Distracted by the violence and upheaval that forced the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, the three-time defending African Cup champions failed to even qualify for the 2012 and 2013 continental tournaments. The team struggled so much, it lost qualifying matches to Sierra Leone and even Central African Republic, a country that's never played at a major tournament.

But at the Olympics, where Egypt will play for the first time since 1992, a new generation of players is ready to rebuild their hard-hit sport.

"There's a saying that champions get sick but they never die," said midfielder Hossam Hassan, who is on the Olympic team. "We're a big name and we'll remain a big name."

The under-23 team is at the Olympics despite the unrest at home that also saw the African qualifying competition moved out of Egypt because of safety worries. It was one of many setbacks Egyptian sport has had to deal with since the people turned against Mubarak's regime in early 2011.

But amid the ruins, the Olympic football team claimed one of three automatic places from Africa. Hassan said the surprising success will spur Egypt's full squad on to the World Cup, where it hasn't played since 1990.

"The upcoming period is ours," he said. "Our generation is going to the Olympics after 20 years. We will take us to the World Cup also."

Egypt's senior side is a record seven-time African champion. Yet in the last year, its dominance of African football was wiped away. Former U.S. coach Bob Bradley was brought in to turn it around for the national team, but the under-23 squad competing in London now holds the key.

The Olympic tournament will be the start of a new football era, Egyptians hope, even if their team has to play Brazil in its opening game on Thursday.

It's a hopeful start following a dismal recent run.

After failing to qualify for this year's African Cup, Hassan Shehata, the coach who led the team to three straight continental championships from 2006-10, was fired.

The lowest point came in February when more than 70 fans died in a riot at a league game in the Mediterranean city of Port Said.

Hassan was there, playing in the midfield for the home team, al-Masry, against Cairo giant al-Ahly, when supporters stormed the pitch. Spurred on by the volatile political situation, fans clashed and people died on the field, in the stands and in tunnels and corridors leading out of the stadium.

It shut down all the country's domestic football competitions, which still haven't resumed five months later.

"I didn't really see what happened after the game because I went to the dressing room," Hassan said of the disaster. "But then I watched on TV and I knew about the details. Every single player in Egypt, even those who didn't play, was depressed. It was the worst week for us."

Egyptian footballers are now looking forward to better times, even if the situation at home is still uneasy and many of them haven't played much because of the troubles. Training camps away from home have paid off, though, and they're back at the Olympics for the first time in two decades.

And even though it missed out on next year's African Cup, Bradley is starting to rebuild the national team with the help of the under-23s.

"It's now the Olympic team playing well and showing what they're all about," Bradley said.

Hassan has already broken into the national team, as have under-23 teammates Ahmed Hegazy, Mohamed El Nenny and Mohamed Salah.

And while all the countries will show off their young talent at the Olympics, this tournament likely is more important for Egypt's football future than any of the other 15 teams competing.