Essam El-Hadary is truly one of a kind. At the age of 44, he is the oldest ever player to have graced the African Cup of Nations. On Sunday, he can become the first ever player to win the tournament five times, as Egypt face Cameroon in the final.
However, his dream is even bigger – the legendary goalkeeper aspires to play at the World Cup when he is 45. He has been talking about it for a while, and you will be very unwise not to take him seriously.
El-Hadary has always managed to reach unthinkable heights against all odds. After all, few expected him to play in Gabon this winter, but he is about to become a national hero once again.
One of the most amazing aspects of El-Hadary’s incredible career is that despite having won 152 international caps he can arguably be considered a late bloomer.
He joined Al Ahly at 23, back in 1996, and made his debut for Egypt during the same year, but wasn’t a starter. Zamalek’s Nader El-Sayed was considered a much more talented and stable keeper, and since both were of the same age, El-Hadary’s chances of having a successful international career looked pretty slim.
He was on the bench when the Pharaohs won the African Cup of Nations in 1998, and looked destined for the same fate for a long time thereafter.
The turnaround occured in 2001, when Al Ahly hosted Real Madrid in a big friendly in Cairo. Los Blancos fielded their best team, but ended up losing 1-0 as El-Hadary produced a sensational performance.
He was 28 already at the time, and it is amazing to think that Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo are only a few months older than him, while Roberto Carlos and Claude Makelele are younger than the Egyptian legend, not to mention Raul and Michel Salgado.
Iker Casillas was just 20 those days, and he was hugely impressed by El-Hadary’s skills while watching him from the bench. The man who went on to become one of the greatest goalkeepers in history acknowldeged that El-Hadary became his role model, and he specifically studied his technique.
El-Hadary first played in the African Cup of Nations in 2002, but became undisputed “number one” only after El-Sayed retired in 2005.
In 2006, he won his first international trophy for his country, and that was a very emotional occasion because the tournament took place on home soil. Ivory Coast were considered favourites, but Egypt kept Didier Drogba and his teammates at bay in 120 scoreless minutes in the final.
El-Hadary then proceeded to stop the Chelsea striker’s effort in the penalty shoot-out on the way to a famous win. “He is the toughest keeper I have ever played against,” Drogba claimed.
That triumph was the final accord of Hossam Hassan’s Egypt international career, as the country’s all-time top scorer retired at the age of 39.
El-Hadary is just six years younger, but for him – quite incredibly – it was only the beginning.
Two years later, he led the Pharaohs to another African title. This time, Drogba’s Ivory Coast were thrashed 4-1 in the semis, while Samuel Eto’o’s Cameroon were left empty-handed in the final. El-Hadary kept a clean sheet again in the 1-0 win.
Another two years passed, and Egypt won their third championship crown in a row. El-Hadary, imperious as ever, was especially brilliant in the final, when Ghana were beaten 1-0. Overall, the goalkeeper has played 300 minutes in African Cup of Nations finals, and he is yet to concede a single goal. That is an incredible record that is very unlikely to be matched, but can be extended on Sunday.
The very fact that El-Hadary got the chance to shine on the big stage again is remarkable, because he was 37 back in 2010. Egypt failed to qualify for three continental tournaments in a row thereafter, and any other goalkeeper would be expected to have retired since.
Not El-Hadary though, who kept changing teams and going strong at club level. Even after he was discarded by the national team in 2014, he never lost hope and did everything in his power to get back into the frame.
Hector Cuper, the Argentinian coach who took over at Egypt in 2015, didn’t include the veteran in his plans for over a year, but eventually had to change his mind.
By March 2016, El-Hadary was back in the squad. In June, he was on the field in the 2-0 win over Tanzania.
“Essam wasn’t on our shortlist, but his form for Wadi Degla forced us to call him,” goalkeeping coach Ahmed Nagy said.
It is surreal to even mention that El-Hadary’s coach at Wadi Degla these days is Mido, the hugely controversial former Ajax and Tottenham striker, who is more than a decade younger than his goalkeeper. Mido was a rather undisciplined footballer himself, but now he praises the veteran for his professionalism.
“He is the first to start the training and the last to finish it,” he reveals.
With such an attitude, it is a bit easier to understand why El-Hadary claims that he still feels like a 20-year-old. Age doesn’t matter at all, but experience does.
That is why he is so important in the dressing room for Egypt now, telling younger players about past wins in 1998, 2006, 2008 and 2010.
Cuper didn’t intend to do the legend any favours, and Zamalek’s Ahmed El-Shenawy was the preferred started at the current tournament.
And yet, El-Hadary’s story was always part of the script. Just 25 minutes into the first game against Mali, El-Shenawy got injured, and the 44-year-old took his place.
He duly excelled and kept a clean sheet in a 0-0 draw, and then did likewise in the wins over Uganda, Ghana and Morocco. Even Casillas applauded his big idol.
Toca levantarse y aplaudir...👏🏼 https://t.co/ixYeMG5Z8I— Iker Casillas (@IkerCasillas) January 27, 2017
When he was finally beaten by Burkina Faso’s Aristide Bance’s in the semi-finals, El-Hadary’s incredible run in the African Cup of Nations stood at 681 minutes without conceding a goal, taking into account the games in 2010.
He dreamt of keeping clean sheets throughout the entire 2017 tournament and was very disappointed when the ball went in, especially because it meant that Egypt missed out on a win and had to settle for a 1-1 draw.
That was a blessing in disguise, though, because El-Hadary went on to become the hero in the penalty shoot-out. With Egypt trailing, he stopped the fourth Burkinese shot, taken by the 20-year-old keeper Kouakou Koffi, who wasn’t even born when El-Hadary made his debut for Egypt.
He then proceeded to block Chelsea’s Bertrand Traore’s effort as well, and celebrated wildly as Egypt qualified for the final.
On Sunday, Egypt will be hot favourites against Cameroon, and El-Hadary can become the oldest ever winner. By doing so, Egypt would book a place at the Confederations Cup in Russia this summer, but El-Hadary truly believes that he should return there a year later and play in the World Cup.
Thanks to his efforts, especially in the 2-0 win over Ghana, Egypt are very well positioned to qualify for their first World Cup since 1990, and he intends to be there at 45.
How can anyone say that he doesn’t deserve it?