At 44 years old, Essam El Hadary’s appetite and passion for the game have not waned. Indeed, the evergreen goalkeeper is currently eyeing history with an Egypt side that is close to making it to the FIFA World Cup™ for the first time in almost three decades.
The Pharaohs lead Group E of the African qualifying campaign for Russia 2018 with nine points from four matches and should they beat Congo at home and second-placed Uganda (seven points) fail to overcome Ghana in October, they will secure a World Cup berth for the first time since 1990 with one qualifier to spare.
At the heart of Egypt’s bid to end a lengthy barren run is El Hadary, an age-defying shot-stopper who has so far enjoyed a glittering career but is still hungry for more success – most notably an elusive World Cup appearance.
“I did almost everything in my footballing career. I won 37 trophies and I enjoyed some remarkable moments such as our win over Italy at the 2009 Confederations Cup. The only thing that is missing for me is a World Cup appearance,” El Hadary, who made his name with Cairo’s famed Al-Ahly but who is now plying his trade in Saudi Arabia with Al-Taawoun, told FIFA.com.
“I’ve always been very determined and persistent to carry on playing; this is my character. During my time at Al Ahly, (current Egypt goalkeeping coach) Ahmed Nagui told me I would stop playing after the age of 50.
“The fact that I still have a chance to play at the World Cup makes me even more motivated to continue playing to realise this dream.”
El Hadary made his debut with Egypt in 1996 when one of the team’s current stars, Stoke City winger Ramadan Sobhi, was not even born.
He remains the preferred choice between the sticks and as reliable as ever, featuring in all of the team’s four World Cup qualifying matches and producing some assured displays, proving that age is just a number.
El Hadary, once described by Côte d’Ivoire and Chelsea great Didier Drogba as his “best opponent”, went to the CAF Africa Cup of Nations early this year as Egypt’s third-choice keeper, only to find himself thrown into the fray in the opening group stage game against Mali when Zamalek’s Ahmed El-Shennawi had to be replaced because of injury and stand-in Sherif Ekramy was not fully fit.
He enjoyed a remarkable campaign, leading Egypt to a place in the final for the first time since they lifted a record-extending seventh trophy in 2010 and setting some records in the process.
The man whose shoot-out heroics in the semi-final victory over Burkina Faso earned him glowing praise became the oldest player in the Nations Cup history when he appeared against Mali, breaking the record of former team-mate Hossam Hassan, Egypt’s all-time leading scorer who was 39 when he took part in the 2006 Nations Cup on home soil.
He also went ten hours and 53 minutes without conceding a goal at the tournament before being finally beaten by Burkina Faso’s Aristide Bance in the semi-final of the 2017 edition.
And should Egypt qualify for the World Cup, El Hadary will become the oldest player ever to appear in football’s most prestigious showpiece.
“The primary objective is to help Egypt reach the World Cup and then any personal achievement will surely come along. The most important thing is to achieve the first objective, which is lifting the national team to the Russia finals,” he said.
“Personal glories come naturally after the biggest target is achieved. I was not the first choice goalie at the Nations Cup but I found myself playing against Mali in the opening match.”
One match at a time
El Hadary believes Egypt should keep their feet on the ground and take it one match at a time to remain fully focused on the task ahead.
Two successive failures at the last hurdle are still fresh in the memory of Egypt’s football-mad fans, with the team losing to Algeria 1-0 in a qualifying play-off in 2009 before suffering an embarrassing 7-3 aggregate defeat by Ghana in a two-legged play-off in 2013.
But looking more defensively-sound under Argentinian manager Hector Cuper, Egypt look more equipped to deal with any threats although they are still criticised for what many deem is an overly cautious approach and a lack of entertaining football.
“In football, you can never rely on your good mathematical chance to advance; it all depends on how determined, persistent and ambitious you are,” El Hadary added.
“I believe the current crop of players boasts all those qualities. We can finish the job in 90 or 180 minutes but we are taking it one match at a time and for now we are focused on beating Congo.
“We only think about Egypt and the World Cup objective, even when we eat or sleep.”