As featured on Guardian Sport
THE BUSY INTERSECTION OF 25TH AVENUE AND STEINWAY STREET was completely shut down due to the mass of people chanting, singing, cheering and screaming. Flags were waving high above the crowds as the police simply sat by and watched. This wasn’t a riot, though; it was a party. Egypt had just qualified for their first World Cup since 1990 and in Astoria, New York, also known as Little Egypt, that was cause for celebration – you didn’t have to look far to find it.
It’s always something special when a nation returns to the most prestigious sporting competition in the world after a long leave of absence. It unifies not just those at home in that particular country, but everyone around the globe with roots there too. People come together, like they did on 8 October 2017, when Mohamed Salah sealed Egypt’s 2-1 win over Congo with his coolly-taken penalty kick in stoppage time.
Egypt have spent the last 27 years looking to return to the World Cup, but it hasn’t been for a lack of talent. They have, after all, won the Africa Cup of Nations four times since their previous World Cup appearance. Their absence from the tournament was instead largely tied to the political upheaval plaguing the nation itself. Consecutive domestic seasons were cancelled between 2011 and 2013 following the Port Said Stadium disaster, and the 2013 coup d’état didn’t help settle things down.
Despite being the most successful team in its history, the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations was the first time Egypt had even qualified for the competition since the Arab Spring of 2011, the cause of the loss of domestic football in Egypt. It’s hard to hold together something as seemingly insignificant as a sport when the nation itself is crumbling.
Through it all, through the disasters and the AFCON titles of the past two decades and then some, there have been so few constants with the national team. Coaches have come and gone, seasons have come and gone, competitions have been won, lost or not entered at all, while the country itself has struggled to even grant enough stability where football can be enjoyed. But no matter what comes to pass, there has always been one man standing there, gloves on, ready for the next challenge, the next chapter. And that man is 44-year-old goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary.
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El-Hadary has seen Egypt from its blossoming in the mid-to-late 1990s and early 2000s, and he saw them through the turmoil that derailed their international prospects just a decade later. He was there with the team, from his days as a prospect to his days as a starter, as they won four AFCON titles, and he was there when they returned to the forefront of African football with the 2014 World Cup in the rearview mirror. Politics be damned, El-Hadary was not going to let anything take him away from this sport.
The ‘keeper has been outspoken about what he still wants out of his footballing career, which has surpassed 150 career international appearances, and why he has stuck with the team and his nation through the good times and the bad. “I won 37 trophies and I enjoyed some remarkable moments. The only thing missing for me is a World Cup appearance,” he said. Indeed it has been a remarkably successful career, as he has four Africa Cup of Nations to his name dating back to his international debut in 1996.
But it’s unlikely that any of this was on his mind when he came out onto the pitch in front of 90,000 tense fans at Borg El-Arab Stadium just outside Alexandria on 8 October. All that mattered was checking that final item off his to-do list. Congo was the only thing standing in the way of him and his dream. With that thrilling 2-1 victory, it’s all just a matter of time now. He has his ticket, he’s got a spot, now all he has to do is remind the nation why he should be their first-choice ‘keeper. He’s already had a head start on doing just that.
When he takes the pitch for Egypt in the 2018 World Cup, El-Hadary will become the oldest player to feature in the competition. But for him, his age doesn’t matter so much as the fact that he will simply be playing in the actual World Cup.
What makes El-Hadary so special is that he isn’t just a relic that the team brings along for sentimentality’s sake. He isn’t some sort of veteran presence that only exists in the locker room but is far past his years on the pitch. He isn’t waiting to retire after he makes a 30-second cameo just so he can set the record as the oldest player to feature in a World Cup fixture. None of that is Essam El-Hadary. He is a bona fide national treasure, and a major piece of the Egyptian national set-up who has been going toe-to-toe with the other two international keepers, both of whom are younger than him. Obviously, he has been winning.
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El-Hadary’s extensive successes with the Egyptian national team stretch back to 1998, when he was a squad member of the Egypt team that would go on to win the Cup of Nations. He found himself sat in a similar position in 2000. But that would be the last of this sitting business; El-Hadary was here to play, and that he did.
The Egyptian ‘keeper rose to prominence as he claimed the starting role, and was between the posts when Egypt returned to the AFCON in 2002. It was his first major competition as a starter, and El-Hadary took Egypt to a respectable bow-out in the quarter-finals, where they lost to the soon-to-be-champions, Cameroon.
He was in the exact same position when they returned in 2006, and it was in this year that El-Hadary finally earned himself a winners medal by doing much more than watching his nation succeed from the sidelines. Keeping the trend going, El-Hadary returned in 2010 and – surprise, surprise – Egypt won it again. The 2010 World Cup seemed to be right in the wheelhouse of this budding Egyptian team, but after making it to the third round and finding themselves tied for points in their group with Algeria, they agonizingly lost 1-0 in a one-match playoff.
Unfortunately for this Egyptian team, that would be the last glance they’d have at the World Cup dream for over half a decade. The Arab Spring then took football away from a nation and a ‘keeper who had so much to look forward to. The 2012, 2013 and 2015 Africa Cup of Nations were devoid of the growing football presence that El-Hadary was the anchor of, and sandwiched in the middle, the 2014 World Cup would pass them by as well.
As El-Hadary eclipsed his 40th birthday in 2013, few would have thought that he would work his way back to the international spectrum, let alone make himself relevant enough to make a serious charge at his World Cup dream, but that is exactly what he did. With so much time in between, El-Hadary essentially had to start again. As is the case with any international side, you don’t get into the starting line-up by chance. You have to work to get there – and work Essam El Hadary did.
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He was given his window of opportunity when he was called up as the back-up ‘keeper in 2016 after making just five appearances in the previous three years combined. Gradually, through his undying determination, he won back the starting role yet again at the age of 43 and served as the starter in two crucial World Cup qualifiers in October and November 2016, against Congo and Ghana – both of which Egypt won, and which provided key points towards that ultimate goal.
The return of the El-Hadary heroics didn’t end there. The veteran was primed and ready for the 2017 AFCON and there would be no keeping him out of the starting line-up, despite him becoming the oldest player to feature in the competition just two days after his 44th birthday. Going into the tournament, he had not surrendered a goal in the Cup of Nations since 2010. That run would continue through the group stages, through the quarter-finals and into the semi-final, where a 73rd-minute strike by Aristide Bance ended the 653 scoreless minutes that El-Hadary had carried with him over the past seven years of AFCON play.
There was no time for El-Hadary to mourn the end of his streak, however, because the game went to penalties and after Egypt missed their first, the 44-year-old would have to either rely on Burkina Faso to make a mistake or he would have to make a save. Never one to observe, El-Hadry did what was asked of him, stonewalling the final penalty and sending Egypt to the finals.
While they would ultimately lose to Cameroon in the final, El-Hadary always has bigger fish to fry, and the grill will be fired up when he lands in Russia in the summer of 2018, ready to not just break a record or two for his age, but to accomplish a lifelong dream.