Egypt's goalkeeper Essam el-Hadary stops the ball during a training session in Libreville on February 3, 2017 prior the final of the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations football tournament Egypt vs Cameroon on February 5. PHOTO: GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP
Eleven years ago, goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary saved Egypt from what could have been a long night of lamentation, when his goalkeeping prowess rescued the African Nations Cup title for his country. It was the 25th edition of the championship, and the host Egypt, needed El-Hadary’s magic to win the title against a dreaded Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire led by Didier Drogba.
GOWON AKPODONOR, who covered the Egypt 2006 African Nations Cup for The Guardian recalls his encounter with the veteran goalkeeper El-Hadary, particularly his promise of setting a record other African footballers will find difficult to accomplish in years to come.
Goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary was 33 years old when his country hosted the 25th edition of the African Nations Cup in 2006. The Super Eagles of Nigeria was one of the favourites to lift that year’s edition of the championship, considering the caliber of stars in the squad
A team coached by four ex-players, Austin Eguavoen, Dan Amokachi, Samson Siasia and Ike Shoromu, and with a mixture of young and experienced players, including Austin Jay Jay Okocha, Wilson Oruma, Julius Aghahowa, Garba Lawal, Obinna Nsofor, Taye Taiwo, Mikel Obi and goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama, the Eagles were the major talking point for many African football analysts then.
But the music changed on a day Didier Drogba inspired the Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire to beat the Super Eagles 1-0 in the semifinal in Alexandra. The Ivorians suddenly became a major favourite for the title, though some football fans never wrote off the Pharaohs.
So, on the final day in Cairo, the pressure was on Pharaohs to deliver for the home fans led by President Hosni Mubarak. Ninety minutes of the encounter ended goalless and like their semifinal tie against the Stallion of Burkina Faso on Wednesday at Gabon 2017 AFCON, goalkeeper El-Hadary made two great saves in the penalty shootout, including the fist kick by Drogba and third by Bakary Kone to give his country the Nations Cup title.
An elated El-Hadary, who usually celebrates victory on top of the goal post told The Guardian shortly after that final encounter with Cote d’Ivoire that he always feel happy seeing his fellow countrymen celebrate with Egypt’s flag at the end of a football match.
“I hate seeing my people weeping at the end of a football match, particularly when I am involved,” he told The Guardian. “You can imagine how the atmosphere would have be today, if we had lost this title on home soil. Look at our president watching from the VIP stand. Some members of my family and friends are also here watching. I am happy we won this trophy.”
That was eleven years ago.
The veteran goalkeeper, who made his international debut in 1996, was again the saving grace for Egypt on Wednesday, when he made two great saves in a penalty shootout in their semifinal against Burkina Faso to hand the Pharaohs a final ticket in Gabon.
Tomorrow in Libreville, El-Hadary will carry the hope and aspirations of millions of Egyptians football lovers, as they face the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon in the final.
El-Hadary became the Africa Cup of Nations’ oldest player when he came off the bench in Egypt’s first game at Gabon 2017 AFCON. He is 44 now, and shows no sign of slowing down, attributing his longevity to hardwork.
To him, leading the Pharaohs to another final was a gesture of complete satisfaction. El-Hadary has been doing a job between the posts for Egypt for more than 20 years.
Back when the Egyptian keeper won his first Cup of Nations in 1998, Ramadan Sobhi, the Stoke winger, who is the youngest member of the current squad, was just a year old.
In fact, El-Hadary has a daughter the same age as his youngest teammate, but he insists it doesn’t make a difference to how he treats the winger.
“The player who is almost at the same age as my daughter… I treat all my teammates as brothers and I treat him just like a team-mate,’ El-Hadary told Supersport.com before Wednesday’s semifinal victory against Burkina Faso.
“I embrace them all and I am always around them giving advice because this is part of my job as a team captain and friend. I don’t make them feel the gap in the age because I believe this should be normal.”
A win in tomorrow’s final against the Lions of Cameroon would be his fifth continental title, having lifted the trophy in 1998, 2006, 2008 and 2010. At the moment he shares the record of four wins with former teammate, Ahmed Hassan – a fifth would put him out on his own as the most successful ever.
Along the way, El-Hadary has set personal records too. The 10 hours and 53 minutes he went on the pitch between the 25th-minute of the 2010 quarterfinal and Aristide Bance’s equaliser on Wednesday night without conceding a single goal was a remarkable feat.
The 153 caps he has accrued since that first one in 1996 also make him Egypt’s most capped goalkeeper – only Gianluigi Buffon, Iker Casillas and Saudi Arabia’s Mohamed Al-Deayea have played more international games between the sticks.
El-Hadary prefers to punch crosses rather than catch them – which wouldn’t be a problem except that he mostly tends to flap at the ball instead. He collapses at any physical contact, and seems to stay down longer than most. His time-wasting tactics are legendary.
He has concede only once in this tournament, and El-Hadary is one more win from being a record-breaker yet again, but it is wrong to say he is a game away from greatness. He achieved that long ago.