Egypt keeper Hadary, oldest player in AFCON history, remains as reliable as ever

Omar Zaazou , Monday 16 Jan 2017,
Essam El Hadrey
Egypt's goalkeeper Essam El Hadrey celebrates after his team scored a goal during the Egypt v Ghana 2018 World Cup Qualifying match in Alexandria, Egypt. (Reuters)

Perhaps Essam El-Hadary's never-say-day attitude is what still motivates him to set new targets for himself, 20 years after he made his debut for the Egyptian national team.

The evergreen goalkeeper, who turns 44 this month, is out to break a record at the Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon.

He will be only one short of a record 8 AFCON appearances set by former Egypt teammate Ahmed Hassan and ex-Cameroon defender Rigobert Song and, more importantly, will become the oldest player in the tournament's history should he play.

He is not only expected to play, but could also be coach Hector Cuper's first-choice shot-stopper. He is likely to beat the 2006 record of compatriot Hossam Hassan, who was 39 at the time.

Having been in the doldrums for some time, with Zamalek's Ahmed El-Shennawi and Ahly's Sherif Ekramy ahead of him in the pecking order, Hadary made an impressive comeback to regain his place between the sticks.

He was instrumental in two key victories over Congo and Ghana as Egypt made a superb start to the final phase of the World Cup qualifiers, with Hadary also seeking to become the oldest player in the history of the football's most prestigious showpiece should the Pharaohs make it to the Russia finals for the first time since 1990.

Since making his Egypt debut in 1996, Hadary has continued to feature for Egypt in every AFCON they reached since 1998, only missing out on the 2004 edition in Tunisia.

He also remains one of only two players, alongside veteran right-back Ahmed Fathi, from the golden generation that gave Egypt three consecutive Nations Cup titles in 2006, 2008 and 2010 under ex-boss Hassan Shehata.

Hadary's previous heroics

Back then, Hadary was key in helping Egypt to each of the three straight titles, with his quick reflexes, full-stretch dives and decisions to rush out of goal in time proving crucial on numerous occasions.

The ex-Ahly keeper will always be fondly remembered for his heroics in the penalty shootout win over Ivory Coast in the 2006 final at home soil, notably denying former Marseille and Chelsea star Didier Drogba from 12 yards.

Two years later, Hadary came back to haunt Drogba again in an emphatic 4-1 semi-final win over Ivory Coast in Ghana, with two outstanding saves thwarting the Elephants star who was left to lament a free header and a one-on-one chance.

Similarly, Hadary remained crucial for Egypt in the 2010 Angola finals to help his side to a record-extending seventh title, giving the Egyptians a much-needed boost after failing to qualify for the World Cup in South Africa back then.

Although Egypt failed to make it past the group stage in the Confederations Cup, Hadary's superb shot-stopping skills in a 1-0 victory over then-world champions Italy will always be remembered as his maybe best showing on the international stage.

Hadary managed to frustrate the Italians on no less than three or four occasions in a game that was settled by a Mohamed 'Hommos' header, which could have been easily cancelled out if it was not for the Egypt custodian.

Egypt career all but over

Hadary then went through a turbulent spell in his career that had seen him switch clubs continually, joining Zamalek, Sudan's Merriekh, Ismaily and Wadi Degla in addition to a loan spell at Alexandria's Ittihad in 2013.  

And with the rise of keeper Ahmed El-Shennawi who demonstrated his potential as Egypt's up-and-coming first-choice keeper with some superb displays with the U-20 and U-23 sides, Hadary seemed to be almost done with the national side.

Despite looking in the twilight of his career, Egypt boss Cuper decided to include Hadary in the squad for the World Cup qualifying wins over Congo and Ghana.

The legendary keeper was perfectly up for the occasion, with another excellent performance reminiscent of his peak days away in Congo earning Egypt a 2-1 victory.

"I've never seen a player with El-Hadary's persistence and perseverance before," former Egypt striker Mido, who used to coach the guardian at Ismaily, told BeIN Sports while analyzing the Congo game as a pundit.

"During my days in Ismailia, I used to see El-Hadary wake up early and run around the pitch even an hour before the training session begins."     

Hadary then proved that his stunning performance against Congo was no fluke with another spectacular display in a 1-0 victory against group rivals Ghana, playing big role in keeping a clean sheet.

His commendable displays at such an age prompted ex-Valencia manager Cuper to lavish praise on his keeper, saying that he has never seen a player in his entire life like Hadary.  

"I have not seen a keeper in my entire life as Hadary, even the Colombian Faryd Mondragón who is considered the oldest keeper to represent his side at the World Cup is not to be compared to him," Cuper said in an interview with Arabic website

"Mondragón joined Colombia at the World Cup as they wanted just to honor him, but Hadary is a different case. When I speak to my friends that I have a 44-year-old keeper who is in a great form, they don't believe me!"

Egypt unfazed by dip in form

What even makes Hadary's case with Egypt more spectacular is that his days with the national team dates back to the 1998 Africa Cup of Nations finals, where he remained a substitute to then-number one Nader El-Sayed in Burkina Faso.

Whether Argentinean boss Cuper would continue to rely on him as his first-choice at the AFCON is not certain, with the experienced keeper not quite in his top form with Wadi Degla.      

Four goals conceded in two games against Masry and Enppi did not look as a testament that Hadary still retains the level of performance he showed recently with Egypt, as he requested a 10-day rest from competitive club action to focus on training.

Even so, Egypt assistant manager Osama Nabih seems far from worried with Hadary's dip in form, stressing that the keeper could rely on his vast experience to overcome the current obstacles.

"Hadary's dip in form does not concern us at all. He has the experience needed overcome his current problems," Nabih told dmc satellite channel.       

"He is a phenomenal keeper who has the determination and persistence required to return to top form once again."

Egypt open their campaign against Mali on January 17 before taking on Uganda and Ghana in Group D.

(For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online Sports on Twitter at @AO_Sports and on Facebook at AhramOnlineSports.)

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