“I’m happy because it’s something we’ve all worked towards, though it’s only normal we should qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations,” legendary Egypt goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary told FIFA.com, reacting to his country’s qualification for next year’s continental finals, which comes after failed attempts to reach the previous three. He added: “The whole country is right to celebrate, but to me there’s nothing extraordinary about it.
“Egypt has a long history in this competition. We’ve won it seven times, three of them in a row, which is something nobody else has ever done. Us being there is going to add interest to the competition, and I am certain that football fans in Egypt, the Arab world and Africa are delighted to see us back.”
Way out in front in Group G of the qualifying competition, Egypt sealed their place at Gabon 2017 with a game to spare after seeing off Tanzania 2-0 in Dar es Salaam. Absent from the starting line-up for two years, El-Hadary made his return in the Tanzanian capital and wore the captain’s armband. He marked the occasion by pulling off a string of fine saves and tipping a Mbwana Samatta penalty kick over the bar.
“It wasn’t an ordinary game for me,” said the veteran keeper. “I’ve been with the team for the last few matches but I didn’t play. In the build-up to this game, I felt I had a very good chance of playing, and I was so happy when coach Hector Cuper named me in the XI. I said to myself that the moment I’d been waiting for had finally arrived. I’ve always trained hard, but on getting back into the team I became aware of the responsibility that was on my shoulders. I was ready to do anything to ensure we qualified.”
Warming to his theme, he said: “I felt confident and I tried to keep a clean sheet. I think we’ve performed well in every game and we deserve to qualify. All the players were focused on the same objective: to put Egyptian football back where it belongs.”
Not the type of player to take all the credit, he added: “This successful campaign has all been down to teamwork, to the support of the Egypt fans and the Egyptian FA, the tireless work of the coaching staff and Cuper, and to the players, who’ve been very motivated.”
El-Hadary’s return to the starting line-up did not go unnoticed in Egypt. Having worn the national team jersey for two decades, he has earned universal respect off the pitch. “As the captain of the team, my job involves more than just playing. I have to talk to the players and motivate them. During the course of the qualifiers, I’ve seen how determined they’ve been to give their all for Egypt. I want to thank them and tell them that if we keep showing that kind of spirit, then good things will come our way in the future.”
The winner of no fewer than 37 trophies in his club and international career, the 43-year-old El-Hadary still harbours hopes of playing at the FIFA World Cup™: “I’m proud of my long career but playing in the World Cup is something special for any player. There is no limit to my ambition and I have always been determined to achieve that objective.
“In the next few days we’ll find out who we’ll be facing in the qualifiers. Whoever we’re up against, we’ll be going all out to win and to top the group. We know the qualification competition will be long and tough because there are no minnows in Africa any more. We need to keep on fighting and showing the same determination. That’ll help us achieve our objective.”
In running out against Tanzania, El-Hadary became the second oldest African player to take part in an international match, a record he could make his own in a few months’ time. And should Egypt make it to Russia 2018 and El-Hadary is still in the national team set-up, he will become, at the age of 45 years and five months, the oldest player ever to appear in the World Cup.
The Pharaohs keeper is anything but concerned about the passage of time, however, as he explained: “As far as I’m concerned, your age is just a number. I’ve got rule a that I’ve stuck to for many years: train as hard as you can. I am a professional footballer and as long as I’m able to make a contribution, I’ll be doing all I can to stay at the top.”
Confederations Cup memories
18 June is a special day in the Egyptian football calendar. It was seven years ago today, in their second group match of the FIFA Confederations Cup South Africa 2009, that El-Hadary and his national team colleagues secured a 1-0 win over the then reigning world champions Italy at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium. Egypt had lost their opening game 4-3 to Brazil, while the Italians had beaten USA 3-1.
“How could I forget a game like that?” he recalled. “It was a match that has gone down in our history. We didn’t deserve to lose to Brazil and we were more determined than ever to put in a heroic performance against Italy and to show the true face of Egyptian football. Beating the world champions felt so special. I kept my kit and my gloves as souvenirs of that game.”
Though the Italians had 19 goal attempts in that match, seven of them on target, the legendary custodian managed to keep them at bay. “I can remember every save I made. I was up against two great strikers and I haven’t forgotten who was in the opposing goal that day (Gianluigi Buffon). Every time I stopped them from scoring, I saw this look of disbelief on their faces. Another thing I won’t forget is the singing of the Egyptian, Arab and South African fans.”
The legend of El-Hadary grows with every passing day. Aside from his exploits with Egypt, he is still very much on duty with his club side Wadi Degla, with whom he is hoping to reach the CAF Confederation Cup this year and challenge for the Egyptian title next season. Whatever happens in those competitions, Essam El-Hadary will remain an iconic figure in Egyptian football.