There’s the eccentricity of René Higuita, the undying consistency of Gianluigi Buffon and then there’s Essam El-Hadary, a player who draws a little from both of those descriptions but one entirely in his own box. As he steps down from the Egyptian national team, he does so knowing he has branded his name alongside those of other international goalkeeping legends.
He, at the very least, has an accolade to himself. In Russia this year, the Pharaohs around him collapsed as if struck by the plague but El-Hadary took to the pitch to set a new record: the oldest player to play at the World Cup. He would go on to mark the occasion with a penalty save against Saudi Arabia.
Even between the posts, 45 is an old age to be playing football at a high level. For context, had teammate Mahmoud Abdel-Moneim reportedly not lied to the keeper’s daughter and ruined the engagement, he would have walked onto the pitch as his son-in-law. The side’s star, Mohamed Salah, was born one year before his national captain made his professional debut.
El-Hadary has been a permanent fixture in any success Egypt has had in almost three decades. Notoriously bad World Cup qualifiers, the country has instead dominated the continent. The Africa Cup of Nations was captured by them three consecutive times between 2006 and 2010 —an unprecedented achievement in the history of the competition. The talisman of Côte d’Ivoire’s golden generation, Didier Drogba, so often denied at the hands of the Pharaoh’s number one, would describe El-Hadary as his “best opponent”.
At club level, he’s mirrored the national team in that his success seemed destined to lie away from the bright lights of the European game. The majority of his prime was spent at powerhouse Al Ahly.
For 12 years the team dominated the Egyptian Premier League, winning it eight times. The Confederation of African Football Champions League was brought home eight times along the way. The ensuing trophy celebrations became characterised by El-Hadary ascending the goalposts to lead the fans in cheering.
South Africans witnessed the deadly effect of his idiosyncrasies first-hand when Al Ahly beat Kaizer Chiefs to lift the African Super Cup in 2002. Brian Baloyi was left humiliated after his opposite number spotted him wandering off his line and jumped in front of a teammate to score a free kick from his own half.
It was moments like these that contributed to the cult of El-Hadary. Most African fans in the mid-2000s would have told you how he was good enough to walk casually into Real Madrid. But he never did.
In 2008, he transferred to Switzerland’s Sion and was plagued by transfer policy scrutiny and scandal and ultimately returned to Egypt a few months later. It seemed it was simply not to be.
But a chance to perform on the global stage awaited. At the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa, El-Hadary put in arguably one of the best displays by a goalkeeper ever seen in the international arena. After Mohamed Homos headed in to give Egypt a first-half lead, world champions Italy launched an assault worthy of Verdun, ruthlessly bombarding the goal. El-Hadary was equal to all of it, ridiculously earning a clean sheet. It was the first time Italy had ever lost to an African side.
Currently at Ismaily, you wouldn’t be a very smart punter if you predicted a time frame for his club retirement. El-Hadary’s built a career defying whatever notion you invent about him and could well go on to create more history. Still, international football seems a little less well off with the knowledge that he will no longer be at the helm of the Egyptian side.