A sell-out crowd at Alexandria’s Borg El Arab Stadium almost had their hearts broken last October. It was early in the second half of a World Cup qualifier against Congo and a floated cross found Dylan Saint-Louis at the far post with only the Egypt goalkeeper, Essam El-Hadary, to beat.
“Oh God, protect us,” the commentator wailed before Saintâ€’Louis’s half-volley forced a brilliant one-handed save from Hadary, whose reflexes resembled those of a shot-stopper in his twenties rather than a veteran footballer playing on into his mid-forties.
Egypt went on to claim a 2-1 victory via a stoppage-time penalty from Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, and Hadary celebrated in the same way that he has done for more than a decade: climbing on to the goal posts and dancing before an ecstatic crowd. If there was an added fervour to his performance, it was because Hadary had played an instrumental role in helping Egypt end an agonising 28-year wait for a World Cup appearance.
“I did not imagine that I would play until this age, but I had a dream to play at the World Cup and this was a big motivation. I also felt that I could still carry on,” Hadary tells the Guardian. “Setting targets is very important in my life; I always have targets to fulfil. Maybe I could have said: ‘That’s enough’ if I had participated in the previous World Cup but I felt there was something missing without a World Cup appearance. I’m used to realising all my dreams and targets through my determination and ambition.”
Having turned 45 last January, Hadary will become the oldest player to feature at a World Cup. The Colombia goalkeeper Faryd Mondragón, the previous holder of that record, was 43 when he took part at the previous World Cup in Brazil. “I never think about such records; they come without me seeking them. But it’s the reward of my hard work and dedication in training,” Hadary says. “Beating a record for the oldest World Cup player means that it’s an achievement for my country before it’s an achievement for me.
“Sometimes the media highlight a record for me that I did not know anything about but setting a record at a prestigious tournament like the World Cup makes me happy.”
Hadary, who plays in Saudi Arabia for Al-Taawoun after a glittering club career in Egypt, was a third-choice goalkeeper when his home nation flew to Gabon to make their first African Nations Cup appearance in seven years in early 2017. He was thrown into the fray after Ahmed Elâ€’Shenawy picked up a hamstring injury and was replaced by Hadary after 24 minutes of the opening match against Mali.
The man Egyptian fans fondly nicknamed “the High Dam” – after the country’s famous Aswan Dam – rose to the occasion to ensure Egypt conceded only three goals in six games en route to finishing as runners up.
In the semi-final win against Burkina Faso, Hadary made some crucial saves in the dying minutes, blocking two spot-kicks as Egypt prevailed 4-3 on penalties following a 1-1 draw.
“His spirit, enthusiasm, determination and challenging of the law of nature are key to his success,” said Egypt’s assistant coach Mahmoud Fayez. “If we have a million Hadarys in Egypt, we [the country] would have been in a wholly different level.”
Stoke City’s 21-year-old winger Ramadan Sobhi, a regular member of Egypt’s squad, was not even born when Hadary made his Egypt debut in 1996. The former Tottenham striker Mido, now a pundit, was still a prodigy when Hadary was an experienced goalie in the early 2000s. Mido hung up his boots in June 2013, aged 30, and later became a coach, managing Hadary at Egyptian Premier League clubs Ismaily and Wadi Degla.
“Hadary’s fighting spirit is out of this world. Naturally, a player’s fighting spirit wanes as he grows older but for him, the opposite exactly happens. The fighting spirit that he boasts helps him avoid the kind of problems that are usually associated with age in football,” Mido says. “And this, in turn, makes him work much harder in training. Over the past 10 years, Hadary has been training harder than any ordinary and younger players, and that is the reason why he has been playing at the top level for so long.”
Egypt open their World Cup campaign against Uruguay on Friday before meeting the hosts Russia and Saudi Arabia in Group A. Egypt’s coach, Héctor Cúper, has remained tight-lipped over who would be his first-choice keeper at the World Cup, but the serious knee injury that ruled out Zamalek’s El-Shenawi makes Hadary a firm favourite to add to his haul of 158 caps.
However, some have questioned Hadary’s reflexes and whether the veteran can cope with the demands of facing the world’s best players, particularly after he conceded some soft goals in Saudi Arabia. In the World Cup qualifier against Congo last year, it was also clear he had opted to play it safe by pushing away crosses rather than trying to handle them, even some of the more innocuous ones.
“Hadary’s presence with Egypt in Russia is an honour that he definitely deserves, there is no question about that,” says Ahmed Shobair, Egypt’s goalkeeper at their last World Cup appearance in 1990 and who Hadary had replaced as Ahly’s No 1 between the posts in the mid-1990s. “But his age will still be a problem; his body can no longer respond to the instructions of his mind, this is totally natural.”
However, Hadary has often proved the doubters wrong, his passion for the game undiminished since he made his professional debut in 1993. Asked if he has any plans to hang up his gloves, he replies: “I haven’t yet set any date for my retirement. I would just like to say my body is still able to give more and more.”