Regardless of whether Egypt goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary on Sunday becomes the first and only player in the history of African football to win five Cup of Nations titles on the back of four — in 1998, 2006, 2008 and 2010 — he is already the oldest man at 44 to ever feature in the tournament since its inception in 1957.
For a man about to set a Nations Cup record that would be hard to equal, El-Hadary comes across as a confident but easygoing chap.
“I am very proud to be the oldest player to feature at the Africa Cup of Nations. But, in the end, it is not my personal records that I care about. I care about the record of Egypt, because when you achieve something for your country, the record is passed on to you.
“I have always been an ambitious person. I have loved my sport and have always wanted to continue playing. I never thought about how long I will be playing. I dedicate myself to the sport and always try to do my best. This is my philosophy. Everything that comes is with God’s will.
“My dream is to continue playing with the national team until the 2018 World Cup. I think we will get there this time, because the team is playing so well now,” El-Hadary told me.
For all their achievements at the Africa Cup of Nations, Egypt have only made two appearances at the World Cup finals, with the last one being at Italia 1990, 27 years ago.
El-Hadary admits he would be lacking something if he fails to play in football’s most prestigious tournament.
“If we don’t make it, I will feel like something is missing in my career. I will be a bit sorrowful about it.”
But, without doubt, winning a fifth African title for himself will not be far from his mind as he leads Egypt on to the field for Sunday’s final against Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions. “Definitely, I am thinking about this. But I am a patriot.”
El-Hadary is part of a distinguished Egyptian tradition that has produced great goalkeepers in the African game, like Ekramy Ahmed, Ahmed Shoubier and Nadar El Sayed.
“We have a tradition of producing goalkeepers that perform at the highest level in African football. I have learnt a lot from the goalkeepers that have come before me. I watched them and made an effort to improve on what they have done.
“I even learn things from the younger ones, like Ahmed El-Shenawy and Sherif Ekramy, the son of the great keeper. The fact that I am more experienced than they are does not mean that I cannot learn from them. There is no shame in learning new things from colleagues that are less experienced than me,” he says.
The age gap between El-Hadary and his colleagues is telling—his daughter is the same age as Ramadan Sohbi, who plays for English Premiership side Stoke City. Sobhi was just a year old when El-Hadary won his first African title in 1998, in Burkina Faso, beating South Africa in the final.
But when asked whether he imposes himself on his younger colleagues, acutely aware that El-Hadary is an iconic figure in Egyptian football that they grew up idolising, the goalkeeper laughs at such thoughts. “We are all team-mates and I never try to impose myself on the younger ones. As a team, we have to work together, for each other. If I try to impose myself on my young colleagues, it will not help team cohesion, which is the most important thing.”
Egypt’s passage to Sunday’s final, with El-Hadary the man of the match in a nerve-wracking penalty shoot-out against Burkina Faso, saving two kicks, had particular resonance.
Their hard-won victory was on the fifth anniversary of the Port Said tragedy, when 72 fans of Ahly, the country’s leading football club, died in a stadium tragedy after a game against Masry in 2012.
It was a disaster that had devastating consequences for Egyptian football, as fans have been banned from attending matches for the last five years – exceptions have only been made for games involving the national team and the CAF Champions League, when Zamalek had an 80,000 crowd, to support them against South Africa’s Mamelodi Sundowns in the final.
“Such incidents [like the Port Said disaster] affect us, of course. We felt sorry for the people, when we thought about it, in the morning [before playing Burkina Faso].
“But knowing that we are playing for them gives us more motivation and the will and determination to do better and make the people who are feeling sad [as a result of this tragedy] feel better.
“We had them in mind when we were playing. We dedicate that victory to them.”
Despite his distinguished career with the Pharaohs and 12 years with Ahly, Egypt’s leading club, El-Hadary did not make a move to Europe until the overripe age of 35, to Swiss club Sion in 2008.
“My regret is that I took the step to move to Europe too late. I did not have the chance to move at a younger age, as many players do now. If I had left Egypt earlier, there is no doubt that my club career would be different.
“But things happen for a reason. I am happy at my present club [Wadi Degla] and I believe that God is saving something good for me.”
Hadary embodies the best and worst period in national team history, being an integral part of Egypt’s treble Nations Cup wins in 2006, 2008 and 2010 and subsequently having a seven-year absence from the tournament, when the Pharaohs failed to qualify in 2012, 2013 and 2015. “As everyone knows, there has been unrest in the country, which was directly responsible for our absence. And so many things went wrong, as we had no national championship as well.
“Everyone knows what Egypt can do at the Cup of Nations. When we come, we expect to win. But when we made our return, after being absent for so long, no-one expected us to perform as well as we have done so far.
“No-one expected us to win, not even the people back at home. We have taken this tournament game by game, thinking of only the match we have to play, not the one after that. That is the approach that we have taken to get to the final and now we are looking forward to lifting the trophy.”
That is certainly not an unrealistic prospect. A triumph in Sunday’s final, at the Stade L’Amitie in Libreville, will secure El-Hadary’s place in the pantheon of African football greats like no player before him.
By Osasu Obayiuwana, Postcard from Gabon