A familiar face on the African football scene, veteran Egyptian goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary turned 44 on Sunday, and while most players his age have since retired and are watching the Africa Cup of Nations from the comfort of their homes, the shot-stopper is part of the Pharaohs squad at the 2017 AFCON in Gabon.
At 44 years old, he would become the oldest footballer to play at the Nations Cup finals if he were to feature in Egypt’s Group D opening match against Mali on Tuesday night in Port Gentil.
Playing his seventh AFCON tournament, the national team custodian would beat the record currently held by fellow Egyptian Hossam Hassan. The striker was 39 years, five months and 24 days old in his last game at the African flagship competition in 2006.
The keeper was drafted into the side as cover for younger options last year, but under coach Héctor Cúper he was in the starting lineup for the country’s World Cup qualifying matches against Ghana and Congo.
His performances in both of those triumphs mean that a starting berth against the Malian Eagles is possible, but goalkeeper coach Ahmed Nagy is not willing to confirm his presence in the starting line-up just yet.
‘We haven’t chosen our first choice keeper yet,’ Nagy told Egyptian television. ‘Having three excellent and experienced goalkeepers in the current squad gives Egypt a good boost in Gabon,’ he admitted.
The experienced goalkeeper was part of the general squad when Egypt won the AFCON in 1998, and was on the bench in the 2000 edition. He was first choice in 2002 and then was a major component of the highly successful Egyptian national team that won three Nations Cup titles in a row in 2006, 2008 and 2010.
With a career as expansive as El-Hadary’s, it is a surprise that he does not hold the record for the most AFCON tournament appearances with his seven competitions, as Rigobert Song of Cameroon has one more AFCON to his name.
He would likely have achieved that record if the Pharaohs qualified for one of the last three AFCON tournaments in 2012, 2013 and 2015, but they failed to qualify on all three occasions.
El-Hadary has mentioned that he feels strong and trains as though he is 20, with hopes of playing at the World Cup in Russia next year. While Egypt are certainly on track to qualify for the showpiece event, El Hadary’s appearance at the 2018 event at the age of 45 would be a surprise, but perhaps the veteran can make it happen.