Essam El-Hadary: A fairytale career like no other
For many of us, Essam El-Hadary has been playing for the national team since before we were born. A staple of the national team, Egyptians and football enthusiasts alike have associated Egypt’s biggest moments with the 45-year-old providing many iconic moments.
Known for his high quality for both club and country, El-Hadary began his international career on March 25, 1996 against South Korea when he was substituted in the match for Essam Abdel-Azim in the 62nd minute. One hundred and fifty eight games later, the ‘Highest Dam’ became the oldest player to play at the World Cup and to save a penalty in Egypt’s 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia.
Before making his mark on the national team, he led Al Ahly to many titles including scoring in the CAF Super Cup win against Kaizer Chiefs in 2002. Over his 22-year illustrious career, El-Hadary provided many outstanding performances.
Despite making the 1998 African Cup of Nations squad, the former Al Ahly and Zamalek goalkeeper didn’t start until the disappointing 2002 edition. Arguably, El-Hadary came to his stature for the national team in his third African Cup of Nations in 2006.
2006 African Cup of Nations
With El-Hadary’s retirement, each player that started the final against Ivory Coast on February 10, 2006 has retired from international football. After an intense affair between the two sides over the 120 minutes, the winner was determined in the penalty shoot-out. Two of El-Hadary’s most iconic penalty saves came as he denied Chelsea legend Didier Drogba. After Abdel Halim Ali missed his penalty, El-Hadary rescued Egypt with another penalty save on Bakari Kone. Even before the match, El-Hadary had been considered an important player for club, but his performances during the 2006 AFCON bolstered his national team career.
2008 African Cup of Nations
Exactly two years later, the ‘Highest Dam’ produced another iconic moment. At the age of 35, many thought El-Hadary would consider retirement. Yet, the legend produced another CAF keeper of the tournament performance. After beating Ivory Coast 4-1 in the semi-final, El-Hadary led Egypt past Cameroon in the final with Mohamed Abou-Treika scoring the lone goal. Per his usual celebrations, El-Hadary climbed atop the goal post and celebrated with the team and fans who had made the trip to Ghana.
2009 Confederations Cup
After losing the first game at the 2009 Confederations Cup in dramatic fashion against Brazil, Egypt bounced back against 2006 World Cup champions Italy. After Mohamed Homos put Egypt up late in the first half, El-Hadary was at the center of attention making a string of superb saves in the second half to secure Egypt’s shock win over Italy. Whether it was this moment after the historic game or exchanging jerseys with former Italy national team goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, the game produced many great moments before a disappointing period in the team’s history.
But after another 2010 AFCON title and another missed World Cup coupled with the subsequent sacking of Hassan Shehata, the 45-year-old found himself benched for a run of games until he played again in 2014 and more consistently in 2016. In a fairytale return, El-Hadary featured at the 2017 African Cup of Nations with his heroics the reason for making it to the final after he saved two two penalties in the shoot-out with Burkina Faso.
2018 World Cup Qualification
Nine years after famously climbing on top of the goal post in Ghana, El-Hadary found himself celebrating once again in October 2017. Quite arguably one of the most important games in Egypt’s history, winning would put Egypt at the World Cup for the first time in 28 years. A dramatic game with Mohamed Salah scoring the qualifying goal in the 95th minute meant more history for a team that had been re-born in recent months. But all eyes were on El-Hadary as he climbed back on the goal post like in his youthful days. An image that is characteristic of the charismatic keeper, he had finally broken the curse and would go to the World Cup.
However after qualification, the question remained on who would start at the competition. Despite Mohamed El-Shennawy taking the starting role in the first two games, El-Hadary became the oldest player to play at the World Cup and the oldest to save a penalty in his final match for the national team on June 25, 2018 against Saudi Arabia exactly 22 years and 3 months since his debut.
Though we will still be able to watch the legend play for Ismaily this season, the chapter in Egypt national team history that is Essam El-Hadary has come to a close.
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