“I’m happy with everything I’ve managed to do, but I want more,” said Egypt captain Essam El Hadary, expressing the kind of passion that every player needs to break new ground and continuing to exceed themselves.
One of the finest goalkeepers African football has ever produced and a legend of the game, the insatiable El Hadary dreams of crowning a lengthy career with an appearance at the FIFA World Cup.
Despite his fine performances with Wadi Degla in the Egyptian league, there were many who thought that El Hadary’s last international match was behind him.
One man who did not share that opinion, however, was Egypt’s Argentinian coach Hector Cuper, who was impressed enough by the keeper’s form that he handed him a start in the Pharaohs’ final Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Tanzania last year.
The physically imposing custodian has since retained Cuper’s confidence and was in goal once again for Egypt’s first two matches in the third round of the African qualifying competition for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia against Congo and Ghana.
Thanks to him, Egypt won both games, putting themselves right on course for a place at next year’s world finals.
El Hadary turned 44 last Sunday, a landmark he celebrated in low-key fashion, far from his family and friends, in Gabon, where he is representing his country at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations.
Named a substitute for Egypt’s opening match of the competition against Mali two days later, the veteran El Hadary was thrust into the action midway through the first half, when first-choice keeper Ahmed El-Shenawy sustained an injury and had to go off.
In taking to the pitch, the Egyptian idol became the oldest player ever to feature in an Africa Cup of Nations match.
The understudy showed his coolness in the closing stages of the goalless draw with the Malians, thwarting them at every turn as they pressed for a winner, inspiring confidence among his team-mates and helping Egypt begin their campaign with a precious point.
Granting an exclusive interview to FIFA.com afterwards, El Hadary said: “I’m one of 23 players at this competition. We all need to focus and prepare ourselves for this challenge so that we can do what the coach and his staff want us to do.
“We’re all determined to do whatever it takes to honour the national team jersey. When I’m sitting on the bench, I try to help the players who are out on the pitch. When El-Shenawy got injured, I started to warm up so that I was ready to come on. When he had to go off, I went straight on to the pitch and did my job.”
He added: “It was a tough match. It was our first one and all our players are competing in their first Africa Cup of Nations. I had to show calm and guide them through the periods when we were under pressure. Everyone could see how hard they worked. We wanted to win, as we do every game, but picking up a point in your opening game is not a bad way to start.”
Reflecting on his new tournament record, the ever-modest El Hadary said: “It’s not just an achievement by El Hadary but by the whole team and Egyptian football.
“Nobody expected me to be here playing in this competition, especially as Egypt have been absent since 2010. I love challenges, though, and I’ve worked really hard over the last two years to get in shape.
“I train hard, every day, not because it’s my job but because I love football.
“I’ve won a lot of club and national team competitions these last few years, but as a player, you’ve always got to set ambitious new objectives for yourself.
“I wanted to play in the Cup of Nations for a seventh time and here I am.
“Arriving here in Gabon was special. It brought to mind all the moments we’ve experienced, especially the four title wins.
“We’ve got our sights set on another one and we’ll be doing all we can to bring some joy to the people of Egypt.”
Whatever happens in Gabon, El Hadary will be heading back to his club after the tournament to continue pursuing his passion, while striving to maintain his form through to the end of the season: “I’ve got more objectives beyond playing in my seventh Cup of Nations. I want to play at the 2018 World Cup too. We have the chance to qualify for the biggest competition of them all for the first time since 1990. I want to be a part of that and wear my country’s jersey there.”