Essam El Hadary, El Maestro
My earliest memory of the legend dates back to 2008, I had been just introduced to the beautiful game of football and there he was, sitting on top of the goal post with his arms waving like a flag. Egypt had just won a second consecutive Africa Cup Of Nations title, I was told. Essam El Hadary was obviously leading the celebrations and even as an amateur in the game, I could tell that form of celebrating was unconventional - the same I would later on learn about the player and indeed the rest of the world. At the age of 45 years and 161 days, the Egypt international became the oldest player to participate in a FIFA World Cup tournament in Russia 2018. It’s not just about the age, that statistic paves way to explore the peculiarity of the goalkeeper, which happens to be something to behold.
The early years
Essam was never meant to be a professional footballer, at least his parents thought so. Being born and raised in the home of a craftsman who owned his own furniture shop, El Hadary was almost expected to follow suit but rebelled even from an early age. He would play football behind his parents’ back and wash the muddy clothes in a local river after every training session to keep his secret safe and secure. However his talent and dedication outgrew the secret and got signed by a Second Division Club from his hometown, Damietta at the age of 17. He did it the not so easy way, running 7 km to training every single day and having to initially keep without gloves because they were a strange accessory to the teenager who had never worn a pair in his entire life. As they say, the rest is history. Those small habits of resilience, passion and commitment ingrained in that young boy would be enough to light up the path that led him to a world record-breaking career
The club years
The Ismaily goalkeeper has enjoyed an illustrious career with over 768 and counting appearances for 10 different clubs in mainly Egypt and partly Sudan, Sweden and Saudi Arabia. Essam El Hadary nicknamed the “High Dam,” remains a guiding light to all of Africa, that playing in Europe is wonderful but one can be as good a success in any part of the world. In that period, he has won 8 Egyptian Premier League titles, 4 Egypt Cups and Super Cups, 4 CAF Champions League titles and 3 CAF Super Cups, all with Al Ahly, the most successful football club on the African continent. The High Dam also left the foreign lands with some silverware to his name and happens to be one of the most decorated footballers on the continent, of all time!
The Pharaohs of Egypt are the most successful football nation in Africa and the legendary High Dam is a significant part of that story. The West-African nations of Ghana, Cameroon and Ivory Coast all know him too well as they took turns to be denied of the AFCON gold by the man between the sticks in the period running from 2006-2010. Egypt won 3 consecutive Africa Cup Of Nations trophies in that time stretching their record to 7 titles. Hadary was named goalkeeper of the tournament on all three occasions and can boast of a total of 4 AFCON titles to his name throughout his career. Having previously retired from international football, the goalie returned to the Pharaohs goal in 2014 against Bosnia, even going ahead to lead Egypt to the 2017 AFCON finals after saving two semi-final penalties, in typical El Hadary fashion. In Egypt’s closing match at the 2018 world cup finals against Saudi Arabia, El Hadary made the much awaited debut as he played his first and monumental world cup match at 45 years of age. With the composure of a veteran, superman-like reflexes and legs difficult to tire, one could visibly see the traits that sustained such a beautiful career as he expertly saved one penalty before conceding a second one later on in the match.
With a total of 159 appearances, the High Dam became Egypt’s third most capped player of all time and hung his Pharaohs gloves in August 2018. He is now 46-years-old and still plays professional football in Egypt’s top flight league for Ismaily.
El Hadary, El Maestro, will forever be a player etched in the books of history and our hearts as one of the greatest footballers the continent of Africa has ever seen.