The busy intersection of 25th Avenue and Steinway Street was completely shut down due to the mass of people chanting, singing, cheering and screaming. Flags were waving high above the crowds as the police simply sat and watched. This wasn’t a riot, though; this was a party. Egypt had just qualified for their first World Cup since 1990 and in the Little Egypt of New York that was cause for celebration.
It’s always special when a nation returns to the peak of their sport after a long leave of absence. People at home and abroad unite, like they did a month ago when Mohamed Salah sealed Egypt’s place at the World Cup with a 2-1 win over Congo with his coolly taken penalty kick. Egypt finished their qualifying campaign over the weekend with a 1-1 draw in Ghana but that 95th-minute winner was the moment their fans had been waiting for.
Egypt have not been to a World Cup for 27 years, but it hasn’t always been for a lack of talent. They have won the Africa Cup of Nations four times since their previous World Cup appearance and their absence has partly been tied to political upheaval. Two domestic seasons were cancelled between 2011 and 2013 following the Port Said Stadium disaster, and the 2013 coup d’état didn’t help settle things down.
Egypt are the most successful team in Africa Cup of Nations history, and they won three successive tournaments in 2006, 2008 and 2010, but the Arab Spring in 2011 changed everything. They didn’t even qualify for the three tournaments following the revolution. It’s hard to hold together something as trivial as sport when the nation itself is crumbling.
Through these years of triumphs and disasters, there have been very few constants for Egyptian football. Coaches have been hired and fired; seasons have come and gone, some completed and some abandoned; and competitions have been won, lost or not entered at all. But there has always been one man standing there, gloves on, ready for the next challenge. And that man is 44-year-old goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary.
El-Hadary made his international debut in 1996, when some of his current team-mates were not even born. He was there when his country dominated Africa in the 2000s and when their prospects of fielding a successful side were derailed a few years later. He has earned 156 caps and won the African Cup of Nations four times, being picked as goalkeeper of the tournament in 2006, 2008 and 2010. And earlier this year, two days after his 44th birthday, he became the oldest player to appear in the Cup of Nations.
El-Hadary does not have long left in the game but he knows exactly what he wants to achieve with what time he has left. “I did almost everything in my footballing career,” he said earlier this year. “I won 37 trophies and I enjoyed some remarkable moments, such as our win over Italy at the 2009 Confederations Cup. The only thing that is missing for me is a World Cup appearance.” Now he has his ticket.
He was in goal for Egypt when Salah scored the winner at the Borg El-Arab Stadium last month. If he stays injury-free and retains his place, he will become the oldest player to feature at a World Cup, breaking a record last set by Colombian goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon in 2014. El-Hadary is determined to break the record in style. He isn’t a relic the team bring along for sentimentality’s sake, a veteran who is picked to be good in the dressing room and around the hotel. He started and captained Egypt throughout their qualifying campaign, only standing aside in the final fixture as their place in Russia was already secured. He is not waiting to make a cameo at the World Cup and then retire. He hopes to play into his 50s.
El-Hadary’s successes with Egypt stretch back to 1998, when he was in the squad that won the Cup of Nations. He was also on the bench in 2000, but that would be the last of this sitting business; El-Hadary was ready to stand up and play. In his first Cup of Nations as a starter, in 2002, Egypt were narrowly defeated in the quarter-finals by soon-to-be-champions Cameroon. El-Hadary finally earned his winners’ medal in 2006, just as he would do in 2008 and 2010.
With the World Cup coming to Africa for the first time in 2010, Egypt should have been one of the contenders. But, after making it to the third round of qualifying and finding themselves tied in their group with Algeria, they had to play a one-off tiebreaker in Sudan. They lost 1-0 despite launching waves of attack after conceding the opening – and only – goal of the game.
The next few years were difficult for Egypt and El-Hadary. He turned 40 in 2013 and seemed to be drifting away from the national side. When the current World Cup qualifying campaign began, he had only won five caps in three years, but he kept working and was picked for Egypt’s first two qualifiers in late 2016. Egypt won them both and El-Hadary kept his place for the rest of the campaign – and the Cup of Nations earlier this year, when he pulled off more heroics.
Going into the tournament, El-Hadary had not surrendered a goal in the Cup of Nations since 2010. That run continued through the group stages, through their quarter-final and into the semi-final against Burkina Faso, where a 73rd-minute strike by Aristide Bancé ended the 653 scoreless minutes El-Hadary had carried with him over seven years of Afcon play.
There was no time for him to mourn the end of his streak, though. The game went to penalties and, with Egypt in danger of losing the shootout, he had to do something. El-Hadry did what was asked of him, saving two penalties in a row to send Egypt to the final. They were beaten by Cameroon in the final, but all is not lost: Egypt still have the World Cup, where El-Hadary will hopefully break a record or two and accomplish a lifelong dream.
The Guardian Sport