Essam El-Hadary doesn’t need to worry about picking up Africa Cup of Nations winner’s medals – he already has four, from winning in 1998, 2006, 2008 and 2010, as well as many other honours – eight Egyptian Premier League titles, four Egypt Cups, four CAF Champions League wins, a Swiss Cup win, and a Sudan Premier League title too; he probably has a house full of awards, trophies and medals. He also doesn’t need to worry about his status in any hall of fame, figurative or literal – he is already amongst the great continental goalkeepers of all time, and a massively underrated figure globally.
But if his legacy needed any icing on the cake in what looks likely to be his last AFCON, he has added it with cherries in this tournament. It’s been a fairy tale – from entering the first game as a substitute for Ahmed El-Shenawy to become the oldest player to feature in the tournament’s history, to keeping more clean sheets to run up a total of 10 consecutive hours of AFCON action without conceding a goal (until it was finally broken by Bance, of course) and help Egypt continue their 23-game unbeaten run in the finals.
And it was his magnificent performance in the penalty shootout that extended it further, to 24 games. His first save in the shootout was from his opposite number, 20-year-old Herve Koffi, who has been an outstanding addition and ought to go on to have a great career like El-Hadary. The second was from Bertrand Traore, another rising star who has been instrumental in Burkina Faso’s run to the semi-finals. Both were tremendous saves, and demonstrated that even at his age he still as reflexes that younger men like me would dream me.
But even beyond goalkeeping itself, El-Hadary is a wonderful leader. This is a young Egypt team – only he, Ahmed Fathy and Ahmed Elmohamady survived from the 2010 team to play in the semi-final, and he is by far the most experienced of that trio. He is a natural choice at captain, and clearly demonstrated his leadership skills by rallying the players on the pitch before the shootout, keeping his cool where others lose their heads. For those young players, it must be incredible to have a figure like him in the squad to learn from and follow the example of.
He is an incredible professional. I find it difficult to understand where he gets the motivation from at 44 to keep playing at such a high level, when he has won just about everything he possibly could have in African football. But that’s why he has achieved so much and is so highly-regarded.
If Sunday’s final is to be his last game for the Pharaohs, it will be a fitting send-off. He has led his national team, which has gone through so much over the last seven years since they last won the tournament, back to the top of African football. It will take a lot to heal the scars of the revolution, the violence, the suspension of the national league, and the general chaos that has afflicted Egypt and in particular Egyptian football since 2010. Only a unique figure could lead a team out of the wilderness.
Qualifying for this tournament in the light of all of this was a great achievement for this team. Making it through to the final is an incredible one. A lot of the credit has to go to Hector Cuper in organising what was a broken team heading nowhere when he took over as manager. But surely the presence of the great man El-Hadary has been a key part of this run, in ways we as viewers cannot fully appreciate. It would be entirely appropriate if the final ends with Essam clutching the Cup of Nations with the safest hands in African football.