Egypt missed out winning a record eighth African Cup of Nations (AFCON) title on Sunday, allowing Cameroon to lift its first AFCON trophy since 2002.
However, this year’s tournament has produced an unlikely hero, Essam El-Hadary, Egypt’s 44-year-old goalkeeper.
“I am depressed by the outcome but still very proud of El-Hadary who generated enthusiasm and excitement towards win and joy,” Kareem Mahgoub, a 53-year-old taxi driver, told Xinhua.
“The national team’s performance wasn’t promising at the beginning of the tournament, but El-Hadary’s extraordinary and heroic performance in Wednesday’s semifinal penalty shootout brought hopes of winning the title to our minds,” Mahgoub said as he was leaving a coffee shop in Maadi district where he watched the Sunday match.
Following the final, El-Hadary, the oldest player in the AFCON history, has won Best Keeper Award of this year’s tournament.
He won the award for the fourth time after previous successes in 2006, 2008 and 2010: three commemorable years when Egypt national football team managed to lift the AFCON trophy.
He won Egypt’s league title eight times and the domestic cup and African Champions League four times, respectively.
The legendary goalkeeper saved two penalties in the semifinal against Burkina Faso, to send his team through to the final.
Starting in 1996, El-Hadary has accumulated 150 caps, third only to Spain’s Iker Casillas and Italy’s Gianluigi Buffon among active football players.
El-Hadary is already widely regarded as one of Africa’s greatest goalkeepers, according to Fikry Saleh, El-Hadary’s coach at Wadi Degla club, who discovered the goalkeeper in 1995.
“When El-Hadary’s name is mentioned, you think of willingness, persistence and power,” Saleh told state-run Ahram newspaper.
Despite old age, El-Hadary starts every training session half an hour earlier than his teammates and continues even after the training finishes, the coach noted.
Saleh said El-Hadary takes an ice water bath, no matter in summer or winter, for half an hour every day to treat his aging muscles. He also maintains a healthy diet.
When asked about retirement after the AFCON in an interview this week, El-Hadary gave a definite no answer.
“Certainly not,” he said. “I’ve got more objectives beyond playing in my seventh AFCONs.”
He mentioned more than once that he wants to take part in the 2018 World Cup.
“I’m aspiring to wear my country’s jersey there,” El-Hadary said in the interview.
For Aly Ahmad, who has been working as an accountant for 28 years, El-Hadary is a role model in self-confidence and tackling difficulties.
El-Hadary has proved that age isn’t an obstacle, Aly said.
“El-Hadary’s daughter is almost the same age as his youngest teammate, 20-year-old winger Ramadan Sobhi, but he was never ashamed of his age,” the accountant explained.
“I see no signs of age or fatigue on his face,” Saleh said.
He would sprint toward the touchlines to celebrate with his younger teammates in previous matches, the coach noted.
“El-Hadary hangs a photo on the wall at home showing the logo of 2018 FIFA World Cup, and I believe he can make it,” Saleh said. Enditem