Everyone knows Egypt will have one of the players of the season at the World Cup in the shape of Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah – but did you also know they’ll more than likely have a 45-year-old in the team?
There’s lots to get excited about going into a World Cup. There’s the anticipation surrounding the opening match, obviously, but also other, smaller things that contribute to the air of excitement around football’s biggest showpiece.
Your near-empty sticker album is one of those things, as is your newly-adopted sweepstake team. The latest digital remaster of Three Lions may or may not be.
But one of the most satisfying small pleasures of a World Cup is simply browsing every nation’s 23-man squad list, seeing the familiar and unfamiliar names of competing players.
If there’s one particular delight to be had in this activity, it’s finding a player you’ve never heard of in their late 30s who has 100 caps for their low-ranked country. Or, in a similar vein, noticing that Rafael Marquez is still a thing. Or learning that somebody’s third-choice keeper recently became a grandfather.
Yes, from Roger Milla to Faryd Mondragón, golden oldies have always been an important part of the World Cup, and 2018 — thankfully — will be no exception.
Egypt’s road to the World Cup
There were dramatic scenes in October last year when Mo Salah’s 95th-minute penalty earned Egypt a 2-1 victory over Congo.
Not content with his outrageous goalscoring feats for Liverpool, Salah had also taken it upon himself to drag his nation to the World Cup, and did so in breathtaking fashion with that late, late winner.
It was a good job he scored, too. The penalty guaranteed Egypt’s qualification for the first time since 1990, ending a wait that was both painful and totally at odds with the country’s continental dominance: Egypt had made history by winning three consecutive Africa Cup of Nations tournaments between 2006 and 2010, yet always fell short in World Cup qualifying.
But while there’s no doubting Salah’s influence on this Egypt side, one player could find himself winning over neutrals this summer on an even greater scale.
That would be Egypt’s captain and goalkeeper, who could — if he keeps his place in the side — break a very significant record.
Who is Essam El-Hadary?
Essam El-Hadary is 45 years old. He’s a professional footballer, playing for his national side, at 45 years old.
He has 156 caps.
Since turning professional in 1993, El-Hadary has spent the large majority of his quarter-century career in Egypt (a season with Sion in Switzerland was the major anomaly), and the goalie is currently keeping net for Saudi club Al-Taawoun.
His C.V. is certainly impressive, and you might wonder why El-Hadary didn’t turn out for a bigger club in Europe at some point in that long, long career.
After all, any player with four Africa Cup of Nations victories, including three appearances in the tournament’s Best XI, is probably good enough to play in bigger leagues than the Egyptian Premier.
But while traveling elsewhere might have made El-Hadary more of a household name outside Egypt, it’s hard to say whether such a move would have impacted negatively on the (frankly ridiculous) longevity of career.
With that in mind, let’s just be thankful he stayed fit. Really, absurdly fit.
If El-Hadary keeps his place this summer, he will break the record for the oldest player to appear at the finals — a record set at the 2014 World Cup by Colombian goalkeeper Faryd Mondragón, who usurped the legendary Roger Milla of Cameroon.
Without meaning any disrespect to the phenomenally successful (and scary) Mondragón, El-Hadary is more deserving of the record.
Because while Mondragón clearly did well to appear at five World Cups, his appearance in 2014 — as an 85th-minute substitute in a dead rubber against Japan — was a bit of a freebie. He was called upon so he could break the record, and wasn’t genuinely needed.
El-Hadary’s case is different. Despite starting the last African Cup of Nations as Egypt’s third-choice keeper, the veteran appears to have clawed back the number one spot, keeping clean sheets in key qualification matches against Ghana and Uganda.
Again, no disrespect to Mondragón, but if any golden oldie deserves to succeed the iconic Roger Milla, it should be a player still near the top of their game, actually winning matches for their side.
And there’s one other reason why you should want to see El-Hadary in Russia.
Hoping for surprises in Russia
For established international El-Hadary, the stakes probably seem quite low at domestic level. Al-Taawoun’s 25,000-capacity stadium records an average attendance of just over 3,000, and the club currently sit mid-table in the Saudi Professional League.
Context notwithstanding, one of the goalkeeper’s performances last autumn deserves recognition.
Just four days after El-Hadary saw Mo Salah net that vital penalty, the goalkeeper concocted an Earth-shattering moment of his own in the Saudi league.
Was he inspired by Salah? Was he perhaps a little jealous? Did he want to ensure that obscure overseas journalists would be writing about him and not his more celebrated Liverpool compatriot?
Come the 98th minute of a match between Al-Taawoun and Al-Ettifaq, and with Al-Taawoun 3-0 up, El-Hadary’s side were awarded a penalty.
You can probably guess what happened next.
— KingFut.com (@King_Fut) December 10, 2017
Disclaimer: that might not happen at the World Cup. But with Egypt facing Russia in the group stage, we should do everything we can to ensure showboating, gamesmanship and bullying against our lovely hosts.
Get him on the plane.