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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

Essam El-Hadary is 'a true leader' for Egypt as he prepares to break record for oldest player to appear at World Cup

The 45-year-old goalkeeper is a popular part of Hector Cuper's squad according to teammate Sam Morsy

Egypt's Essam El-Hadary had a lot to celebrate when Egypt reached the World Cup for the first time in 28 years in October. The 45 year old is likely to have more to celebrate in Russia in June when he becomes the oldest player to appear at a World Cup. Tarek Abdul Hamid / AFP
Egypt's Essam El-Hadary had a lot to celebrate when Egypt reached the World Cup for the first time in 28 years in October. The 45 year old is likely to have more to celebrate in Russia in June when he becomes the oldest player to appear at a World Cup. Tarek Abdul Hamid / AFP

Age, supposedly, is just a number. In Essam El-Hadary’s case, it is a remarkable number: 45 years and five months on Friday.

It should be a record-breaking figure, too, when the Egypt goalkeeper becomes the oldest footballer ever to appear at a World Cup.

He is more than a quarter of a century older than Kylian Mbappe, a potential player of the tournament, and older than Roberto Martinez, who may yet be a World Cup-winning manager.

More pertinently for the statisticians, he is two years older than Faryd Mondragon was when the Colombian goalkeeper came on against Japan in 2014 and took the current record for oldest player to play at the tournament.

A place in history beckons for a man who can remember much of it. El-Hadary made his first-team debut in 1993 and his international bow in 1996.

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His birth in January 1973 was closer in time to the 1929 Wall Street Crash, the first Academy Awards, otherwise known as the Oscars, and the first World Cup than to the current day.

And yet, as his Egypt teammate Sam Morsy explained, a trailblazer for the middle-aged retains a youthful attitude.

The temptation is to assume fashions, of clothing and music, would have moved on too much but El-Hadary does not struggle to relate to teammates two decades his junior.

“No, he loves it,” Morsy, the Wigan Athletic midfielder, insisted. “He has got a really young spirit. He could be 25 but he is an amazing, amazing person.

"He is in with all the young players. He is always singing and dancing, messing around, so he is just like one of the players but he has got that wealth of experience and real leadership qualities.”

Few World Cup rookies have as much experience. El-Hadary has won 158 caps and the African Cup of Nations four times and, by his own reckoning, the small matter of 37 trophies.

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“Obviously he is a legend in Africa, the best African goalkeeper of all time,” added Morsy.

Morsy appreciates El-Hadary’s friendliness and believes his dedication is a reason he is still playing at an age when others have long since retired.

“Straight away when I came into the squad, he greeted me with open arms,” he added.

“He rings me. We speak a lot. I haven’t met too many role models in football where you say, ‘wow, that is a really good guy’ but he is an amazing person.

"He trains hard every day and does everything for the team.”

Perhaps that accounts for the agility that allowed him to save two penalties to take Egypt to the African Cup of Nations final last year. Certainly, one secret to longevity is the relentlessness to carry on going.

El-Hadary has spoken about possibly playing until he is 50 and Morsy added: “There is no sign of him stepping down.

"Usually when a goalkeeper gets to 34 or 35, you think they have one or two seasons left but I think he can play for as long as he plays because of his dedication, his appetite and his work ethic.

“He is a fantastic guy, a true leader, someone who I have learnt a lot off and he is great to have around the place.”

Now El-Hadary finds himself in a new place: the World Cup. A spot in the footballing record books beckons, along with a place in a broader sporting group who have defied time and the ageing process.

He could find himself bracketed with Wilfred Rhodes, who played Test cricket at 52, and Martina Navratilova, who won the mixed doubles at the US Open when 49, and Tom Watson, who finished second in the 2009 Open Championship at 59.

Durability places him in select company, and not just because he will take the field with Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez on Friday.

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