Essam El Hadary is one of the biggest names in the history of Egyptian and African football. Overcoming many obstacles, the legendary goalkeeper won a raft of titles with Al Ahly and Egypt. Few were surprised when the veteran shot-stopper became the oldest player ever to take part in a FIFA World Cup™ when, at 45 years and 161 days, he lined up against Saudi Arabia at Russia 2018.
Having secured that record, El Hadary donated the jersey and gloves he wore during that game to the FIFA World Football Museum in Zurich. El Hadary’s gear is currently being displayed in the special exhibition “Foot et Monde Arabe”.
To mark the exhibition, we sat down with the former Pharaohs captain for a wide-ranging discussion.
How does it feel to be a part of the FIFA Museum?
In all honesty, I never imagined I’d be a part of any museum (smiles). In Egypt we have a lot of historical museums that include artefacts dating back thousands of years, but to see myself ‘included’ in a museum is really special. Frankly, this museum in Zurich is quite different. I never dreamed of being there, but hard work pays off, and thankfully my name will remain in the museum. That’s something I’m proud of.
At Russia 2018, you set the record for the oldest player to appear at a World Cup. What memories do you have of the tournament?
I was impatiently waiting for the chance to play in the finals, and it came in our third group game against Saudi Arabia, which I started. We scored first and missed a chance to double our lead, then I remember the referee awarding a penalty to the Saudis. I was mentally focused and wanted to prove that I was there on merit and not because of some special favour from the coach. I saved it and, although we wanted to mark our appearance there with a win, in the end it wasn’t to be.
We’re honoured to have your jersey and gloves displayed in the special exhibition “Foot et Monde Arabe”. What can you tell visitors about them?
I’d tell them the story started in 2016, when I began a rigorous training programme to regain my fitness. That first day, I decided the 2018 World Cup would be my main goal and, because I like a challenge, I didn’t keep it a secret. Instead, I launched my Twitter account and for my first tweet I wrote: “Playing at next FIFA World Cup is my principle goal”. I wrote it to motivate myself.
After I got fit, I was recalled to the national team, took part in the qualifiers and we achieved our dream after a very long time. It didn’t end there for me, however, as the pressure was on for me to complete my mission. I was included in World Cup squad, so the only thing I still had to do was actually play a game. Many predicted I’d get on for the last few minutes of a match, but I wanted to start one. After the Saudi game kicked off, there wasn’t a sense of mission accomplished because my ambition that day, just as it was right throughout my career, was to perform to my best. I thank God I was able to save a penalty. I was proud to become the oldest player to take part in the World Cup and the first African goalkeeper in the history of the tournament to save a penalty. Now when I look at the gloves and jersey, they bring back all these memories. It’s as if it only happened yesterday. It’s amazing.
Egypt was the first Arab country to play at the World Cup.
Yes, it’s an honour to have been the first Arab country to take part in the World Cup, which we did at Italy 1934. We also made our second appearance in Italy in 1990. However, we had to wait such a long time – until 2018 – to qualify for the third time. With so many African players now based in Europe, they bring their skills and experience to their national teams. That improvement right across the continent makes it harder to reach the finals. It’ll certainly be very difficult to qualify to the 2022 edition.
How important is football for Egyptians and what makes it so special there?
Football for Egyptians is as essential as water, food or air. That passion is only natural as we hold the record for the most Africa Cup of Nations titles, and Al Ahly are the most successful club in the history of the African Champions League. In addition, we’ve always had quality players who have made history in Africa, and the Egyptian league is the strongest in the continent. When you have a strong league and clubs dominating the continental scene, then it’s no wonder football occupies an important role in everyday life in Egypt.
Cairo is one of the world’s most passionate footballing cities. How was your experience of the football fever there?
Since Cairo's population is huge, most neighbourhoods get gripped by that fever when there’s a local league or cup game on. You also see it when the big clubs or the national team are in one of the African competitions. On match days, Cairo is transformed. Everywhere you go, you see club flags and emblems, and fans wearing the shirts of their favourite team. When I played for Al Ahly, our fans were always unwavering in their support. Thousands of them would attend training sessions, especially when they feel we needed their support. Sometimes 80,000 fans would show up at our Cairo stadium for a league game. They were like a powerful weapon for us.
Can you tell us about the rivalry between Al Ahly and Zamalek?
I think that everyone in Egypt and the Arab world knows how important the Egyptian derby is. They are the two most popular clubs not only in Cairo but in Egypt, so their showdowns have a special flavour. A week before the game, you can see buildings and streets decorated with their flags. People talk incessantly about the fixture both before and after the game. Winning the derby is like winning a trophy for many fans.
Why is it important for the FIFA Museum to hold a special exhibition for football, culture and society in the Arab world in conjunction with the Institut du monde arabe (IMA)?
I think that many people around the world don't know a lot about Arab football. Highlighting such stories at the FIFA Museum provides an opportunity for everyone to learn about history of the game in this part of the world. We have a unique history and deep-rooted culture. I think this exhibition is a wonderful idea.
Why do you think it’s important to have a museum for world football?
Years ago, our relationship with FIFA World Cup history was limited to looking at videos or photos of players, goals and games. So I would like to thank FIFA for this beautiful museum, that has gathered a lot of World Cup memorabilia. When visitors come to the museum and see an area dedicated to a World Cup edition, they’ll be transported back to that moment in time. They will see a lot of interesting things, including players’ jerseys, boots used to score key goals, gloves used by keepers to prevent goals, match balls, official logos and medals. When you walk through the exhibits and see the photos and videos, you feel like you too are experiencing these unique moments.