Before I begin this story, I want to send a message to my good friend Gianluigi Buffon. Gigi, you know I’ve always considered you a role model, and you know how happy I was for you when you won the 2006 World Cup. So let me congratulate you on a fantastic career.
Now, I also have a question for you, now that you’re considering retirement at the age of 40…
Why so early?
I know you have won the World Cup and all that… But you still miss the Champions League, right? Well, look at yourself — you’re still young!
Or look at it this way: If you are feeling too old for this game, how do you think I feel?
I’m only joking, of course. But I’m also kind of serious. Because when I imagine what my career would have looked like if had I retired at your age, well, I shiver at the thought. You see, almost from the moment I could walk, I have been chasing a dream — to play in the World Cup with Egypt. For a long time it looked like it wouldn’t happen.
But this year, we’ll be going. And I’ll be our goalkeeper. At the age of 45.
As you can imagine, people ask me how I manage to keep going, because the normal retirement age for footballers is between 30 and 35. In fact, I may soon become the oldest player to play in a World Cup. But if you know me well, you know the reason. You see, I wasn’t born with many advantages in life. But God did bless me with one trait: He made me a go-getter.
When I look back, that was the main thing that separated me from the other kids growing up in Kafr Al Battikh, a small town in northern Egypt. Beyond that, we were all pretty much the same. Maybe they were a little better than me in school. Fine, they were much better. O.K. … I’ll admit it: I didn’t really study in school at all. When class began, I wasn’t even in the room — I was in the courtyard playing football.
For my part, I saw this arrangement as an “alternative education.” I mean, if I was going to become a footballer, why did I need to study? Right? Well, for whatever reason, my father just didn’t seem to get the logic. So, quite often, I’d have to get my mother to cover for me. Typically, my father would say, “Where’s Essam? Shouldn’t he be doing his homework now?”
And my mother would say, “Oh, yeah, he just went to the store to get something.”
Perhaps I’m not setting the best example here. I mean, some of the guys on our national team are young enough to be my sons, and I don’t want people to think that school isn’t important. It is. But I was obsessed with football. And I didn’t just want to play it — I wanted to become the best goalkeeper in Africa. So when I was seven or eight years old, I started playing for a local team.
Our conditions weren’t luxurious — we didn’t even play on grass, but on sand. Seriously. The good part was that the club was regularly visited by scouts from a nearby town called Damietta. One day, they invited me to play for Damietta’s youth team. Although I was 12 years old, I began playing with guys who were 15 or 16. But that wasn’t the hard part.
You see, I was still living in Kafr Al Battikh, so I needed to travel seven kilometres just to get to Damietta. But transport cost money. And I didn’t have any.
So I started working. I’d hold down two or three jobs at the same time. At one point, I was even working as a carpenter.
They do say I tend to do my best work with my hands.
All this hard work enabled me to buy some shiny new boots. But sometimes the money ran out. And when I had finished training in Damietta, the public transport was no longer running anyway. So I’d walk home. Sometimes I’d ask a friend to come with me on his bicycle, just to keep me company. Then I’d get home, crash into bed, and get up to do it all again.
When I turned 17, Damietta promoted me to the first team. They even gave me a contract, which meant I could finally afford to travel. They were playing in the Egyptian second division, which is brutally competitive, but after one year we got promoted to the top league. And slowly, people began to take notice of me. In one game, the national team’s assistant coach, Mohsen Saleh, even came to watch. I still can’t remember what I had for breakfast that morning, but I played the game of my life.
After the game, Saleh came up to me and said, “Essam, we want you to play for Egypt.”
I was … well, I was shocked.
Now, let me tell you a bit about the national team. In Egypt we have nearly 100 million people… and when the national team plays, they suddenly turn into football coaches. Crazy, passionate football coaches. You see, nothing means more to people here than the national team. Try going into a café in Cairo when we play… Trust me, you won’t find an empty seat. That’s why I was so proud to make my debut in 1996. But I also knew we were on a mission.
You see, Egypt had only been to two World Cups in its history: One in 1990, and one way back in 1934. That’s not good enough for an ambitious country like ours.
Our 100 million coaches demanded more.
When we won the Africa Cup of Nations in 1998, I thought we were on to something. But then we couldn’t get past the quarterfinals in any of the next three editions. We didn’t make the World Cup either. So a lot of players quit.
That paved the way for our Golden Generation. From 2005 to 2011, we had a group of players that people said we would never see again. We won the Cup of Nations three times in a row— no team has ever done that. So, being the best team in Africa by far, we should have no problem qualifying for the World Cup, right?
I still don’t know why, but it seemed that no matter how good we were, something always went wrong in qualifying. In 2009, for example, we finished with the same points and goal difference as Algeria, so we had to meet them in a playoff in Sudan. When we lost 1–0, we felt all our hard work had been for nothing.
We were back to square one.
And then everything changed.
As you know, in 2011 we had the revolution. And in 2012, we had Port Said, where a stadium riot killed more than 70 people. The Egyptian league was cancelled, and when it finally opened again, fans were banned. And without fans, our league is nothing. Football is nothing.
Of course, all this instability affected our national team. Not only did we fail to win the next three Cup of Nations tournaments — we didn’t even qualify for any of them. When we also lost another World Cup qualifying playoff, this time to Ghana, it felt as if things couldn’t get worse.
Since Egypt was so unstable, a lot of players decided to go abroad. Just a few years later, we suddenly had all these stars playing for famous clubs: Mohamed Salah at Liverpool… Mohamed Elneny at Arsenal… And many others. People no longer hesitated to move to other leagues — and that has made us stronger.
So in the end, something good came out of this upheaval. In fact, I would actually say that the revolution helped Egyptian football.
For my part, I refused to let the turmoil affect me. I just kept focusing on my goal, which was to play in the World Cup. Then, in 2015, this Argentine guy named Héctor Cúper took charge of the national team. I’ve worked with many coaches, but none as thorough as him. Before I knew it, a voice inside my head was whispering, Maybe, with Cúper and all these new players, Egypt can reach the World Cup….
I certainly had hope. But I also had a problem.
I was no longer getting called up to the team.
Perhaps they thought I was too old, I don’t know. But since 2012 I had hardly played for Egypt. I guess they expected me to retire. I mean, I was 40 years old.
But I didn’t feel like 40. And no way was I going to retire. I’ll tell you what happened: I actually began to work even harder. Then I played this amazing game for my club at the time, Wadi Degla, and I got recalled. Not as a starter, of course — as a third or fourth choice. But I was happy with that. I immediately adopted the mindset of a hungry 20-year-old. I told myself, Just keep working until you get what you want… It’s worked all your life, and it’s gonna work again.
In 2017, we finally qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations again. When the tournament started, I must admit I felt down, because I wasn’t playing. But then in the first game, our first-choice goalkeeper, Ahmed El-Shenawy, got injured. I replaced him, and from there on I played every game. In the semifinal against Burkina Faso, I even saved two penalties in the shootout to get us to the final. Sadly, we lost that one to Cameroon, but something had changed.
Egypt was back.
And Essam El-Hadary was back, too.
When we resumed the World Cup qualifiers, I continued to get picked. In October last year, we knew we’d make the World Cup if we beat Congo. We were playing in Borg El Arab Stadium, in front of 85,000 people, although I’m sure we could have filled the stands 10 times over. When we took the lead, the crowd went mad. We were so close….
But then Congo scored in the 87th minute. I thought, Not again. It can’t be….
I feared we would slip up again. I was shaken — and so was Egypt. But we kept going. And then, in stoppage time, we get a penalty … Salah steps up …
And then everyone loses it completely.
And I’m not just talking about the players here — I’m talking about the entire country. In the cafés, people went nuts. In Egyptian homes, old men cried. In the stands, people were hugging strangers as if they were lifelong friends. And us players went mad too. The funniest was Mohamed. He was just running around aimlessly. He didn’t have a clue what was going on!
As for me, well, I’d like to say that, as one of the older heads, I was cool and in control… But come on, who is going to believe me? The truth is, I was running around like a 15-year-old.
Somehow I still had the calm to do my trademark celebration: I climbed on top of the crossbar. And let me tell you, the view had never been better. I felt so proud, I was about to burst. Egypt has waited 28 years for this. I have waited a lifetime for this. I can honestly say that it was the happiest day of my life.
When we travel to Russia this summer, we won’t just be representing a country, but the whole Arab world. Our aim is to reach the knockout stage, and show the world how far Egyptian football has come since the revolution. If they could afford it, I’m sure every single Egyptian would travel with us. Of course, you can never predict anything at a World Cup, but I can promise you that we’ll do everything we can to give our people pride and happiness.
Hopefully, it will have been worth the wait.