In the history of the World Cup, no player has appeared in the same team as his own son-in-law. And it won’t happen again this year, though it very nearly did. Last year Shadwa El-Hadary, daughter of Egypt’s goalkeeper and captain Essam, got engaged to the flying winger Mahmoud Abdel-Moneim, commonly known by the single name Kahraba (Electricity). Only 48 days later the relationship was over, after the young player was found to be already engaged to an actress, which must create a uniquely awkward dressing-room dynamic.
This should not stop Essam El-Hadary from making history in Russia. Throughout his career he has had, more or less in the back of his mind, one “dream I want to make true”. This summer it is set to happen, more than 22 years after his international debut, when he is expected to make his first appearance at the World Cup and become the oldest player to play in the competition, at the age of 45.
It has been a long journey, and not without drama, for the player nicknamed the High Dam after the popular Egyptian water-blocking barrier. He was born in January 1973 in a small town called Kafr al-Battikh – literally Town of the Watermelon – near Egypt’s Mediterranean coast. Despite its name the town is famed not for fruit but for the production of wooden furniture, and Essam’s father was a craftsman who owned a small workshop. He gave his young son an ultimatum: work hard at school or work hard making furniture. His child considered the two options, ignored him and played football instead.
This he had to do in secret, taking his schoolbooks to the local playing fields so his parents would believe he was studying, and washing his dirty clothes in a nearby river so they would not discover how he was filling his days.
It was on the local dirt pitches that the talented goalkeeper – comfortable on the ball, often playing outfield – was spotted by his local side in Kafr al-Battikh. At 17 he was snapped up by the Egyptian second division team Damietta. He played in their academy for a season before he summoned the courage to tell his father about his new career. Every day he would run the 7km from his home to training alongside his best friend who would keep him company on a bike.
The 1.88-meter goalkeeper has a towering demeanor and attributes his strength and fearlessness to his uncomfortable beginnings. Before arriving at Damietta he had never worn goalkeeping gloves, and on his first day was handed a pair. On his second day he turned up without them, declaring that he wanted to keep training with bare hands, the way he always had. Suffering through the resulting cuts and bruises helped him to prepare for the aches and pains inevitably suffered by a professional footballer.
He made his debut for Damietta in 1993 aged 20 and after an impressive first season was a shock call-up to the national team, albeit as the fifth-choice goalkeeper. He still did not have a car, so a neighbor drove him to the national team’s training camp in his 1970s Peugeot estate.
At the end of his second season, with one year of his contract remaining, El-Hadary secretly signed a pre-contract with al-Ahly. By this time a number of teams had shown interest and he had to pretend he was still looking for a team until the campaign was over and he was free to make his agreed move.
Essam spent 12 years at al-Ahly and established himself as one of the country’s best players and a fixture in the national team. He is a dominating and loud presence in goal, using his voice, physique and reputation to instill fear into the opposition. The Chelsea and Ivory Coast legend Didier Drogba, thwarted at his hands on multiple occasions in the Africa Cup of Nations, once proclaimed El-Hadary his most troublesome opponent.
El-Hadary is famed in Egypt for celebrating big victories with a watermelon, in honor of his hometown, and for clambering on to the crossbar after notable successes and dancing, while his supporters chant “Oros ya Hadary” (“dance el-Hadary”). One such occasion was at the 2002 CAF Super Cup, when al-Ahly beat Kaizer Chiefs 4-1 with el-Hadary scoring his side’s third goal, the first of his career, with a free-kick from his own half (there has been one more, a stoppage-time penalty for the Saudi side Al-Taawoun in a victory over al-Ettifaq last year).
In 2008 he controversially left al-Ahly to join the Swiss side Sion. He did so without telling his employers and despite being under contract; al-Ahly lodged a complaint with Fifa and he was banned for four months. He learned from this mistake: when Hull City tried to buy him after a trial in 2011 his then employers, the Sudanese club al-Merrikh, turned down their offer and he grudgingly returned to Africa.
He made his international debut in 1996, 10 months before the youngest player in Egypt’s World Cup squad, Stoke’s 21-year-old winger Ramadan Sobhi, was born. There have been more than 150 appearances since, in which time he has won the Africa Cup of Nations four times, and been named that tournament’s best goalkeeper on three occasions.
For Egypt he is the last remaining member of the golden generation that won a hat-trick of African Cup of Nations titles between 2006 and 2010. Even though he is coming to the end of his career, when he plays there is a sense of calm in the defense and he is regarded as a hero in Egypt for his ability to step up during important games. Russia this summer will be his greatest test of all, but also – whatever the outcome – his greatest triumph. “This is a message to all footballers and others around the world,” he says, “that you should believe in your dreams and fight to make them come true.”