Egypt's El Hadary may be consigned to history by rising star
ST. PETERSBUG, Russia (AP) — A string of spectacular saves in Egypt's 1-0 loss to Uruguay earned goalkeeper Mohamed Elshenawy the man of the match distinction and an outpouring of admiration at home in what is a dream World Cup debut for the 29-year-old.
So, is the Essam El Hadary era nearing its end after more than a decade of domination by the 45-year-old?
El Hadary could become the oldest person to ever play in a World Cup if he makes it onto the pitch in Russia. He may still do, but it will most likely be if Egypt loses all hope of advancing. But if Egypt wins or draws its next match against Russia in St. Petersburg on Tuesday, then Elshenawy is likely to start again in the final group match against Saudi Arabia on June 25.
Ihab Leheta, the squad's director, made it clear that El Hadary wouldn't get playing time only so that he can make a little piece of history for himself.
"There is no place for sentimentalities in the World Cup," he told reporters this week in Grozny, the team's home base in the Russian region of Chechnya. "We are here to try and leave a mark."
It's turning out to be a sad end for the international career of El Hadary, who says with a mix of bitterness and joy that he has worked so hard for so long to be in the World Cup, pulling himself up every time the Pharaohs stumbled at the last qualification hurdle.
A celebrity in Egypt since the Arab nation won three successive African titles with him in goal between 2006 and 2010, El Hadary may now be denied being "the world's happiest man" — as he himself put it at the prospect of playing in a World Cup match.
To many Egyptians, his long and illustrious career has been like the stuff of folkloric tales of tenacity and resolve. But age may have finally caught up with the man whose hallmark victory celebrations — swaying to music while seated on the goal's crossbar — would be fondly remembered for years.
He has rejected talk about his age, saying he feels 20 again, but his somewhat slow reflexes and questionable judgment in recent months tell a different story and that may have been behind the decision to start the much less experienced Elshenawy in his place against Uruguay, which scored in the 89th minute.
Elshenawy lavishly praised El Hadary when he spoke to reporters after the Uruguay match, but his comments sounded more appropriate for a goodbye talk than about a rival vying with him for playing time.
"To us, captain Essam is a legend in Egypt and across Africa," he said. "For him to be with us is a valuable addition, he is always supporting and counseling me." Later, Elshenawy struck a note of humility in an interview with an Egyptian sports channel when speaking about El Hadary and Sherif Ikramy, the squad's third goalkeeper.
"Either of them is capable enough to have put on a performance like mine or even better had they played instead of me," he said.
Such talk belies the resolve of Elshenawy, whose stunning saves denied Uruguay forwards Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani at least once each from close range.
"A fighting squad. A glorious Elshenawy," declared Egypt's daily Al-Masry Al-Youm in a red front-page banner on Saturday. Egyptians also took to social media to declare their admiration.
Ironically, Elshenawy was a fixture on the bench after he joined Cairo club Al-Ahly in 2016, with Ikramy the regular starter.
Replying to a reporter's question then on why he didn't request a transfer to get playing time, he predicted: "I will at the end play and be Egypt's goalkeeper in the World Cup."
And that's not all. Following a series of mind-boggling blunders by Ikramy, Elshenawy is now Al-Ahly's top choice.
Associated Press writer Samy Magdy contributed to this report from Cairo.