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 By Mark Gleeson

Egypt icon Essam El Hadary bids for ANC, the World Cup and world record

Essam El Hadary, 43, is bidding for African Nations Cup glory and World Cup qualification with Egypt.

If you were asked to guess the age of the goalkeeper with jet black hair and matinee idol looks standing between the sticks for Egypt, you would likely be astonished to find Essam El Hadary is now 43.

A clean sheet against Ghana earlier this month in a vital World Cup qualifier in Alexandria was the latest achievement for a player whose international career has now exceeded two decades.

The game was his 145th for Egypt since his debut against South Korea in March 1996 and if he continues as Hector Cuper's first choice in the upcoming African Nations Cup, he will reach 150 at the tournament in Gabon, closing in on a place in the top 20 of most-capped internationals.

Egypt's opening game in Group D against Mali in Port Gentil on Jan. 17 will come two days after his 44th birthday, making him easily the oldest player to compete at the tournament. If he can help Egypt to qualify for the World Cup in Russia, then he will get a chance to break Faryd Mondragon's record as the oldest player at a finals game.

Goalkeepers usually enjoy some longevity but El Hadary is not merely seeing out his playing days -- he's enjoying something of renaissance. He has forced his way back into the team, selected by the demanding Argentine coach Cuper, after seemingly being at the end of his international playing days after Egypt failed to qualify for the 2013 Nations Cup.

El Hadary has been an almost constant presence in the squad but served as back-up in the last years to younger contenders for Egypt's No. 1 jersey. Between mid-2012 and June this year he played just a single competitive international for Egypt but continued to turn out in friendly internationals.

It is no surprise that his club form at Wadi Degla and his teenage-like enthusiasm around the squad has helped El Hadary force his way back in. It is remarkable, however, to do so at the age of 43.

El Hadary knows all too well the bitter disappointment that Egypt have suffered in recent times, particularly with unsuccessful World Cup qualification and failure to qualify for the last three Nations Cup tournaments, having won three in a row before that.

He was an integral part of the glory days the Egyptians will be hoping to revive in Gabon in two months' time.

Essam El Hadary has won the African Nations Cup four times with Egypt, most recently in 2010.

"Egypt has a long history in this competition. We've won it seven times, three of them in a row, which is something nobody else has ever done. Us being there is going to add interest to the competition, and I am certain that football fans in Egypt, the Arab world and Africa are delighted to see us back," he said in a recent interview.

The obvious target, though, is the World Cup. Egypt have suffered a series of bitter disappointments in their bid to qualify for the first time since the World Cup in Italy 26 years ago.

El Hadary is hoping to be there in 18 months' time and recently extended his club contract by two years. He has a deal that keeps him at Wadi Degla until the end of the 2018-19 season.

"I'm proud of my long career but playing in the World Cup is something special for any player. There is no limit to my ambition and I have always been determined to achieve that objective," he added.

Egypt's goalkeeping coach Ahmed Nagy reckons El Hadary can go on until his 50th birthday.

"I told El Hadary a few years ago that he would be playing until the age of 50 because of how hard and seriously he is training," Nagy said.

"He holds on to that word. When we took over [in March 2015] we weren't considering El Hadary because we were aiming for young and promising keepers. However, his performances and consistency thrust him into our choices."

Mark Gleeson covers African football for ESPN FC.


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