ZURICH, Switzerland — Essam El-Hadary’s face is broad and unlined. He has a majestic head of midnight-black hair. His eyes are clear, his smile is full, and his frame — 30 pounds lighter than it has been — is lean and unbent. He does not look 45 years old, like he’s about to become the oldest man to play in a World Cup. Sitting in a hotel lobby in Zurich, he looks more like a man at ease, like a titan of industry, content in his skin and the surrounding luxury. Only his hands betray the truth of his life and trade. He has the hands of a working man twice his age.
He holds them up for examination with equal parts pride and reticence. Seeing El-Hadary’s hands without gloves is a little jarring, like seeing a lion shaved of its mane. “Egyptian hands,” he calls them. They are huge and incalculably damaged. Several of his fingers look as though they’ve been smashed with hammers. He has knuckles where the human hand is not meant to have them.
Has he broken all of his fingers? “Almost,” he says, before tucking his hands back out of sight.
He has been a professional goalkeeper since 1993, earning 156 caps for Egypt. Saves made, not goals allowed, have left the plainer scars. “Life has sometimes been difficult,” he says through a translator. “Football has made me. But I always feel like I’m at the beginning. I always feel like I’m starting over.”
He picks up his phone. It looks tiny in his mangled grasp. “If my phone rings, I’ll answer it,” he says. “That’s how I’ve approached my entire career. When I stop is not up to me. When nobody is calling me, that’s when I’ll know that nobody needs me anymore. So long as it rings, somebody needs me.”
He returns the phone to the table in front of him and shrugs.
“It’s still ringing,” he says. “I’m still answering.”
El-Hadary seems destined to answer the call for Egypt once again in Russia. (His principal domestic rival, 26-year-old Ahmed El-Shenawy, injured his knee in April and will not be fit for the tournament.) El-Hadary has mixed feelings about the record he is poised to break, the way he feels conflicted when he’s asked to show his hands. He says he’s been beset by media requests. He has turned most of them down.
Goalkeepers have long been football’s most probable ancients. It’s the position for which wisdom can most compensate for physical decline. The World Cup’s longevity record is held, at least for the moment, by Faryd Mondragon, who was 43 when he played goal for Colombia in 2014. Dino Zoff remains the oldest winner of a World Cup; he was 40 when he captained Italy to victory in 1982. Peter Shilton of England and Pat Jennings of Northern Ireland also played into their 40s.
El-Hadary looks to outstrip them not by weeks or months but by years. In Africa, he is already regarded as an all-time great — Didier Drogba called him his “best opponent” — but he knows that breaking Mondragon’s mark, possibly during Egypt’s opener against Uruguay on June 15, will subject him to the most intense global attention of his storied career. He also knows too well every question that will follow.
One, he is happy to answer: How do you do it? He has worked hard his entire life, he says, single-minded in his focus on football. He admits that he hasn’t spent as much time with his wife and five children, the youngest only 4 years old, as he should have. He watches what he eats, has a personal trainer and spends at least 20 minutes of every day in an ice bath. Whenever he’s asked by strangers on the streets his secret, ice is always his answer.
The harder question for El-Hadary is: What does it mean?
It means that he has been lucky enough to play football for a very long time. “I’ve done almost everything,” he says. He has won 37 trophies for club and country, including a 12-season run with Egyptian giants Al-Ahly, where he won eight Egyptian Premier League titles between 1997 and 2008, and four Africa Cup of Nations, where he was named goalkeeper of the tournament three times. He’s also won the Egypt Cup, the Egyptian Super Cup and CAF Champions League four times each, as well as cups during sojourns in Switzerland and Sudan. He still has a year left in his professional contract with Al-Taawoun of the Saudi Professional League, and he is about to go to the World Cup as the backbone of Egypt’s first appearance since 1990, a crowning achievement after years of near misses and crushing disappointment.
“My goal has always been the World Cup,” El-Hadary says. When Egypt finally qualified with a dramatic late win over Congo, “I was the happiest man in the world.”
It also means that he is about to make the last of his dreams come true.
Growing old requires a delusion that masquerades as defiance, a belief that you can make yourself immune to time and its plagues. When El-Hadary had been proving a reluctant interview subject, I told him that I’m a fellow keeper, and, at 44, I still play, if at a slightly lower level than him. He’s about to become the patron saint for millions of truth-resistant men like me. He will be the best evidence that it’s still worth fighting our shared, unwinnable fight.
Now, sitting across from him, I tell him that I’m smug enough about my own longevity that I’ve started wearing my age as my uniform number. I change it every year. I wear it on my back like a badge of honor.
El-Hadary shakes his head. “That’s the difference between me and you,” he says. He wore his age as his number only once, and it was an accident, after his move from Al-Ahly to Switzerland’s FC Sion in 2008. He was 35, still young then, and he was randomly assigned the same number.
“It was a mistake,” he says. “For the rest of my life, I’ve only worn number one.”
I shouldn’t celebrate my age, he says. El-Hadary’s more effective strategy has been to try to forget his, building wall after wall of psychic defenses against life’s hardest truths. He might be the most willfully blind man alive.
Ask him about facing the likes of Luis Suarez in Russia, and he sticks out his chin. “There will be big names,” he says. “I am also a big name. I’ve played against Spain and Italy. I’ve played against Real Madrid. I’ve played against Zinedine Zidane and Roberto Carlos. But when I’m actually playing, I don’t see faces. I don’t care who we are playing. I see only opponents.”
Ask him if he’s going to be nervous before the biggest tournament of his life, and he puffs out his chest. “Playing at the World Cup will be like every other game I’ve played. Yes, the whole world will be watching. If you don’t have strong character, if you’re afraid, if you don’t have the will to be powerful, you will be useless. You will be ordinary.”
But ask him about his age one more time, and at last, if only for an instant, he shrinks under the reality of it all, forced to acknowledge what he has always fought to ignore.
“I’m old, OK? I am old. It’s a fact,” he says.
Then he goes quiet for a moment.
“But my age is just a number, hidden in my passport.”
Now his whole body starts to expand, joining his chin and his chest at their outer limits.
“Forty-five is just a shape stamped next to my name.”
Now he’s rising out of his chair. He’s hitting the table.
“At the World Cup, I’ll be wearing number one.”
Now he’s close to shouting, plumbing the depths of his barrel lungs, lifting one of his broken fingers high in the shimmering air.
“Number one. That’s the only number that matters.”
El-Hadary sits back down. His eyes go clear, and he smiles his full smile, exorcised once more of the ghost that he refuses to become.
Later that day, he joins Egypt for training, outside Zurich’s Letzigrund, where the team has set up camp between friendlies against Portugal and Greece. It is a perfect spring evening. The air is warm and the sun is low. El-Hadary pulls on his gloves and, the way he does before every training session and game, he sprays a huge mouthful of water on them in a loud and dramatic stream. Then he starts to stretch.
He keeps goal the way it was once kept. He likens his style to his fellow legends, Iker Casillas and Gianluigi Buffon, more comfortable moving side-to-side than out of his box. He also prefers long drop kicks to modern short ball. He says that he can play more like Manuel Neuer “if necessary” — when Bob Bradley coached Egypt, the two men sometimes battled over the definition of “necessary” — but he would rather play from his line. Staying at home has carried him this far, hasn’t it?
El-Hadary doesn’t know what will happen after the World Cup. It’s one more thing that he tries not to think about. When pressed, he says he will probably retire from international football. He did once before, in 2013, before his phone rang again, but he suspects that he won’t be called by Egypt anymore. He will continue his club career next season with Al-Taawoun, and then until nobody needs him. Then he’ll get to know his children a little better between his ice baths. He will sit in ice every day until the day he dies.
He will not, however, have anything to do with football, he says. He will not manage or coach. He is a football player. When he is done playing, he will be done with football.
It’s hard to watch him and not wonder whether that ever will be. He completes his exercises with an old man’s sense of ritual and discipline, but he still looks young doing them. He throws himself on the ground, practicing each roll and landing as though he’s never done either before. He takes shot after shot, high, then low, high, then low. How many times has he followed a ball’s flight? You’d guess a million times. You’d guess never.
The sun continues to set as El-Hadary continues to train, smooth and practiced and calm. His gloves make his hands seem unbroken and soft. He stops ball after ball with hardly a sound. He looks so prideful. He looks so imperious. He looks as though he’s never seen more clearly than he can see right now, on the cool of the grass, in the last of the light.