Goalkeeping is a craft that doesn’t really thrive in Africa. Players in our part of the world usually show greater aptitude for using feet than hands, which explains why, for so many African sides, the last line of defence often is a troubling weak link, with few displaying the temperament and quality required to reach the very top in the trade.
Occasionally, however, a truly remarkable goalkeeper comes along who rises to international acclaim. Cameroon’s Thomas N’Kono — the man whose feats of distinction at the 1990 Fifa World Cup inspired a young Gianluigi Buffon’s ultimately rewarding decision to stay in goal for the rest of his professional life — is perhaps the prime example, while the Indomitable Lions have had other world-class glovesmen, notably Carlos Kameni, Jacques Songo’o and Joseph-Antoine Bell.
Nigeria’s Vincent Enyeama has also proven a bright star between the posts, while — albeit to a slightly lesser extent — Ghanaian hero Robert Mensah also excelled prior to his tragic, premature demise in November 1971.
As pointed out at the outset, there haven’t been many worth celebrating. Of the handful, though, there is one that stands out for special mention: Essam El-Hadary. The longest reigning of Egypt’s Pharaohs, El-Hadary called time on his national career earlier this week — and what a career it’s been!
El-Hadary, to be sure, hasn’t just joined the queue of African goalkeeping greats; he’s jumped right to the front of that elite class, overtaking even N’Kono, widely regarded as the greatest of them all. El-Hadary never got to exhibit his talents in Europe as fully as N’Kono did in his time, but the Egyptian edges the contest courtesy his superior exploits on the international stage.
N’Kono’s medals with Cameroon from four Nations Cup editions – one gold, one silver — remain impressive, but the revered Cameroonian only ever played at as many Afcons as El-Hadary won. And, in at least three of those triumphs (stretching from 2006 to 2010), El-Hadary didn’t earn glory off the backs of his colleagues; his own excellence was a big reason why Egypt won that unprecedented hat-trick of crowns.
Yes, those three titles came in five quick years, but it was just enough time for El-Hadary, then in his prime, to prove his worth to his nation’s cause — and to the wider world. By the time Hassan Shehata’s almost invincible Egypt had wrapped up the lot, the Damietta native’s legacy was complete, etched in gold, and never to be diminished. Add to those conquests a first Afcon won just before the turn of the century and the runner-up finish in El-Hadary’s final showing at the tournament, and it matters neither that the ‘High Dam’ and his country suffered a seven-year slump prior to his continental swansong nor that he only managed one Fifa World Cup appearance to N’Kono’s eight — El-Hadary was just that bit better for his country, let’s face it.
If the claim feels somewhat arguable on that solitary count, the metric of longevity pretty much bags the bragging rights for the good old Egyptian. El-Hadary has played longer than any international goalkeeper on record, his 22 years and more than four months of duty only slightly bettered by Ecuadorian outfield player Ivan Hurtado. And although the 159 caps El-Hadary packed into that period may be some way short of compatriot Ahmed Hassan’s all-time mark of 184, it’s still many more than N’Kono’s respectable 112.
The last of those came in Egypt’s final game at the just-ended World Cup in Russia and, perhaps to prove there is no shame in making one’s global debut at the ripe old age of 45 (a new world-record, by the way), El-Hadary marked the occasion with a fine save from a Saudi penalty. In that one moment, the rarity of what El-Hadary had accomplished sunk in: to play this well and this long — even for a goalkeeper — requires a special kind of ability that N’Kono, having represented his nation four years and 47 games less and with fewer silverware to show for it, never quite matched. For all the Espanyol legend’s undisputed brilliance, he’s been replaced by El-Hadary as the standard.
Hence, while we’d never see an euphoric El-Hadary swaying in delight atop the goal-frame after another famous Egypt triumph, above the pantheon of the very best goalkeepers Africa has ever known he now sits and swings – beyond the reach of N’Kono and everyone else.