It is a big deal to a lot of people, the fleeing of Egypt s premier football goalkeeper to a little known Swiss club without having the courtesy of first informing his domestic side Ahly. The story has been compelling stuff for the media and public from the time of the Great Escape on Feb. 21, and unlike so many breaking news incidents that fade speedily from view and memory, this one just won t go away.
Essam El-Hadari is certainly the best goalkeeper in Egypt today – some say its most successful – for the second consecutive time voted the best goalkeeper in the Africa Cup of Nations. He s one of the big reasons we won the ACN and why Ahly is headed for its fourth straight league championship. All reasons why his departure in such manner is so confounding.
His Ahly contract is said to be around LE 1.5 million a year. Those TV commercials and newspaper ads for mobile phones give him a few extra pounds, more than enough to offset the $400,000 new Swiss club Sion offered.
Perhaps El-Hadari has won everything he can for Ahly but perhaps not everything for himself. May be he wants to put himself to the real test, that of Europe. The search for a new challenge when all has been accomplished is not new. Remember Michael Jordan leaving basketball for baseball?
El-Hadari says he would like to use Sion as a springboard for greater heights but his rumored link to Chelsea or Arsenal cannot be taken seriously when superstars Peter Czech and Jans Lehman are respectively manning the posts.
And at 35 El-Hadari is not getting any younger although goalkeepers enjoy longer playing careers than the players in front of them. Dino Zoff was 40 when he captained Italy to the 1982 World Cup. At 40, Peter Shilton helped steer England to a semi-final berth in the World Cup of 1990.
The getaway would not have grown humongous had El-Hadari gone to the really big clubs in the world like Manchester United or Real Madrid. If anything, we would be happy for him and proud that an Egyptian would be playing on such glamour teams. But Sion, an unheard of, eight place team in the unheard of Swiss league? Not what you would want a goalkeeper of El-Hadari s stature to end up in.
Again, there would be no story had Ahly not depended on El-Hadari so much and for so long. He has been guarding Ahly s goal for a good nine years straight with not a day off in between. His substitute Amir Abdel-Hamid has done nothing more valuable than warm the substitute s bench, and has seen only the slightest of action. Because he s never played, nobody even knows what Ahly s No 3 in the nets, Ahmed Abdel-Moneim, looks like.
Sabet El-Batal and Ikrami, two of Ahly and Egypt s all-time great goalkeepers of the 1970s and 1980s, were platooned so that they would rotate one match for El-Batal, the next for Ikrami and so on. The result was Ahly in possession of two excellent, fit goalkeepers for more than 15 years. Abdel-Wahed and Abdel-Monsef of Zamalek have the same one-two system, which is why their club has no goalkeeping worries.
Ahly is atop the league table and is lucky to have a 13-point cushion over second place Petrojet with 12 games to play. The problem is in the African Champions League which begins later this month and whose roster has been set and sealed, preventing Ahly from signing any player from the outside. But as soon as possible, should El-Hadari not return, Ahly are sure to get a goalkeeper of international repute.
El-Hadari might have thought Ahly would not have agreed to terms with Sion and, yes, Ahly does not normally let many of its players out of its grip although Hassan Mustafa, Wa el Gomaa and Mohamed Shawki have all left Ahly recently for clubs in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and England without any fuss.So El-Hadari has gone from hero to zero. He s being called a traitor, disloyal, a turncoat, defector and deserter.
The verdict shared by most people and this column included: El-Hadari was not wrong to seek out another club, for whatever the reason, but was wrong to have done so in the dead of night, unannounced, like a common criminal.