AFCON: Aged 44, Egypt’s Essam El-Hadary breaks tournament record

Story highlights

Egypt 0-0 Mali

Uganda 0-1 Ghana

CNN  — 

Seven-time tournament winner Egypt took on Mali at the Africa Cup of Nations Tuesday but the action on the pitch was eclipsed by the arrival of a goalkeeper old enough to be the father of most of his teammates.

Essam El-Hadary, who celebrated his 44th birthday on Sunday, replaced the injured Ahmed El-Shenawy in the 25th minute. In doing so, he became the oldest player in the history of the tournament.

An Egyptian debutant in 1996, El-Hadary has racked up 147 caps in the decades since, behind only Spain’s Iker Casillas and Italy’s Gianluigi Buffon in the list of active players.

With four AFCON titles to his name, El-Hadary has also won Africa’s most prestigious international trophy on more occasions than most countries.

Mali’s best showing, by contrast, was second place in the eighth edition of the tournament, hosted by Cameroon back in 1972.

El Hadary was seldom troubled as the teams played out a scoreless draw but he did have to be quick off his line to dive at the feet of Moussa Marega in the second period.

The best chance of the match fell to Egypt’s Marwan Mohsen whose diving header was tipped over by Oumar Sissoko in the Mali goal.

Pictured from left to right: Gábor Király, Faryd Mondragon and Essam El-Hadary -- the oldest to play in the Euros, World Cup and AFCON respectively.

Ranked 13th in Africa and 64th in the world, the Eagles made it as far as the semifinals under the guidance of returning coach Alain Giresse in 2012, when Gabon co-hosted the cup with Equatorial-Guinea.

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But an improvement on Tuesday’s performance will likely be necessary should it hope to reach the latter stages of the competition.

Return of the Cranes

In Tuesday’s earlier fixture, Uganda announced its much anticipated tournament return after a 39-year absence.

The last time the “Cranes” appeared in an Africa Cup of Nations, dictator Idi Amin held power and none of the current squad were born.

The year was 1978 and a team of policeman, soldiers and civil servants defied the odds to reach the final against host nation Ghana, narrowly falling at the final hurdle.

Almost four decades on at Gabon’s Port Gentil stadium, a new generation stepped forward, but the opponent remained the same.

Unfortunately for Uganda, so did the outcome. Redemption had been on the cards, but the party was spoiled with just half an hour on the clock when Ghana captain Asamoah Gyan was fouled in the penalty area by an indecisive Isaac Isinde, giving André Ayew the chance to convert from the spot.

The West Ham forward made no mistake, coolly dispatching past CAF domestic African Player of the Year Denis Onyango in the Uganda goal.

Ghana’s greater pedigree was clear and, with the Black Stars appearing in no mood to repeat their opening game defeat of two years ago, Newcastle United loanee Christian Atsu repeatedly tormented Ugandan full-back Joseph Ochaya down the right.

While Uganda’s starting lineup was selected from nine different divisions around the world, it couldn’t boast a household name playing in one of Europe’s big five leagues.

Young Standard Liege forward Farouk Miya could be the first to make the leap in years to come, and the 19-year-old saw an effort kiss the outside Razak Brimah’s left post.

But for the most part the Cranes were struggling to find their rhythm, and the experienced Gyan – who could reach 50 international goals this tournament – saw two efforts of his own flash narrowly wide.

The Ayew brothers – sons of legendary former Ghana captain Abedi Pele – also combined well, and Uganda’s Serbian coach Milutin ‘Micho’ Sredojevic would have been pleased to hear the half-time whistle blow.

Sredojevic, the tournament’s longest-serving manager, had urged his players to “throw everything onto the field of play,” telling CNN in the tournament’s buildup that a good showing could make them “immortals.”

He sent Moses Oloya into the fray for the second 45 minutes, and the Vietnam-based midfielder combined well with Tony Mawejje on the hour as Uganda began to press.

A long way from the Icelandic Premier League where he plies his trade, Mawejje unleashed a number of fierce efforts on the Ghanaian goal.

Uganda began to control the game, enjoying a greater share of possession as the second half wore on.

Ghana boss Avram Grant responded to the threat with a series of defensive substitutions, replacing goalscorer Ayew and talisman Gyan with midfielders to the derision of the Ghana crowd.

And his cautious approach paid off, as the plucky Cranes were unable to avenge the defeat of 39 years ago.

Victorious here, eight of the Ghanian eleven on show also started in the 2015 AFCON final – a match the Black Stars agonizingly lost on penalties.

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Ivory Coast lifted the trophy that day, ending years of underachievement from what was perceived to be a golden generation.

Without an AFCON title since 1982, perhaps today’s Black Stars are ready to do the same in Gabon.