CAPE TOWN - The recent international week finalised the 32 qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Africa will be represented by Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Nigeria and Senegal - and it was the exploits of remarkable Egyptian goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary that had me meandering down the passage of time.
When football’s great showpiece event rolls around next year, the 44-year-old will make his World Cup debut and, in the process, become the oldest player to feature at the tournament.
El-Hadary’s extraordinary longevity in the game slung me back to 1990, a period of great change in South Africa. It was the beginning of the negotiated process to end Apartheid. From a football perspective, talks around the unification of football were also under way. Because of the international isolation of the country, we were insulated both as a nation and a people.
So, by the time the 1990 World Cup kicked off in Italy in June-July, darkness had given way to light, and we were able to see the world through brighter eyes; there was an optimism running through the entire continent. The monster had caved in, and Africa was ready to embrace a new hero who represented the vast potential at its core. We found one - boy, did we find one: the incomparable Roger Milla.
As El-Hadary prepares to confound the age factor in Russia next year, memories of the age-defying Milla will continue to reverberate in the corridors of my mind. At the age of 38, the Cameroon legend netted four goals as the Indomitable Lions became the first African team to reach the World Cup quarter-finals.
Who can forget the “old man” dancing around the corner flag in celebration? It was a moment for the entire continent to savour. It was a moment that still inspires.
Four years later, at the age of 42, at the 1994 World Cup in the USA, he scored again, to become the oldest goal-scorer in the event’s history.
In 1992, though, with South Africa by then readmitted to international football, Milla was to be seen, in the flesh, right here in the Mother City, when Bafana Bafana played Cameroon at the Goodwood Showgrounds (now the site of Grandwest Casino). He was 40 years old. I was there that day, supporting my Santos teammate Duncan Crowie, who was in the Bafana squad - and, let me tell you, Milla was as sprightly as ever, his touch superb and his football as intelligent and intuitive as a kid 20 years younger.
Much as Milla symbolised so much with his fantastic performances in 1990, so, too, El-Hadary’s presence will mean so much to Egyptians. The goalkeeper has been ever-present during the ups and downs of Egypt the football team, and the Egypt the country. He was there when Egypt won three consecutive Africa Cup of Nations titles - 2006, 2008 and 2010 - and now, as the country emerges from the upheaval of the revolution of 2011, he is part of the awakening too.
El-Hadary will next year break the record set by 43-year-old Columbian goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon. Because of the nature of football, the position of goalkeeper invariably lends itself to longevity. Like El-Hadary, there have been other veteran keepers at the World Cup, like Ali Boumnijel (40), Dino Zoff (40), Peter Shilton (40), Pat Jennings (41), David James (39) and Jim Leighton (39). Zoff is still the oldest player ever to win the World Cup, when Italy beat West Germany 3-1 in the 1982 final in Spain.
But the fact that goalkeepers dominate the “old” list is an indication of just how special Milla’s feats as a striker at the World Cup are. Time will always make fools of us on this ephemeral journey we embark upon as soon as we are born, but, sometimes, just sometimes, nature bestows special status on a few chosen ones. They defy the normal, accepted standards and go beyond - and, in this way, chart a new path to aspire to. Like Milla.
So, next year, when the World Cup checks in, and El-Hadary lines up for Egypt (he will be 45 then), I will remember Milla in 1990, and I will remember South Africa in 1990. And, as much as the dreams and optimism of the time are slowly being crushed, the Roger Milla legend is still a parable of what’s possible. And that, most certainly, is something to cling to.