BENGUELA // Age cannot wither him, nor custom stale his infinite desire for success. In today's African Cup of Nations quarter-final against Cameroon, Egypt's Ahmed Hassan will win his 170th cap, and so break his compatriot Hossam Hassan's record for an African player, but a yet greater prize perhaps awaits: a fourth Cup of Nations title, and a third in a row.
"I'm very happy and proud of the record," said the Egypt captain Hassan, before denying rumours he might bow out should his side achieve the unprecedented hat-trick next Sunday. "I feel very honoured to wear the Egyptian team shirt. As long as the team needs me, and as long as I have something to give I'll keep playing for them. I hope to play for 100 years." That statement of intent will come as a relief to Egypt who, as their veteran team manager Samir Adly acknowledges, are coming to the end of an era.
For more than a decade now, probably even from before the 1998 final against South Africa in Burkina Faso when Hassan scored the goal he considers "the turning point" of his career, he has been the metronome in the Pharaohs' midfield, setting the tempo with his precise and intelligent passing. His deliciously curved through-ball for Emad Motoeb's equaliser against Nigeria was probably his highlight of the tournament so far, but it was just another example of what he has been doing for years. Remove the conductor, and who knows what might happen to the orchestra, particularly as its members become increasingly inexperienced?
If Hassan, 34, needed additional motivation, it came last November, as Egypt lost 1-0 to Algeria in a World Cup qualifying play-off. "Maybe that game was the most disappointing moment of my career," he said. "I've played in a lot of World Cup qualifiers and I know that might have been my last. All our supporters are angry because we missed the World Cup, but this might make them a little bit happier."
The personal consequences of the defeat in Omdurman have prompted some soul-searching. "You can't have everything," he said, but he has clearly given some thought to the issue of whether he would trade his Cup of Nations medals for an appearance in a World Cup. "For every player it's a dream to play in the World Cup. But it didn't happen, so we have to turn that page and see what comes up next. Of course the World Cup is a big thing and if you go there you know it's very hard to win it, but I've been African champion three times and I wouldn't give medals away just for three games in the World Cup."
In Benguela, Hassan will come up against another 34 year old starting to feel the creep of mortality: Rigobert Song. Having lost the national captaincy last year, he only started on the bench against Tunisia on Friday, although Cameroon's creaky back-line looked decidedly more secure after he had come on. Song and Hassan have met six times in competitive fixtures, Cameroon winning one and Egypt three, perhaps most notably in the Cup of Nations final in Ghana, two years ago, when a Song error gifted Mohamed Aboutrika the winner.
"It's time we beat them," said their captain, Samuel Eto'o, but if they are to do so, they will need a dramatic improvement from their form of the first round, when they lost to Gabon and had to come from behind to beat Zambia and draw with Tunisia. "Our strong character saw us through," said Cameroon's coach Paul Le Guen, but they will need more than that against Egypt. The ongoing battle of the Nigeria coach Shaibu Amodu to save his job carries on Lubango in today's second quarter-final as they face Zambia in Lubango.
"The pressure," as Zambia's coach Herve Renard said pointedly, "is on them." email@example.com Egypt v Cameroon, 8pm, Aljazeera Sport 2, Nigeria v Zambia, 11.30pm, Aljazeera Sport + 9