Bob Bradley: The American Pharaoh Carrying More Than Egypt's World Cup Hopes
In many countries, the role of national team coach is described as an "impossible job."
In Brazil, the majority of the 200 million population think they know better than the national team coach. In England, the ferocious tabloid media have successfully targeted and cost the job of several England managers who have fallen short of their lofty expectations. Even in Spain, before success finally arrived at Euro 2008, the job of uniting the Basques, the Catalans and the myriad regional nationalities into a united and cohesive entity was regarded as an almost insurmountable test.
Bob Bradley knows about the unique challenges of being the leader of a country's football team. From 2006 to 2011, Bradley was in charge of his native USA. He led the Yanks to victory in the 2007 Gold Cup and to a second-place finish in the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa (which included a famous 2-0 semi-final victory against Spain) before a 4-2 defeat to Mexico in the final of the 2011 Gold Cup cost him his job.
While the demands and expectations of being head coach of the USA are not comparable to that of Brazil, England and Spain, few national team coaching jobs are easy. That said, even Bradley could not have imagined the obstacles and hurdles that would be thrown in his path since becoming coach of the Egypt national team in September 2011.
Said Bradley, when we sat down in Cairo for an interview recently:
"We have had a revolution and then a counter-revolution. We had a football stadium disaster in Port Said that claimed the lives of 74 people. We had the domestic league cancelled. We had the offices of the Egyptian Football Association burnt down.
"There isn’t much that hasn’t happened since I got here. But the dream is still alive in what is a historic time for Egypt. Football is about the only thing that unites people in Egypt right now. So for as long as we can still qualify for the World Cup in Brazil we will keep on fighting."
Bradley’s appointment as Egypt national team coach surprised many. Few American coaches work outside of their home country, but the 55-year-old had a link to Egypt that proved significant. He understood about the passion of the fans from the clubs and the national team.
"I knew about the great history and that Egypt had been champions of Africa a record seven times but that they had not qualified for the World Cup in 24 years," Bradley said. "We also played against Egypt in the 2009 Confederations Cup, so I felt I knew quite a bit about Egyptian football."
But while Bradley’s understanding and affection for Egypt has a deeper history than most people realise, the American's actions after the Port Said disaster in February 2011 went, some would say, beyond the call of duty.
The match between Cairo club Al Ahly and Al Masry at first seemed like another case of a bitter rivalry between two football clubs spilling over into violence and tragedy. But as the hours and days passed, the ugly truth seeped out.
While there are several versions of what went on in Port Said Stadium that evening (BBC report here), certain facts are clear. The Al Masry fans were heavily armed with knives, clubs, swords and stones, while the police inside the stadium did nothing to prevent the violence and refused to open the gates to allow fans to escape.
While there are one-thousand-and-one versions and conspiracy theories surrounding the events of Port Said, few dispute the broad version that says the authorities instigated the massacre as an act of revenge following the role played by the Al Ahly Ultras in the Egyptian revolution 11 months earlier (context from the BBC here).
Egypt’s Arab Spring eventually saw President Hosni Mubarak step down as leader after 30 years in charge. Almost a year later, the Port Said massacre happened.
"For the first few months of this job I went to as many games as I possibly could to get a feel for the league and the players," said Bradley. "We looked at the schedule and saw that on February there was a big match between Al Masry and Al Ahly in Port Said.
"We opted to watch Zamlek play Ismaily in Cairo, but when we heard there had been some problems in Port Said we all gathered around the TV. The images were horrific, and while at first we weren’t sure how it came about, we now know that it was a massacre."
At the time, Bradley's use of the word "massacre," as per the Los Angeles Times, was not well received by all. He was right, but calling it a massacre meant that someone was to blame, and it wouldn't take a rocket scientist to work out that Bradley was pointing his finger at remnants of the old regime that were still in positions of power.
The Egyptian FA hastily called a press conference, where Bradley had to deny he was criticising the ruling regime, but six months later the American is unrepentant.
"You could see from the pictures on TV that something wasn't right," Bradley said. "The police in the stadium were standing (sic) around and letting it happen. Gates were locked, the lights went out at a certain point. Many people have since been put on trial for roles that they played.
"Many of the Al Masry Ultras were convicted. Many of the security officials at the stadium were convicted. Many got off. Even to this day it is still very raw and emotional."
At that point, many people would have opted to leave the country. The Port Said disaster ignited further unrest throughout Egypt, and the violence spiraled out of control. The U.S. Embassy even put out a memo to say that all Americans should leave the country at once, as per Huffington Post.
Their safety could no longer be guaranteed. But instead of packing his bags, grabbing his passport and booking the first flight home, Bradley stayed. His first priority was paying his respects to the dead, and, along with his wife and Zak Abdel, he joined the peaceful march in Sphinx Square to pay respects to the dead.
Said Bradley of how the disaster affected those around him:
"The first time I saw the players after Port Said you could see it in their eyes. They told me how the locker room became a hospital as they were treating the injured fans. Some of the players had fans dying in their arms. Several of them said they would retire from football if this was what it meant, but gradually we spoke to them and helped them through their pain.
"Little by little, they started to get back to normal and eventually the national team players got their focus back. We had become friends and brothers, and in a strange kind of way, the experience made us stronger."
But the trauma and tragedy of Port Said weren’t the only obstacles Bradley had to overcome. After the disaster, the domestic league was cancelled. With the majority of the national team squad plying their trade in the Egyptian Premier League, and with their first World Cup qualifier only five months away, it was a major setback to Bradley’s plans.
"The domestic league was suspended and so the players weren’t getting paid," recalls Bradley. "It was a tough situation but we made it work because we had to. We took every training camp we could, we organized friendly matches in Khartoum, Sudan, we went to Dubai a few times, we played in Tripoli, Beirut.
"Over that time we really grew as a group, and the more we spoke about it, the more we realized what an incredible dream it would be if we could qualify for the World Cup."
Indeed, rather than being distracted by the events of Port Said and the political situation, Bradley's players were more focused than ever before. Their World Cup campaign began with a 2-0 win at home to Mozambique and nine days later a 3-2 triumph in Guinea. Home and away victories against Zimbabwe were then followed by a 1-0 victory in Mozambique before a 4-2 home success against Guinea completed an incredible "perfect six," as Egypt became the only team in African World Cup qualifying to have a 100 percent record.
"In a strange way, everything that happened in Port Said and elsewhere actually served to make us more united and more determined," said Bradley. "Sure, we have guys in the dressing room that have different political opinions, but there is also a lot of respect between us all.
"We all realized that to achieve the goal of making it to Brazil 2014, we would need to put all the divisions and differences to one side, and that’s what we have done."
So far so good, but the job is far from complete. With 10 groups in the Africa zone, the group winners will now compete in five two-legged playoff matches to decide which teams will represent Africa in Brazil next year. Egypt were handed a tough draw and will face Ghana.
The Black Stars are a familiar foe to Bradley, whose USA team lost to them in the round of 16 at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
"That game in Rustenburg will be with me forever," said Bradley. "But Ghana are a different team now, with a different coach, and I am in charge of a different team so I don’t fear them."
Bradley has other reasons to be optimistic. The biggest fear the Egyptian Football Association had was a playoff against their North African rivals Algeria. In 2009, when the two sides met in Cairo for a place in South Africa, the Algerian team bus was attacked, as per the New York Times.
In retaliation, Egyptian interests in Algeria were attacked and diplomatic tensions between the two countries became strained.
"I'm really happy to be playing an ‘African’ opponent, rather than one of the other Arab countries," said Bradley. "Our players respect Ghana, but unlike a match against Algeria or Tunisia, the match will be just about football. There will be no politics and less emotion that can sometimes have a negative affect on the team."
And that is not all.
"The most important thing for me was to be at home for the second leg," said Bradley. "For us to play in front of our fans, after everything that has gone on, would be an incredible reward for them and the players."
After the interview, Bradley received another boost. Egypt played all three of its home qualifying matches outside Cairo in the Red Sea ports of Alexandria and El Gouna. Two of them were played behind closed doors in an empty stadium.
On November 19, the 30,000-capacity 30 June Stadium in Cairo—named as per AP, "to commemorate the day this year when millions of Egyptians took to the streets to demand the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi"—will open its doors for the second leg against Ghana. This will be the first time a match has been played in front of a full crowd in Egypt since the Port Said disaster.
But whatever happens on November 19, years will go with Bob Bradley to his grave. For an American to have united Egypt behind their team’s unlikely dream is the stuff of fantasy and fiction.
"Since I have been here, it's be an amazing chapter in Egypt’s history," said Bradley. "It's not just another job, it’s been an incredible experience for me and my wife. But for me it comes down to a question of, 'Can we qualify for the World Cup?'
"So in that respect, the most important chapter is yet to be written."
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