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How life (and death) change Egyptian soccer and its American coach

Bob Bradley, the former U.S. coach once seen as aloof, has become an emotional leader as Egypt's national soccer team moves one win from the final round of World Cup qualifying.

May 11, 2013|By Kevin Baxter
  • Egypt Coach Bob Bradley watches his players during an exhibition against Qatar in Doha earlier this year.
Egypt Coach Bob Bradley watches his players during an exhibition against… (Karim Jafaar / AFP / Getty…)

Bob Bradley wasn't looking for an adventure as much as he was looking for a job after being fired as coach of the U.S. soccer team two years ago.

But in Egypt he found both. When Bradley arrived in the fall of 2011 to take over Egypt's national soccer program, the country was teetering between revolution and rebellion.

The Arab Spring uprising had already unseated longtime leader Hosni Mubarak, and five months after Bradley began work a deadly riot broke out at an Egyptian Premier League match, killing 74.

It probably wasn't the best time to take any soccer job in Egypt. Because of the violence the country's top domestic league was shut down twice, leaving the players without pay or a place to play. And when the government declined to provide adequate security, Bradley's team had to play its first World Cup qualifier in an empty military stadium.

Yet despite it all — or maybe because of it all — Bradley has Egypt a win away from the final round of qualifying for next summer's World Cup, a tournament it has played in just twice since 1930.

"In those difficult circumstances we were able to start to establish something, a trust and an understanding of the opportunity that we had to try to do something special during a time in the country when, honestly, everything's pretty difficult," Bradley says.

"When a national team steps on a field you need to make sure that people look on that field and feel proud. They feel like they're part of it. I think that certainly fits the situation and the challenges that we see here."

As astonishing as soccer's survival in Egypt may seem, however, the bigger surprise is that Bradley has become its savior. He was criticized as robotic, unimaginative, even dispassionate while leading the U.S. into the knockout round of the 2010 World Cup. Now, many in Egypt insist Bradley saved their team through his creativity, emotion and force of will.

The day after the February 2012, riots in the Suez Canal city of Port Said — an event Bradley called "a massacre" — the coach and his wife, Lindsay, marched with thousands of Egyptians in Cairo's Sphinx Square to honor the dead. They visited a memorial, where they spoke with relatives of those who had died. Quietly, they donated money to the survivors. Bradley, his wife and two daughters, also rallied support for the Children's Cancer Hospital of Egypt, to which they also gave money. And last November, after an accident involving a train and school bus killed dozens of children in Asyut, 230 miles south of Cairo, Bradley met with the victims' families.

"Egypt is a region where emotion counts. People respond emotionally and that response is important," says James M. Dorsey, a former foreign correspondent for the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, who writes a blog on Middle Eastern soccer. "If you respond to situations with a sense that you understand what's going on and that you empathize and that you're part of this, people value that."

Hassan El Mestikawy, a well-known sports analyst in Egypt, pays Bradley an ever bigger compliment. "He's an Egyptian," El Mestikawy says.

Bradley had managed three Major League Soccer teams, including Chivas USA, and some age-group U.S. national squads before being chosen over Juergen Klinsmann to manage the U.S. team in 2006 — only to be replaced by Klinsmann five years later, something Bradley still won't talk about.

Europe, not the Middle East, was Bradley's first choice for a new job. After interviewing unsuccessfully with a club team in Mexico, then reportedly being considered for jobs at Fulham and Aston Villa in the English Premier League, Bradley began to warm to Egypt. Zak Abdel, his goalkeeper coach at Chivas and now an assistant with the Egyptian national team, told him about the country's fervor for soccer.

Many worried that Bradley's stoicism would be a poor match for that passion.

"I'd heard those stories. That he was very distant, aloof and not loved the way he is in Egypt," says Dorsey who, having spent much of his life as a war correspondent, has a theory why Bradley has done well.

"One of the things you learn in war situations is nothing is more adaptable than a human being," he says. "Your concepts of what is normal shift. So if you were in a situation of stress, that situation becomes your normal. And that brings out different qualities."

For Bradley, 55, the shift took place after the deadly melee in Port Said, where fans stormed the field after a Premier League match between the home team, Al-Masry, and Al-Ahly from Cairo. Many in Egypt believe the attack on Al-Ahly players and their main supporter group, the Ultras Ahlawy, was orchestrated by the police and military in retaliation for Ultra-led protests that helped bring down the Mubarak regime.

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