Bob Bradley's Egypt national team faces a tough road to qualify for… (Hassan Ammar / Associated…)
This wasn't the way it was supposed to end for Bob Bradley's Egyptian team.
In a just world, Bradley, who has given Egyptian soccer fans hope during some of the darkest days in the country's recent history, would see his Cinderella team end up in Brazil next summer with a spot in the World Cup, a tournament Egypt has played in once since 1934.
Instead, Bradley's Quixotic World Cup qualifying quest figures to end in disappointment next week in the second leg of a two-match African qualifier with Ghana. The winner will be decided on aggregate goals, meaning Egypt, a 6-1 loser in the first match, will have to overcome a five-goal deficit just to force overtime.
"Our team has worked very, very hard to try to make a dream, an important dream for all Egyptians," Bradley told the Associated Press. "I am sad that we've put ourselves in a position right now where that dream is at risk."
Egypt is among 22 teams that will be battling for one of the final 11 World Cup berths over the next 10 days.
Four European qualifying spots remain unclaimed, with France and Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal team among those facing elimination.
France, a finalist in two of the last four World Cups, qualified for the tournament four years ago when William Gallas' controversial goal beat Ireland in a playoff. This time around, France's opponent is Ukraine. Meanwhile Portugal, which hasn't missed the World Cup since 1998, must get past Sweden.
Two spots in intercontinental berths are also up for grabs, with New Zealand playing Mexico and Uruguay challenging Jordan.
Mexico, which will be playing for its fourth coach in 10 weeks, advanced to the playoff when the U.S. scored twice in stoppage time to beat Panama in the final regional qualifier. Mexico finished fourth in the CONCACAF tournament. New Zealand advanced by rolling through the Oceania tournament unbeaten, outscoring opponents 17-2 in its six wins.
Uruguay missed out on an automatic berth in Brazil when it finished fifth in the CONMEBOL tournament. But despite its poor qualifying record, Uruguay, a semifinalist in the 2010 World Cup, is ranked sixth in the world by FIFA and will be seeded for next month's World Cup draw provided it gets past Jordan, the fifth-place finisher in the Asian qualifier.
The five African World Cup berths are also unclaimed, with Egypt, the only team to win all six matches in the second round of qualifying, facing the biggest deficit.
"I understand the disappointment. I see it when I see people in the street," said Bradley, who coached the U.S. team to the knockout stage in the 2010 World Cup.
But Bradley also said that many Egyptians he encounters tell him: "Thank you for giving everything at the time when the country is going through so much trouble, so much turmoil."
Bradley took over the Egyptian program two years ago, just as Arab Spring uprisings were plunging the country into chaos. Less than three months after his first game with the national team, a massive riot following a soccer match in the Suez Canal city of Port Said left at least 74 people dead and more than a thousand injured.
The next day Bradley and his wife, Lindsay, joined thousands of Egyptians in a march to honor the dead. They visited a memorial, spoke with relatives of the victims and quietly donated money to survivors.
Soon the Bradleys were working with the Children's Cancer Hospital of Egypt. And last fall, 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.
Those actions won over people in a country that can be harsh on foreigners. Yet Bradley's best work came on the soccer field.
As political violence pushed the country to the edge of anarchy, Bradley kept his ragtag team focused — and its success made it one of the few institutions all Egyptians could rally around.
"I don't think they would ever forget soccer here because it's too important to all the people," Bradley said in a phone interview earlier this year.
"But it is an opportunity to do something that would be very special to all the people. From the day that I came here to talk about the job, everyone that I met — on the street, taxi drivers, people in the hotel — talked about the World Cup. And they said we must go to Brazil."
After a five-goal road loss to Ghana in the first leg of the playoff last month, it will take a miracle for Egypt in the Nov. 19 rematch to make that happen now. But given the circumstances, isn't it a miracle that Egypt has gotten this far in the first place?
"It's going to be difficult,'" Bradley said. "But we still have 90 more minutes."
World Cup play-in games
22 countries remain in contention for the final 11 spots in next summer's 32-team World Cup in Brazil. Each remaining berth will be decided in a two-leg playoff with the winner determined on aggregate goals. Here are the matchups:
Nov. 13: New Zealand at Mexico; Uruguay at Jordan.
Nov. 20: Mexico at New Zealand; Jordan at Uruguay.
Nov. 15: France at Ukraine; Romania at Greece; Sweden at Portugal; Croatia at Iceland.
Nov. 19: Ukraine at France; Greece at Romania; Portugal at Sweden; Iceland at Croatia.
African qualifiers (final leg)
Nov. 16: Ethiopia at Nigeria (Nigeria leads, 2-1); Ivory Coast at Senegal (Ivory Coast leads, 3-1).
Nov. 17: Tunisia at Cameroon (tied, 0-0).
Nov. 19: Ghana at Egypt (Ghana leads, 6-1); Burkina Faso at Algeria (Burkina Faso leads, 3-2).