Bob Bradley says he's been asked a thousand times whether he will stay on as coach of Egypt's national team, and the reasons don't have to do with wins and losses. The country has been racked by political turmoil for more than a year. Friday marks the one-year anniversary of the Port Said disaster, when rioting at a match between rivals Al-Masry and Al-Ahly resulted in the deaths of 72 Al-Ahly fans. Just last weekend, violence claimed at least 40 more lives in Port Said, Al-Masry's home city, after 21 Al-Masry supporters were sentenced to death for storming the field last year.
Yet Bradley's response is always the same.
"You try to just say, 'Look, you have to understand that in this difficult period, this is an opportunity, and these players deserve this chance, and that’s what we’re going to focus on,” he said. "People appreciate that."
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That’s not all. Since arriving in Egypt, Bradley has made gestures big and small that have resonated with the country. He hasn’t shied from commenting on the political situation, which is in stark contrast to the silence that came from national team players and former coaches when former President Hosni Mubarak, the team’s longtime patron, was removed from power.
Bradley, the former U.S. coach, has also been visible in smaller settings. Following a tragic accident in the city of Assiut in November that involved a train and a school bus that killed 51 people, mostly children, Bradley joined a delegation from the Egypt Ministry of Sport that visited families who lost loved ones.
“Bradley showed that he knows what’s going on, and that he cares,” said James M. Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog. “And he’s reached out to people. That’s not something that Egyptians are used to. On the other hand, it’s a country where emotions count. And for a foreigner to do that is something that people respond to, and it gives him a lot of street credit.”
Yet Bradley’s primary task remains unchanged -- leading Egypt to its first World Cup since 1990. And despite leading the Pharaohs to the top of their qualifying group after two games, the undertaking has become more daunting. In the wake of the Port Said disaster, the entire board of the Egypt Football Federation was replaced. In a country where the direct approach to getting things done isn't always effective, this has made the administrative aspects of Bradley’s job more difficult.
Fortunately, on the field, progress is being made.
“We’ve gotten to know guys, they’ve gotten to know us,” Bradley said via telephone. “There’s been a great response and there’s been a real belief within the group that we can get to the World Cup. That’s what drives us, that’s what motivates us; it’s this feeling and belief that together we can do something in this really difficult period that’s special."
That doesn’t mean the on-field aspect of the job has been free of complications. As a consequence of the Port Said disaster, the entire Egyptian league has been shut down for the past year, in part due to security concerns but also because the Ultras Ahlawy -- hard-core fans of Cairo-based Al-Ahly -- felt the league shouldn’t resume until justice was done for the fans who died. The league is finally set to resume this weekend in closed stadiums, but Dorsey feels that the relationship between fans and players continues to simmer.
“The Ultras view themselves as the real owners and only loyal group to the club,” he said. “They view the players to a degree as mercenaries. They’re there to get paid and if they get a better offer, they’re off, so there’s a built-in tension in that relationship.”
The lack of league matches has made maintaining match sharpness for the domestic players nearly impossible, and with no revenue coming in, those players have not been paid for the past six to nine months. Bradley has tried to compensate by scheduling training camps and friendlies as often as possible. At least then his players could earn modest amounts while in camp, but even that approach has had its challenges. Two games in September were canceled, and Bradley had to release the players he assembled. But other gatherings have been more successful. Even if the full squad hasn't been available, these get-togethers have helped forge a bond within the team.
“The opportunity to be in a national team camp where we're training and we have this collective dream of going to the World Cup, this is what you breathe, this is what you have, this is what you count on during that period because there’s not much else,” Bradley said.
He’s also done what he could to place players with clubs in Europe. Budding star Mohamed Salah signed on with FC Basel in the fall. Defender Okka is now at Belgian side Lierse, while English side Hull City just picked up Ahmed Fathy and Gedo. Of course, it helps that both Lierse and Hull City have Egyptian owners. Not every player is so lucky.
Yet incredibly, Egypt has managed to get the results it has needed. The Pharaohs defeated Mozambique 2-0 in Alexandria. That match was played in an empty stadium due to penalties imposed as a result of crowd trouble during 2010 World Cup qualifying. Bradley summed up that experience as a “weird feeling.” Egypt then earned a dramatic 3-2 away victory over Guinea thanks to Salah's stoppage-time winner.
“That is where [the players] deserve incredible credit,” Bradley added. “That’s where you feel like together we’ve created a trust that we can do this.”
Egypt’s next World Cup qualifier is next month against Zimbabwe in Alexandria, this time in front of actual home fans. There’s little margin for error, however -- only the group winner goes to the next round, so the tests for Bradley will keep coming.
“Every day you figure out how to approach this, and you use everything in your playbook to get things done,” he said. “To know when to push, to know when to encourage, to know when to yell, and you hope little by little that you’ll get people who can help when you really need it.”
Given the impression Bradley has made, he’ll likely have the entire country behind him.