Former U.S. coach Bradley faces a tough task with new team Egypt
Bob Bradley is expected to improve Egypt's discipline, organization and fitness
Fans have questioned Bradley's exclusion of Mohamed Aboutrika
Bradley's mandate with Egypt is to qualify for the 2014 World Cup
DOHA, Qatar -- Even two hours before kickoff, the Egyptian fans were in full voice, chanting a soccer version of a refrain familiar to anyone who had been in Tahir Square earlier this year as the Arab Spring reached its zenith. Instead of singing Asha'ab yureed isqat annizam (the people want the downfall of the regime), Asha'ab yureed isqat albrazeel rolled down the sides of the Al Rayyan Stadium in Qatar giving Bob Bradley the task of toppling the Brazilians, the long-reigning kings of world soccer, in his first game in charge of the Pharaohs.
In June 2009, Bradley watched as his U.S. team took a 2-0 lead against the South Americans in the final of the Confederations Cup on a chilly evening in the concrete jungle of downtown Johannesburg only to end up losing 3-2. On a warm November night in the desert on the outskirts of Doha, it was Brazil that established a two-goal advantage. This time though, despite the backing of the vast majority of the vociferous 25,112 crowd at the Al Rayyan Stadium, Egypt never really looked like getting back in the game. It finished 2-0.
There is nothing to worry about yet. "Egyptians forgive easily" smiled an Algerian journalist, using the example of the pre-match entertainment, Tamer Hosny. The king of the Cairo pop scene, booed and punched during an appearance in Tahir Square in April as he tried to apologize after earlier dismissive comments about the protesters, brought the house down with a series of hits.
If his countrymen are still coming to terms with the new regime at home after the ouster of former dictator Hosni Mubarak, having an American in charge of the national team after eight years of Hassan Shehata is also going to take some getting used. "We can't judge from one game but I think the old coach was better," said one fan Mohammed Hassan, a Cairo-born Petroleum engineer now working in Qatar. "Everyone knows that the old coach made up champion of Africa three times. Bradley has inherited a heck of a team but he needs to prove himself. I think we will give him two or three more games. We don't know too much about him and don't know what to expect."
In the press box a large contingent of Cairo-based journalists expect and hope that Bradley will bring better discipline, organization and fitness to a talented but inconsistent group of players. What they didn't expect was Sunderland star Ahmed Elmohamady on the left of midfield, placed there by Bradley to nullify the attacking threat of Dani Alves. It worked for a while as the Egyptians started well but Alves and his colleagues saw more of the ball as the half progressed. It was felt that Elmohamady was uncomfortable, the team unbalanced and Mohamed Zidan isolated in attack. It came as no surprise when the impressive Hulk broke free down the North African left to square into the six-yard box for Jonas Oliveira to score the simplest of tap-ins.
If there was a lack of balance, fans had their own ideas on what was necessary and called for Mohamed Aboutrika. The midfielder has long been regarded as one of the best in Africa with a list of awards and accolades to prove it but was left out of the roster by Bradley. If the same decision is repeated, it is sure to become a question that the American grows accustomed to fielding especially if results are less than satisfactory..
"Aboutrika has been a great player for Egypt," said Bradley. "He is also a favorite player of the fans and we will continue to watch him in the league and then make a decision to help us become successful." The philosophy major could have made a difference to an Egyptian team that struggled to retain possession and ran out of ideas long before the end of the game in the face of a controlled display from a Brazil missing such stars such as Kaka, Pato and Neymar. The second goal killed the game coming on the hour with another close-range strike from Jonas after El Shanawi had dropped a free kick. The goalkeeper subsequently redeemed himself and made a series of good saves to prevent Brazil from extending its lead.
There were words of encouragement from Brazilian coach Mano Menezes who could afford to be gracious with a sixth victory in seven games helping to erase memories of a disappointing Copa America. "I have a lot of respect for Bob Bradley," said Menezes. "It is difficult to take on a new job and you need time to adapt to new ideas. This is what we did a while ago and we are improving now."
Bradley has some time before the hard work and qualification for the World Cup begins. With the last of Egypt's two appearances on the global stage coming in 1990, the American will automatically become one of the country's most celebrated coaches if he can lead the team to Brazil in 2014.
It would be some celebration and Monday was just a small taste of the atmosphere that he can expect on a regular basis. "The fans tonight were tremendous," said Bradley. "They like football and the national team is very important to them. That is one of the big reasons why this opportunity is so special because of the passion of the fans. Football culture in the U.S. continues to grow. In Egypt it is not growing because it is already incredibly big and has been that way for a long time. You feel it every day and people come up to you in the street and talk about selections."
You feel he wouldn't shy from such debates and it was noticeable how well he reeled off the names of players both in and out of the team, as well as different members of his coaching staff -- a small detail but one often overlooked by English-speaking coaches in Africa and Asia. To avoid too many impromptu sidewalk conversations however, Bradley will have to negotiate the first stage of 2014 qualification that starts in June. In truth, the seven-time continental champion should have little trouble finishing top of a group containing Zimbabwe, Guinea and, assuming, as all do, it defeats Comoros, Mozambique. Then comes the real test: a home and away all-or-nothing playoff late in 2013.
Bradley knows he has to have everything in place before then. "When you watch players in the league, it is normal that if you test them against Brazil, they will learn a lot. It is a big step and every time we play against a good team, we get more information and this will help us. I saw things tonight that I think were good things and I saw things that we worked on in training starting to show. I also saw things that we need to improve. This is a first step and we have a lot of hard work ahead of us."
John Duerden has been living in Asia for more than a decade and has been called "The voice of Asian football" by the BBC.