American Pharaoh: Ex-U.S. coach Bradley has Egypt on brink of WCup
Look. There's Bob Bradley, the American coach of the Egyptian national soccer team. On a warm September night in Cairo, Bradley and his wife, Lindsay, arrive at the open-air El Prince restaurant in Imbaba, a vibrant working-class neighborhood in the Egyptian capital. Two years after a popular revolution, two months after a military takeover, one month after the mass killing of 800 protesters, the country remains on edge. A car bomb, the first in ages, went off the other day. Its intended target: the Minister of the Interior. Authorities just extended the state of emergency, including a curfew of 11 p.m. on most days and 7 p.m. on Fridays, the holy day, the day of demonstrations.
And yet in a divided country of 85 million, at least one unifying force has no opposition these days, and this bald 55-year-old coach from Essex Fells, N.J. -- the most visible American in Egypt's daily public life -- embodies that hope. As Bradley walks into the packed restaurant, diners rise from their tables and give him a standing ovation. Cellphone cameras go into overdrive. The waitstaff commences a chant, in English: "World Cup! World Cup! World Cup!"
Look. There's Bradley again. It's Sunday morning, and the coach and his wife are seated in the back of a Kia sedan inching through Cairo gridlock. Along the way they pass signposts of their two years in Egypt: the headquarters of the country's most famous club soccer team, Al-Ahly, with murals along its walls depicting the 74 Ahly fans who died in last year's Port Said Stadium tragedy; the home base of the Egyptian soccer federation (including Bradley's old office), which was torched by angry ultras after the court ruling on the Port Said deaths; and, finally, the Children's Cancer Hospital, where the Bradleys have donated their time and money as they've become an unexpected and deeply valued part of the Cairo community.
Inside, meeting young cancer patients and their parents, Bradley kneels low, offering smiles, ready with hugs. He and his wife are naturals, connecting with kids who've lost their hair, kids on IV drips, kids half-asleep in the arms of their tired-eyed parents. "Who's your favorite player?" Bradley asks one ailing boy.
"Aboutreika!" the child cries out, referring to the national team's star midfielder, Mohamed Aboutreika.
"Yeah," says Bradley. "Me too."
In another room Bradley encounters a beaming father. "You're the American Superman!" he says. "You're going to take us to the World Cup!"
Look: It's the word Bradley uses most often to start sentences, an unvarnished Jersey Guy way of talking. Even his Egyptian friends have started using it. (These days Egyptians also see any bald white guy of a certain age and yell, Bob!) But there's more to it than that.
Look. No, really. Look. Use your eyes. Observe. Think. Bob Bradley did not come to Egypt to blow a whistle and stick his head in the desert sand. "Wherever you live, this ability to look around you and be aware of others, this is what you try to do," he says. "We live here. We're aware of what's going on."
In August, one month after the Egyptian military overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood and president Mohamed Morsi, Bradley watched from his high-rise apartment on the bank of the Nile as protesters marched toward Ramses Square, only to encounter police forces. Black helicopters and smoke filled the air. Bradley heard gunfire pushing back the crowd: POP! POP! POP!
"Up until the last few weeks you always knew when and where things were heating up," he says. "Cairo's a huge city, and things just carry on. But for a few days it was more random and reckless." On Aug. 15, the U.S. State Department advised all Americans living in Egypt to evacuate the country. Ninety-nine percent of foreign soccer coaches in his situation would have left long ago.
But the Bradleys stayed. "Look, as I've gotten to know these players, we're brothers," says Bradley. "We're in something together. If this is who you are, you challenge people to be in all the way, and you explain what that means. Then you have to show them that you're in all the way. That's just how it is."
And while he stayed, the most amazing thing happened: The Pharaohs kept winning, kept advancing toward this soccer-mad nation's third World Cup berth and its first since 1990. You could throw any obstacle at Bradley's team -- a suspension of the domestic league, players who were earning no money, empty stadiums for home qualifiers, political divides within the squad, the uncertainty and turmoil that come with each day in Egypt. Before their last World Cup qualifier, against Guinea last month, some Egyptian players had to use magic markers to write their numbers on their shorts. Still, nothing has stopped the Pharaohs.
Of the more than 200 national teams that have chosen to participate in qualifying for World Cup 2014, the last one with a perfect record isn't Spain or Germany or Argentina. Only Egypt -- Egypt! -- has been spotless. Six games, six victories. And now comes the final test: a two-game home-and-away playoff starting on Tuesday at powerful Ghana. Only the winner will advance to Brazil next summer.
Mido, a former Egyptian star forward who now works as an analyst for Al Jazeera, says that his countrymen were skeptical at first of the American coach, imagining that Bradley would care only about fitness and the physical aspect of the sport. But he has won them over. "I think he has done great," says Mido. "He has been so strong mentally to stay in Egypt with all that's happened. The easy option was to leave, but he chose to fight."
The story of Bob Bradley and Egypt began transcending sports a long time ago. Now it's a symbol of hope for a nation. "It would be great for [the team] to qualify and experience with the Egyptian people the joy of caring about something together," says Jeffrey Stout, a Princeton religion professor and a Bradley confidant dating back to the coach's time at the school, from 1984 to '95. "That is what Bob could imagine ahead of time. What he couldn't imagine is how significant it would be for him and the team to behave well in public under circumstances where almost nobody else does. In a crisis situation for a country, there's this one place where people are doing the just thing in front of everyone, every day. And getting a group with differences to show what it's like to have relationships that don't involve dominating each other [and to hold] each other accountable -- that's a thumbnail sketch of what democracy is.
"For them to do that? That's a big deal."
Egypt is hardly what Bradley imagined as a next destination after he was fired by the U.S. following a Gold Cup-final loss to Mexico in July 2011. He aspired to a job in Europe and believed (not unreasonably) that he'd built a worthy résumé during his nine seasons as an MLS coach and, especially, four years with the Americans. That history included taking the MLS Cup in 1998 with the Chicago Fire, beating Spain to reach the 2009 Confederations Cup final and winning the U.S.'s '10 World Cup group, ahead of England, before losing in the Round of 16 to Ghana. But European clubs didn't bite. "When you're an American, earning respect and getting your foot in the door is hard, whether you're a player or a coach," says Bradley. "I feel strongly that with everything I've done, if I were German, Dutch, Spanish, French or Italian, I'd have had many opportunities in Europe."
Egypt came calling for several reasons: Bradley had impressed its federation by coaching the U.S. to a 3-0 victory over the Pharaohs in the 2009 Confederations Cup, and he had worked closely with an Egyptian-American, Zak Abdel, his goalkeepers coach with the U.S. and in MLS.
Egypt had soccer talent -- the team had won three straight African championships, in 2006, '08 and '10 -- but after a series of World Cup qualifying failures, Bradley saw the importance of breaking through and reaching Brazil in '14. For years Bradley had preached to his players and his children the value of embracing new challenges. Now he turned that expectation on himself. "When opportunities come along, you don't look back," he says. "Don't be afraid to put everything you have into something. If you're worried about the outcome, you don't get anywhere."
Bob and Lindsay went all in. With three children all in their 20s and out of the house -- daughters Kerry and Ryan lived in L.A.; Michael, a U.S. midfielder, plays in Italy for Roma -- the timing made sense. "I was like, O.K., let's try this adventure and see what happens," says Lindsay, a former lacrosse standout at Virginia. Instead of living outside Egypt or in a gated compound on the outskirts of Cairo, the couple chose an apartment in Zamalek, close to the city center. The idea: The new coach couldn't know his players unless he had a sense of life on the ground in the post-revolution metropolis.
For more than a century, Egyptians' soccer passions have been tied to politics. Al-Ahly, founded in Cairo in 1907 by opponents of the British protectorate, served as a meeting point for the students who staged the '19 revolution that gained Egypt independence. One of the team's first presidents, Saad Zaghloul, also acted as the head of the country's nationalist party; and Gamal Abdel Nasser would hold the Ahly post (despite not being known as a soccer fan) before serving as the nation's president from '56 to '70. Meanwhile Al-Ahly's archrival, Zamalek, was known as "the King's Club," for its British sympathizers.
During his 29 years as head of state, starting in 1981, Hosni Mubarak fostered close ties with the national team, not least during the glory years of the Pharaohs' African three-peat. The national team's doctor still has a photo of himself and Mubarak on the wall of his office at a Cairo gym.
As Egyptian soccer expert James Dorsey points out, extreme fan groups, or ultras (especially those supporting Al-Ahly), played a pivotal role in the Arab Spring as part of a street-savvy resistance that helped overthrow Mubarak's regime in February 2011. Depending on whom you listen to, that support may have led to the tragic events a year later, on Feb. 1, 2012, when Al-Ahly visited Al-Masry, a team in Port Said whose fans had clashed in previous years with their Ahly counterparts.
"I'll remember it forever because I saw it on TV live, and I've seen it hundreds of times since," says Bradley, who was watching from the hospitality room at Cairo Stadium, where he was scouting a game alongside his wife and Abdel. "The final whistle blows and fans come running onto the field, and Ahly players are running for their lives. What immediately hits you is that there are police on the field, and they're not doing anything."
Someone shut off the Port Said Stadium lights. Someone bolted an exit gate, trapping the Ahly fans inside. It was a bloodbath. Ahly's players managed to escape to the safety of their locker room, which soon became a makeshift morgue. One young Ahly fan died in the arms of Aboutreika, a 10-year veteran of the team.
Back in Cairo, the Bradleys left the game with Abdel, who translated radio updates to their growing horror. Ten people are dead. ... It's up to 25. ... O.K., now it's 40. ... Fifty now. ... They're saying 74 dead. "Lindsay was crying, and Bob wasn't saying anything," Abdel recalls. "I'd never seen him like that before."
But Bradley did have questions -- lots of them. The coach reads about Egypt constantly (even on Twitter, though you'll never see him create his own account), and what he's learned from media and from his own experience applies as much to Port Said as it does to Egyptian life in general. "It's always easy to see what's on the surface," says Bradley. "What is harder to understand -- what's more complex -- is what goes on beneath the surface."
It's unlikely that anyone will ever know exactly what transpired in Port Said, but Bradley felt it was his duty as a leader to show the Egyptian people that he understood what they were going through. That included risking the wrath of authorities by saying on Al Jazeera English that he believed Port Said had been a massacre (implying premeditation), as opposed to spontaneous fan violence. "Exactly what went on, how it went down -- I still don't know," he says. "Nobody does. But look, this was a massacre."
At the time of Port Said, Bradley was only four months (and one game) into his national-team tenure. He and Lindsay could have taken the first plane out of Cairo. Instead they did something that astonished Egyptians. One day after the tragedy, they joined thousands of marchers at Sphinx Square in support of the victims and their families. The next day, they attended a memorial at Al-Ahly headquarters. "I hugged each player and looked into his eyes," says Bradley. "I knew what they had seen in that locker room. I could read it on their faces."
From that moment on, nothing would be the same in Egyptian soccer. The domestic league was suspended. Several players, including Aboutreika, announced they were retiring from the sport. A year later, in March, angry Ahly fans would set fire to the Egyptian federation building after a court acquitted seven of nine police officials from the Port Said case.
But in those searing days of February 2012, Egyptians noticed something in their new American coach, who quietly donated money to the victims' families. He was one of them now. When the Bradleys met with the families of the deceased, mothers gave Lindsay photographs of their children, young people in their teens and 20s who'd gone to a game and had never come home. Mother to mother, they knew she would understand.
How many of you have heard of Bruce Springsteen?"
New Jersey to his core, a fan of the Boss for life, Bradley thought at least one of his players would raise a hand when he asked this at one of his first team meetings. To his dismay, nobody did.
"Who is he?" asked midfielder Hossam Ghaly.
"Come on, friend, and sit with me," said Bradley, who started playing Land of Hopes and Dreams on his iPhone. The lyrics applied to Egypt too, Bradley thought, and so he had Abdel translate some for the room: Leave behind your sorrows/Let this day be the last/-Tomorrow there'll be sunshine/And all this darkness past.
In many ways Bradley has approached the Pharaohs the same way that he did the U.S. team: Keep practices relatively short, high-energy and organized to the minute; demand teamwide accountability and the willingness to say constructive things that others (including the coach) might not want to hear; and preach the purity of the team, the need to rely on the inner circle of players and coaches, shutting out all distractions, all excuses for failure.
But, recognizing that he's in a new environment, Bradley has also summoned all of his powers to connect not just with his players but also with the Egyptian people. In long conversations between Bradley and Stout, the Princeton professor, they spoke about respect as a concept that resonates with Mediterranean cultures. The two friends have talked about what it means to Egyptians for Bradley to identify as a family member more than as a U.S. citizen. Bradley, for example, often refers to his players, publicly and privately, as "my brothers." And yet there was always the understanding that those players would only believe in Bradley if they saw him back it up with his actions every day.
In his meetings with players, Bradley addresses challenges that he never faced as the U.S. coach. After Port Said, Al-Masry goalkeeper Amir Abdelhamid -- a reserve for Egypt -- expressed concern about driving to the national team camp in Cairo because his car's license plates identified him as being from Port Said. Meanwhile, with domestic players not being paid while the league is suspended, the strain is palpable.
Not every player has bought in. Before a friendly against Chile in February, Bradley informed Egypt's veteran first-choice goalkeeper, Essam El-Hadary, that he wasn't going to start. At halftime El-Hadary told a journalist that he was retiring from the Pharaohs, which became the big postgame story. El-Hadary believed he could force Bradley to recall him, but instead the coach thanked him the next morning for his services. Bradley hasn't brought him back since.
The coach has pushed back on a few Egyptian traditions too, notably the use of the term captain. In Egypt, not only does the player with the most seniority wear the captain's armband during games -- a practice that Bradley accepts as something he can't change -- but the term captain is used frequently as an honorific for anyone who's seen as a leader, even (in Bradley's opinion) blowhards who don't deserve it. After hearing "Captain Bradley" a few too many times at a recent practice, Bradley called one of his equipment managers, Abdullah Mohamed, and asked him to stand with him in front of the team. "Listen," Bradley told them, "every other word here is captain-captain-captain. We have media who used to play on the national team who rip us, and then they come here and you guys show them this phony respect and call them captain. And they're trying to destroy our team. Meanwhile, here's Abdullah. He's a good man. He works hard. He will do anything for us. Look, I've been here for two years. How long have you been here, Abdullah? Twenty years. I'm not captain. He's captain!"
It's a running theme with Bradley. When the Egyptian league was still operating, a television broadcast showed him sitting in the stands next to Abdel and, one seat down, Bradley's driver, Hany Abdel Wadood. When a federation board member angrily demanded that the driver be told to wait in his car outside the stadium, Bradley asked Wadood to move into the seat next to him.
The coach has kept his inner circle small, limiting it to his players and assistants. No relationship has grown stronger than the one between Bradley and Aboutreika, one of the most fascinating figures in world soccer. A few years ago, when Egypt and Ahly were the champions of Africa, the midfield wizard was regarded as the world's best player not plying his trade in Europe or South America. He could have moved to a top international club had he wished; though not particularly fast or smooth, Aboutreika is blessed with a vision for making passes that nobody else could have visualized. But he loved Egypt and made good money, so he stayed, earning the devotion of Egyptian fans. Aboutreika was different in other ways too. Devoutly religious and the owner of a university degree in philosophy, he didn't lack the courage to speak his mind. After scoring a goal at the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations, he revealed a T-shirt that read SYMPATHIZE WITH GAZA, only increasing his stature throughout the Middle East.
By the time Bradley took over in late 2011, however, there were whispers that Aboutreika, at 33, was too old. In the days before Bradley's first game, against Brazil, Aboutreika wasn't even starting for Ahly, so the coach left him off his squad. The decision caused an uproar (NEW COACH DROPS STAR MIDFIELDER!), and Aboutreika's dream of making his first World Cup appeared in jeopardy. Yet Bradley took notice: Aboutreika never lashed out to the media in the way that many players would have; instead he said it was on him to earn back a spot in the national team. As Bradley kept an eye on Ahly games, the old Aboutreika reemerged.
Then Port Said happened, and everything stopped. After waiting several weeks to respect the dead, Bradley arranged a meeting with Aboutreika in Cairo. The start of World Cup qualifying was three months away; the player had thought about it and he didn't want to retire after all, he told Bradley. His message was clear: Whatever you need from me, I'll do it. I would love to have one more chance to reach the World Cup.
"I got a sense with him," says Bradley. "When you talk about having a blood brother in this, where you bleed for him and he'll bleed for you -- this was a really good man."
Aboutreika's reemergence has been crucial for the Pharaohs. In his first game back, a March 2012 friendly against Uganda, he scored the game-winner in stoppage time. During Egypt's rampage through its World Cup qualifying group, he started all six matches and scored five goals, including two in the key victory, a 3-2 come-from-behind win at Guinea. What's more, at 34 he's mentoring Egypt's promising young forward, 21-year-old Mohamed Salah. It's no coincidence that at his club team, FC Basel, Salah wears number 22. Aboutreika's number.
Stout hears these stories about Aboutreika from his old friend and shakes his head with wonder. "Here's somebody who gets up every day and asks, 'How do I do the just thing concretely to other people?' " the professor says in Princeton, where he first coached youth teams with Bradley in the 1980s. "Now you have a coach and a player who are both like that? It's unusual to have either of those things in any team, anywhere. The players are gathering around it. It's like Red Auerbach and Bill Russell -- that level of human beings, coming from these different worlds. What remarkable athletic thing can happen because of the way they deal with their business every day and with each other?"
"You meet a lot of people in Egypt who have two faces," says Tomasz Kaczmarek, the Pharaohs' conditioning coach. "They're one way in the media and another way when the camera is off. Aboutreika has one face."
Only sometimes, in today's polarized Egyptian political climate, that honesty comes with a price.
Egypt is so close to the World Cup. Just two games away. Yet it's impossible to separate the Egyptian players from what's happening around them. The military takeover in June removed the Muslim Brotherhood and the democratically elected (but plainly faltering) Morsi from power. The majority of Egyptians now support the military leaders, who cracked down violently in July on massed Brotherhood protesters, a handful of them armed, before outlawing the Brotherhood altogether.
But demonstrations continue. The divide in Egypt persists. "Now, in this country, if you disagree with me, you're my enemy -- that's the mentality," says Abdel. "My older sister here, she thinks [the military takeover] was a revolution. My brother in the States thinks it's a coup. Now they don't talk to each other. Can you imagine? Brother and sister? It's crazy."
As Bradley prepares his team for the winner-take-all, aggregate-goal playoff against Ghana (Egypt will host the second leg in Cairo on Nov. 19), he faces the ongoing challenge of keeping his players together. "At a time when the country is divided, you want to make sure the national team stands together in a strong way," he says.
But that's tough. These days many of his players support the military rulers. Aboutreika, however, backs the Muslim Brotherhood. Occasionally, he and Bradley talk about political stories they've both read. Bradley has always encouraged debate and give-and-take on his teams, but he has never led in the midst of a political crisis. During the turmoil of July and August, Aboutreika was active on his Twitter feed,
I supported Dr. Morsi out of complete conviction . . . in light of the success of the January 25 revolution and the freedoms and expression of opinion that followed ... I think there will be a real democracy and respect for other opinions, but unfortunately this hasn't happened. So I decided not to talk politics. ... But when it has to do with reputation and dignity I will not be quiet.
Aboutreika's pro-Brotherhood statements have caused tension with some teammates, but there has of yet been no noticeable toll on the Pharaohs' on-field chemistry. For his part, Bradley has walked a fine line. "Look," he says, "Treika has had the strength to always stand behind his beliefs and say what he thinks, and that doesn't always work here. But I will defend that part of him forever, because he is a good man and cares about Egypt. In order to focus on doing everything to get to the World Cup, he's picked up on the need to not be high-profile at the moment."
It would be easy to wrap a bow around the Pharaohs' World Cup qualifying success, to view the team as an oasis of harmony sealed off from the rest of society. But life isn't like that. The truth: Much of Bradley's finest coaching has taken place in that spot he so often talks about, beneath the surface. Coaxing a group with conflicting opinions into behaving in public? Holding each other accountable? Finding a way to reach a common goal in the face of so many challenges? For them to do that? That's a big deal.
Aboutreika hasn't tweeted since late August, but one of his final posts struck a note of hope for all Egyptians: Loving your country doesn't mean advertising. It means actions and feelings that translate this love. This love is among the ways that we get closer to God. I love you, Egypt.
Next Tuesday, on a soccer field in Ghana, those actions will recommence.
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