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Amid political upheaval, Bradley committed to Egypt's success - in soccer

As millions took to Egypt's streets over the last week, as the government fell and clashes turned bloody, the coach of the country's national soccer team happened to be home.

Egypt's coach Bob Bradley. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
Egypt's coach Bob Bradley. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)Read more

As millions took to Egypt's streets over the last week, as the government fell and clashes turned bloody, the coach of the country's national soccer team happened to be home.

In New Jersey.

Even as the United States ordered all nonessential embassy employees home, there was little question Bob Bradley would return to Egypt. For many Egyptians, he is the Essential American.

Right now, two documentaries are being made about this man and his team. One is titled We Must Go. The words were chosen because Bradley has heard them from so many Egyptians referring to next year's World Cup.

Egypt has played in the World Cup just once since 1934, but has sailed into the final round of qualifying. It will be a home-and-home series this fall against an opponent to be determined, with the winner qualifying for Brazil.

Bradley's resumé as a soccer coach is about as gold-plated as any in the United States. After coaching Princeton, his alma mater (in the town that is birthplace to his three children), to the NCAA final four in 1993, Bradley moved to the pros and soon led the Chicago Fire to a Major League Soccer title in 1998, the club's first season.

In the modern post-1950 era of the World Cup, only three U.S. teams have advanced to the elimination rounds, two on foreign soil. Bradley coached one of those two. He was in charge of the Americans at the last World Cup, in South Africa.

"When you take a job like this, you know it's going to be the ultimate test of all the different experiences you've had along the way," said the 55-year-old, who grew up in Essex County, in North Jersey.

Signs of a setup

Kids went to see a game and never returned.

That's the thought that stays with Bradley. There were two soccer games he planned to watch one day in February 2012, one in Cairo and another in Port Said, where the Suez Canal meets the Mediterranean.

Choosing to attend the game closer to his home in Cairo, Bradley watched the first half of the game in Port Said on television, then went to the stadium for the other game.

"We'd heard about the potential for trouble," Bradley said in a phone interview last weekend. "But it was always just fan trouble. . . . Nobody thought this would turn into a massacre."

As it turned out, the game Bradley attended was canceled at halftime. All eyes in the country had turned to the events in Port Said. What started as a fight between rival fans ended with 74 dead, at least a thousand more injured. Bradley immediately saw that this wasn't just a case of fans losing control. He saw signs of a setup, he said. To this day, all questions haven't been answered, but reports indicate the security forces at the stadium did little to stop the violence.

"It was not simply two rival fan groups that didn't like each other," Bradley said. "There was more to it."

In the aftermath, Egypt's domestic league was suspended. Several top players announced their retirement from the sport. Soccer federation officials, the men who had hired Bradley, all resigned. World Cup qualifiers were played in other countries, or in an empty stadium.

And the new American coach? Bradley showed up the next day with his wife at a public memorial for the victims of Port Said. He later met with several families of those who had died, and donated part of his salary to those families.

"Bob Bradley has become more of an Egyptian than many of the Egyptians," said Moustafa El Chiati, who helps run a website devoted to Egyptian soccer, "How he stood with the people after the tragic massacre, how he and his wife visited hospitals, went to the memorials, and hugged the parents who lost their loved ones in the incident, will never be forgotten by the Egyptian public."

Smallest of gestures

"The question I get asked: Why haven't you left?" Bradley said.

By Americans?

"By Egyptians," Bradley said. "Why are you still here? I always try to explain to them, I understood the challenge when I took the job. I knew it was a dream for all the people in Egypt to get to the World Cup. And if players are coming into camp, the league isn't together, they're not getting paid - you try to explain, this is our chance to do something special together."

He added, "You can't do that if you're getting ready to leave."

The first day Bradley met with his new team in 2011, his goalkeeper coach was impressed that the American knew the names of the 25 players already.

"I was shocked," said Zak Abdel, who had worked with Bradley as goalkeeper coach for the U.S. team as well. Not easy, Abdel said, with many players with similar names.

The smallest of gestures are made large by the terrain.

While Bradley ran his camp similarly to previous ones in the U.S., he'd also consulted with a theology professor at Princeton about larger issues he'd face coaching in Egypt.

Passion for football

Adam Moustafa of the website saw how Bradley changed Egypt's style and formations after he took over, using four defenders instead of three, for example.

"Some of the players really flourished in the new system while others failed to adapt," Moustafa said. "Another main area Bradley has focused on is the players' fitness. Egyptian players are known for relying more on their skills over fitness, so Bradley continuously works on improving this mentality."

Another key, Moustafa said, a big one, is that Bradley "has really succeeded" in incorporating youth and experience in the senior team. That's a sea change, he said, in a country where seniority typically factored heavily into personnel decisions.

It hasn't all been rosy. Although Egypt's only World Cup appearance since 1934 was in 1990, the country had won the African Nations Cup, the championship of the continent, in 2006, '08, and '10. Under Bradley, it failed to qualify for this year's tournament.

And it's not as if Bradley isn't questioned about even small decisions.

"The passion for football is incredible, so much media, so many football shows," Bradley said.

After games, "it's like being in a press conference in New York, or I imagine what it's like in Philly," said Dave LaMattina, codirector of We Must Go.

The documentarians have seen how Bradley's Arabic has improved over the course of qualifying. He doesn't try to speak it in news conferences, but they notice how he often doesn't wait for a translator to finish, that he picks up the gist of a question.

They've also picked up the little gestures. They caught on film a little ball boy begging the coach to get the shin guards of the team's star player right after the game, Bradley holding the boy's hand, and getting the shin guards.

It's a great juxtaposition, LaMattina said. "You think of him as a very serious, no-frills coach. I always say he should be played by a young Ed Harris or a current Bruce Willis. He's got this very intense stare."

Everyday life goes on

In a phone interview from Cairo on Wednesday, Abdel, the goalkeeper coach, said life for him had gone on pretty much as usual. He had taken his wife for Lasik surgery the day before, and to a follow-up appointment earlier on Wednesday. They had gone to lunch afterward. It was later that day that President Mohammed Morsi was removed from office.

Abdel, a native Egyptian, made it clear that he thought the leadership had failed the country. Speaking the previous weekend, Bradley was much more circumspect, taking no side.

"The situation in the country over the last year has in many ways become even more difficult," Bradley said. "That means, in some ways, personal security is not what it was. There's food shortages, some fuel shortages, lack of opportunity, and poverty. Go back a little bit, when they had the uprising - the revolution, people there call it an uprising - obviously, a lot of different groups came together for a short period because they felt change was needed. Once [former President Hosni] Mubarak was ousted, many of these groups have different ideas about what was needed."

When Bradley spoke of security, he was not referring to his own. He has no bodyguard, he said. He lives in an upscale neighborhood of Cairo and people have gotten used to seeing him and his wife in restaurants and markets. Away from there, his appearance can cause a scene.

"What people want are pictures," Bradley said. "I've had days when honestly you can easily take . . . it feels like 1,000 pictures."

The coach had never met Morsi, Bradley said, and has had "minimal contact with people in our [U.S.] embassy."

Bradley said he knew from discussions among players in his locker room that they held varying political views. As for interest in his team from the government, Bradley said, "Look, everyone over there is interested. . . . It's true everywhere, the people who are in charge of a country, if there's a team like the national team, if that team does well, they're going to want to be connected to that."

Bradley's long-planned trip home was scheduled to fit into the soccer calendar. It had nothing to do with the current unrest in Egypt, Bradley said. He hadn't been back in the States since last July.

His plan, Bradley said in a text message Friday, is to get back to Egypt at the end of the month, "before a friendly we hope to have Aug. 14."

The coach added, "I am in contact every day with people there, and it doesn't seem like that plan needs to change."