Today, we had one thing on the agenda: interview Coach Bob Bradley.
By this time, how Bradley came to coach the Egyptian National Football Team has been widely reported (the absolute best of these articles is by Wayne Drehs of ESPN). The bullet points are as follows: after the US team fell to Mexico in the Gold Cup, the US Soccer Federation replaced Bradley with Jurgen Klinsmann. Bradley, with an eye still on his dream of coaching in Europe, heard the Pharaohs were looking for a new head coach. He indicated his interest, did a few rounds of interviews and took over in September 2011 (coincidentally, we were at the last Egyptian National Team match before he took over when we filmed with Kei Kamara in Freetown that same month). Bradley took on a team with a great history (African Cup of Nations Champions in 2006, 2008 and 2010), but one that had failed to qualify for a World Cup since 1990.
We had spoken and emailed with Coach before we made the trip, but the first time we actually met him in person was last night when we had a brief chat as he left the pitch. We arranged today’s interview by text message. Since we were in the same hotel, we figured we’d set up in one of our rooms. We’d be ready for Coach when he got there.
Promptly at 4:10, our agreed upon time, there was a knock on the door. Coach came in, introduced himself (and told me not to call him “Coach,” though the Matt Saracen in me forces me to continue to do it) and proceeded to blow our minds.
First and foremost, Coach was clear about the goal: Egypt must get to the World Cup. For the people, for the players, for the nation, the Pharaohs must qualify. There is no question: qualification is the dream.
Much of our discussion centered around the importance of tomorrow’s match. While it signifies the start of World Cup qualifying, it means much more here. Those that don’t follow sports might not be aware of what happened at a football match here in Port Said on February 1st. In essence, at the end of a heated game between rivals, severe violence broke out that left 74 people dead. It was initially reported as soccer hooliganism gone awry, but as details emerged, it became clear that there were other forces at play. “Corruption” and “negligence” started being thrown around.
The Egyptian Football Association acted swiftly in the wake of the tragedy. In a move to assure that no more matches would be used for a political agenda, the EFA cancelled the rest of the league season. Players were left without teams. Some retired from the sport altogether. Coach had a unique challenge on his hands.
“The players needed time. The initial response from some was this isn’t football. This was not the way it’s meant to happen,” he told us. “Little by little, you could tell that players were coming back around to playing and once they started thinking that way, in many ways, this goal of getting to the World Cup became even bigger.”
So what did Coach do? He and his staff found places for the team to play. Matches couldn’t be played in Egypt, so they’d travel. They’d play whoever they could, wherever they could. They’d hold extended training camps. The team began to come together… and they kept winning, all with an eye towards tomorrow, June 1st, when they could return home and play a World Cup qualifier at home in front of their fans…
…except FIFA had other ideas. Citing security concerns, football’s governing body ruled that the Pharaohs could play Mozambique at home, but there would be no fans. Instead, they would play to an empty stadium. Again, Coach found himself facing a situation he never envisioned when he took this job.
“Every player that plays for any national team around the world waits for the day when they go on the field in their own country in a big match and the people of that country are there giving that team motivation and providing a passion that pushes the team,” Coach said. “We’ve talked about how that’s gotta come from our group. That we’ve gotta have a way that, even though there’s no one in the stands, that we understand that, if possible, every person in Egypt would be at that game.”
It was hearing how passionately Coach Bradley talked about the people of Egypt and his drive, his own passion, to understand what they’re going through that stayed with us. He seems deeply connected to the people of this country, concerned not just for their well-being, but how they are perceived around the world. He is quick to point out how warmly he and his family have been received and even quicker to point out that he’s not an expert on their culture or their politics–he still very much presents himself as a foreigner. But it would seem that there is an understanding between Coach Bradley and the Egyptian people that they are in this together, that, together, they can achieve something special that will forever unite them.
It’s rare to see someone in a role they seem destined for. I’m sure that when the Bradley-led US defeated Egypt in the 2009 Confederations Cup, no one thought that Bradley and the Pharaohs would share the same dream a few short years later. But after speaking with Coach today, it’s hard to imagine anyone else at the helm. An unlikely pairing? Surely. But it’s a potent one that might just lead to seeing the Egyptian World Cup dream realized.
Together, they start down that road tomorrow…
…we’ll be there to film it all.
The CPP Crew