On Wednesday, at the Vicente Calderón Stadium in Madrid, a bit of normalcy will return for the Egyptian national soccer team and its American coach, Bob Bradley. The Pharaohs will meet Chile in an international friendly, and for 90 minutes, at least, things will be simple. Then, when it's over, Bradley will go back to Egypt -- and back to having one of the most challenging coaching jobs in all of sports.
Bradley knew it wouldn't be easy taking over Egypt in October 2011 during a massive cultural and political upheaval following the country's revolution in January 2011. But he could not have predicted the massacre in Port Said that killed more than 70 soccer fans after a game between Al Masry and Al Ahly on Feb. 1, 2012. And he could not have predicted the Egyptian domestic league would shut down for an entire year after that, only starting again in the past week.
Just last week, a judge handed down 21 death sentences for perpetrators of the Port Said carnage. In Cairo, Ahly fans and families celebrated the verdict as justice for the dead, while in Port Said families of the condemned stormed the prison gates, causing a riot that killed more than 40 people in that city.
All the while, Bradley and his wife, Lindsay, watched the scenes on TV from their apartment in the Zamalek section of Cairo. Most foreign coaches in Bradley's situation would have left the country on the first flight out a year ago. But the Bradleys have stayed. (They even went out for dinner in Old Cairo last week.) Even now the most common question Bradley faces from the Egyptian media is a simple one. Why? Why have you stayed? Why haven't you left? Sometimes they seem incredulous at this stubborn American who refuses to budge.
"This comes up over and over every time I deal with the media here," Bradley said on an Internet connection from Cairo. "When we came here, I certainly understood the challenge. I knew what we were getting into. The only thing I wasn't expecting was for the league to be shut down. The other part, the emotion, I spoke to people ahead of time and I certainly understood there was in this period a lot of political turmoil, and the slightest spark at any time could set off days of protests and violence.
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"I also understood from people who had family here and lived and worked here that they still felt Cairo was a good place to live, and there were areas we could live and find some privacy."
There are now not one but two documentary film projects following Bradley and the Egyptian team as the Pharaohs try to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1990. It's one of those stories that transcends sports, involving culture and politics and social issues. And if Bradley can get the Egyptians to Brazil 2014, he'll be a national hero.
So far, Bradley has put every foot right in his response to the turmoil in Egypt. Instead of hightailing it out of the country after the Port Said massacre, he and his wife marched in support of Egyptians at a public rally. They have visited hospitals, have given condolences to the families of the dead, and have been fixtures in different parts of Cairo. Bradley has become one of the most visible Americans in Egypt's daily life on a regular basis.
"The [violent] images that come across the television around the world take place in isolated spots," Bradley said. "Cairo is a huge city, and during periods when the temperature is rising and you know things are about to start, we're not going to be making the scene in Tahrir [Square]. But even when there's so much going on, incredibly enough, life goes on every day in Cairo. People go about their business and try to make a living doing the things they do."
That includes Bradley, who scheduled a series of national team camps so that players could be active during the year-long hiatus of the domestic soccer league.
"As a national team, we had to find ways to work and get together," he said. "The players deserve an incredible amount of credit, because over the last year most of them haven't been paid. So we always tried to make sure that every time we came together we understood the opportunity we had. We always spoke about the fact that during this difficult period, this was for them their chance to breathe. The only way we could do it was to come in and put the other things aside and do something that was going to be important and special for all of us."
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So far, at least, Egypt is in a great spot in World Cup qualifying as one of only three African teams to win both of their first two qualifiers last year. But there is little margin for error, considering you have to win your four-team group to advance to the home-and-home playoff against another group winner that decides whether you'll go to the World Cup. Egypt's next World Cup qualifier is against Zimbabwe in Alexandria next month.
World Cup qualifying in Africa presents all kinds of challenges that Bradley didn't experience as the U.S. coach. For its second qualifier at Guinea, Egypt was unable to secure a charter plane, so the team flew five hours to Casablanca, had a 10-hour layover and then a four-hour flight to Conakry. Their first training session took place on a field outside the main stadium, but there were a few observers Bradley didn't plan on seeing.
"We got there, and I would say around the field there were 10,000 people," he said. "The military people helping out said, 'What do you want to do?' Well, we're not going to do anything, even we tried to get them out. We couldn't. So we trained." When the session ended, the 10,000 Guineans swarmed the field. They were friendly enough, but it was a chaotic scene.
Egypt got a big 3-2 away win at Guinea, the group's second-best team, and Bradley and his staff were about as exultant as Bradley gets. But then Egypt was upset by the Central African Republic and eliminated from qualifying for the Africa Cup of Nations, a bitter blow.
"We were all very disappointed, especially when you consider the history Egypt has in the tournament [winning three in the past decade]," Bradley said. "Personally, the thought we would have a chance to be in it and go back to South Africa meant a lot to me, so that hurt a lot. But at the same time we now have to make sure we'll continue moving things along as a group, because if things go well, the next time we play a home-and-away [playoff] it's going to be to go to the World Cup."
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That's the thing on everyone's mind: Making it to the World Cup. With only eight World Cup qualifying games, Bradley says it's harder than it was coaching the U.S. in CONCACAF qualifying, since the margin for error is smaller. But friendlies like the one on Wednesday give Bradley a chance to build on the already tight relationships he has developed with his players, who know he's fully committed to the cause.
"In many ways, the last six months have been more challenging than the first six," Bradley said. "But the one thing that holds everything together is the feeling the players have, the belief they have in what's going on. This is what we build on. We look forward to every chance we get when we're together. There are some really, really good guys. The one I talk about is [star Al-Ahly midfielder Mohamed] Aboutreika, who's as good a person as it gets."
And that's how Bradley works his way back to answering the question: Why haven't you left Egypt yet?
"When you're given the opportunity to be a leader, you're trying to set the right tone, to establish a real trust with guys," he said. "We're not just in on the good days. We're in. You can't have guys who are in halfway. We're going to be brothers in this whole thing. If this is what you're trying to speak to them about on a regular basis, it doesn't work if you're on the first plane out."
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