The United States has already qualified for the World Cup, and so, on Tuesday, the attention of U.S. national team fans will shift for a few hours toward their new second-favorite team.
It's a remarkable, inspiring story, one that I told in the most recent Sports Illustrated: Former U.S. coach Bob Bradley has led the Egyptians to within two games of the country's first World Cup since 1990, and they've done it at a time when Egypt has gone through a revolution, a more-recent military takeover, the Port Said stadium tragedy (which killed 74 fans) and the suspension of the Egyptian soccer league. A state of emergency still exists in Cairo, with nightly curfews. Many of the domestic-based Egyptian players aren't making money right now with the league being dormant.
And yet somehow, of the more than 200 nations that chose to participate in World Cup qualifying, Egypt is the only one in the world that remains perfect in its qualification games, with six wins in six matches.
"[Bradley] knew that we had a revolution when he came," says AbdulRahman Magdy, who used to work with Bradley at the Egyptian federation, "But he didn't know we would have the Port Said tragedy or another revolution. It's unbelievable. The way he handled things was very brave and unselfish."
Now, though, comes the biggest on-field challenge yet: A home-and-away, winner-take-all playoff against Ghana that starts with game one in Ghana on Tuesday (noon ET, BeIN Sport).
On September 16, I attended the CAF playoff draw in Cairo with Bradley and his goalkeepers coach, Zak Abdel. We met that morning at Bradley's high-rise apartment building in the Zamalek neighborhood, where a guard at the gate outside runs a mirror under your car to see if there's a bomb attached and where an airport-style metal detector awaits anyone who enters the front lobby. A few days earlier, when Bradley had met me in the lobby, his arrival caused enough of a ruckus that I was asked by beaming Egyptian fans to take their picture with the most popular American in Egypt.
We made our way to the draw through the usual chaotic Cairo traffic in a two-car caravan, Bradley in his Kia sedan with Abdel and driver Hany Abdel Wadood and, trailing behind, our own Kia sedan with me, photographer Scott Nelson, interpreter Mandi Mourad, driver Sam Kramy and my 6'5" Egyptian security guard, Baher El Said. Baher was the biggest Egyptian I have ever met, and it's a shame we didn't have time to play some basketball (his favorite sport) so that we could hang a nickname on him like "The Big Pyramid" or something.
(Long story short: My company said I had to have a security guy if I was going to Cairo. Baher was a good guy who didn't know a ton of English, but every night when they dropped me off at my hotel he would say, "Sweet dreams." On the day I left, he gave me a giant bearhug at the airport.)
The fact is you get really attached to the support guys you see every day in Cairo. After spending the last two years in that Kia together, Bradley introduces Hany first as his friend and then as his driver, and Bradley clearly enjoys telling stories about their adventures in Cairo. Like the time a few days after Bradley's wife, Lindsay, first arrived and she had lost an earring when an Egyptian woman hung a garland of flowers around her neck at a Cairo Rotary Club event. The earrings were a gift from Bob on the birth of their daughter Kerry, and they thought the earring was gone forever ... until Hany found it in the car the next day.
"So Hany was a hero from day one," says Bob, turning to Hany at dinner one night in Cairo. "Right, Hany? Yes, Hany!!!" says Bradley, pumping his fists.
Then there was the time Hany and Bradley were on the bridge to Ramses Square when a cow on the bridge charged their car. The cow went one way, and thankfully Hany drove the other way. Crisis averted. Welcome to Cairo!
Those were just a couple of my favorite stories that I couldn't fit into the magazine article. Some of the others:
• Not only does Bradley understand more Arabic than his players think, but they also often comprehend more English than Bradley thinks. One day after national team practice, Bradley asked defender Ahmed Hegazy a question: "Hegazy, when I speak English to the team, how much do you understand?"
"Sixty," came the reply.
"Really? That's good," said Bradley, who started to walk away.
"Coach?" Hegazy said. "Sixty. Not sixteen."
"Hegazy!" Bradley roared. "Good for you!"
• I'm often asked if Bradley has changed since his days as the U.S. coach, and it's tougher to answer than you'd think. On the one hand, he doesn't appear to treat his players any differently these days, and he goes about coaching day by day in much the same way as he always did. But the circumstances in Egypt have indeed forced him to respond to events he has never encountered before, events that require him to be far more of a public ambassador than at any point in his career.
When we visited the Cairo Children's Cancer Hospital, they asked Bradley to record a fundraising video. With a famous Egyptian actress watching, the video director asked Bradley to smile, look at the camera and pound his heart with his fist while saying "The Power of the Heart" in Arabic. (It sounded something like "Adi Kowa Fee Albi.") Bradley was game, but as the takes went by it felt a lot like that scene in *Lost in Translation* when the Japanese director keeps asking Bill Murray to re-do the Suntory whiskey ad.
"Adi Kowa Fee Albi!"
"This time look at the camera!"
"Adi Kowa Fee Albi!"
"Perfect! One more!"
(Slight pause) "Adi Kowa Fee Albi!"
Bradley's smile never left his face.
• When he was the U.S. coach, Bradley got accustomed to having more than enough first-rate team gear provided by Nike. But the Egyptian federation is cash-strapped these days, and over dinner one night Bradley busted the chops of a federation official he likes: "When we got to the stadium the other day [for a World Cup qualifier], we had players write their number on their game shorts with a marker. If you want to see something funny, look at [star player Mohamed] Aboutreika in the second half. He's No. 22, and he's got two different styles of the number 2 on his jersey. In a World Cup qualifier!"
Says Lindsay, "When I wash [Bob's Egypt gear], I'm afraid to put it in the drier because it will fall apart. All the decals are coming off."
• From a husband-and-wife perspective, Bob says the support of Lindsay has been constant. "She is incredible," he says one day. "As a friend, a wife, a mother, she's amazing in how she puts everybody else first. Honestly, she's the most unselfish, caring person that you could ever be lucky enough to be married to."
"Lindsay's from Baltimore," Bob continued later, smiling as he gazed at his wife. "I used to tease her for years that she got the raw end of the deal. It would be like Fourth of July weekend, and we'd be going to the Firecracker Youth Invitational tournament with 200 teams, and it was 100 degrees, and I'd say, 'You could have been at Baltimore Country Club right now, and you blew it.'"
On the day of the African playoff draw, we drove outside Cairo for about an hour, past the Giza pyramids, past a giant suburban shopping center, past a monument where the head of former president Hosni Mubarak had been removed, to a low-slung strip mall in the 6th of October suburb that houses the African football confederation. In a wood-paneled conference room with too much air-conditioning, a FIFA apparatchik from Zurich was about to conduct the ping-pong ball draw to determine the World Cup qualifying playoff matchups.
But not before they showed a highlight video of standout performances by African teams at previous World Cups. They showed Cameroon's Roger Milla scoring against Colombia in World Cup 1990. They showed Senegal beating defending champion France in World Cup 2002. Finally, they showed Ghana's Asamoah Gyan scoring the extra-time goal that eliminated Bradley's U.S. team from the Round of 16 at World Cup 2010. Up in the media seats I winced involuntarily and wondered if Bradley, sitting up front, wasn't doing the same.
Sitting next to me was Magdy, the former Egyptian press officer, a young man who has the trust of not just the Egyptian players but also of Bradley, who tends to feel a kinship more with the young people of Egypt than the old ones. "My heart is beating so fast!" said Magdy. "I'm expecting Ghana today."
Ghana would be the toughest draw of the bunch for Egypt. No African country has gone farther than Ghana at the last two World Cups. Along the way, the Black Stars have become the bogeyman team for the U.S., eliminating the Americans in World Cups 2006 and 2010. One by one they drew the ping-pong balls, until only three of the 10 teams remained unassigned.
It was the moment of truth. If the next ball was Egypt, the Pharaohs would have to face Ghana. If the next ball was Burkina Faso, Egypt would get to face Algeria -- its archrival, true, but also the easiest of the top seeds. I looked over at Magdy, who was bent over praying, his eyes closed tight. The FIFA man up front opened the ball.
The Egyptian version of a collective "Oh s---" washed over the Cairo conference room. "Ghana," said Magdy. "The team I wanted the least. Most of these guys won the Under-20 World Cup in Egypt. This is the team Bob wanted to avoid the most."
Bradley has a rule, though. Only worry about what you can control. You can't control the whims of a draw. All you can do is prepare for what comes next. Afterward, I asked Bradley about the video scene with Ghana scoring the goal that sank his U.S. team. "That's a match I've thought of many times," Bradley said. "Now the challenge of getting to the World Cup with this group of players in Egypt that I believe so much in, the idea that it comes against Ghana is ironic, I guess."
But the playoff that starts on Tuesday is an opportunity as well. A chance for Bradley to exorcise those Ghanaian demons. A chance to take an Egyptian story that already defies belief and elevate it into the pantheon of sporting achievements. Not long ago I spoke to Jesse Marsch, Bradley's former U.S. assistant. Marsch visited Bradley with his family a few months ago, witnessed first-hand what Bradley had achieved in Egypt despite all the challenges.
"You can't overplay it," says Marsch. "He's a part of history now. It's bigger than our sport, bigger than anything any of us have been a part of. He's participating in resurrecting this country into something they all want to be very proud of. When you're there, you feel that history is on his side. I'm usually very pragmatic, but you can't help but feel that he's a part of something that's meant to be."
And if Bradley can take Egypt to Brazil, if Mohamed Aboutreika and Mohamed Salah can produce something magical, they would all become Egyptian sporting legends.
"Getting to Brazil would mean a lot to the people," Bradley says. "It doesn't mean that all of the sudden poverty and unemployment and illiteracy and food and fuel shortages are gone. But it would be something that makes people happy at a time when the country has hope for the future. Maybe this fits in."