Priorities change in times of upheaval and tragedy. Under those circumstances, it’s fair to massage the definition of victory.
In that spirit, Bob Bradley and the Egyptian national team won twice on Tuesday, the day they were eliminated from the World Cup. For the first time in two years, the Pharaohs played before fans in the capital of Cairo. And there, before around 30,000 partisans at the 30 June Stadium, they outscored Ghana, 2-1, in a qualifier that surely will be the final match of Bradley’s memorable tenure.
That one-goal victory wasn’t nearly enough to overturn Ghana’s emphatic 6-1 thumping of Egypt in the opening leg of their home-and-home series. The Black Stars will head to Brazil next summer on the strength of that October triumph, while Egypt misses the World Cup for the sixth consecutive time. Bradley’s mandate when he was hired in the fall of 2011 was to end that streak, an embarrassing one for a country that has captured a record seven African championships and whose leading clubs, Al Ahly and Zamalek, have won a combined 13 continental titles.
But the fates conspired against Bradley from the start. There was the horrific February 2012 massacre of 74 fans at an Egyptian Premier League match in Port Said and the subsequent long-term suspension of league play. There was the political unrest that divided a nation, highlighted by this summer’s ouster of president Mohammed Morsi. Safety concerns forced the national team to play home matches in empty stadiums and numerous neutral site friendlies in places like Abu Dhabi. Through it all, Bradley worked diligently to keep his players fit and focused. He never hid or made excuses. He and his wife, Lindsay, were out and about in Cairo and fixtures in the media and at civic events. Meanwhile, the team came together.
"We've connected with Egyptian people and with everything that's gone on we found a way to challenge a group of players to be strong, to be proud and to understand that there is an opportunity that when everything in the country is going in one direction, maybe we can do something that will be a symbol of hope,” Bradley told the Associated Press.
The Pharaohs finished the group stage of Africa’s qualifying tournament a perfect 6-0-0, the only one of 40 entrants to do so. But additional factors beyond Bradley’s control would contribute to Egypt’s undoing. The continent’s unforgiving competition format required each group winner to face another in a two-game playoff. Egypt drew Ghana, arguably Africa’s best team, and was effectively out of the World Cup after one bad match.
“Ninety minutes in Kumasi [Ghana] don't change our efforts all over the past two years," Bradley said before Tuesday’s finale. Yet the criticism he faced at home following the first-leg loss was fierce, as if the context had been forgotten. There were even rumors he’d be fired. Perhaps perspective will return in time. No other World Cup hopeful faced such steep odds.
On Tuesday, Bradley focused on what he could control. He’d reminded his players and the public how special a genuine home game could be, and he asked his squad to continue to act as role models while trying to restore some pride on the field.
“[Playing in Cairo] means a lot to the players. I think they deserve this, they've earned this and we hope to feel the passion and support of the Egyptian fans in the stadium and all the ones who can't make it,” he said. “Egypt at the moment sadly is a divided country and I told [the team] we must be different. We must be united. We must find a way where we can not only be strong as a team but maybe be a good example for everyone - and that is still what we are all about."
They managed that on Tuesday, putting Ghana on its heels early and playing with all the creativity and verve that was lacking in Kumasi. Bradley fielded five new starters and one of them, forward Amr Zaki, scored the game’s opening goal in the 25th minute. Veteran playmaker Mohamed Aboutrika, whose relationship with Bradley has come to symbolize the manager’s unlikely but lasting bond with his temporary home, set up the play with a brilliant free kick from the right.
"We're blood brothers. He's a good man," Bradley said of Aboutrika this week. "I couldn't be prouder to have anyone on my team. I have coached great players and he would be up there with any one of them.”
Egypt continued to press the visitors and came close on a couple more occasions. A few lucky bounces here and there might have put the Pharoahs in position to make a run at a miracle after halftime. But by the time the second goal came – Hull City’s Gedo notched it in the 84th – Ghana’s World Cup ticket had been punched. The Black Stars then scored in the 89th to kick off their celebrations.
Egypt finished its qualifying campaign 7-1-0. But that wasn’t good enough. Perhaps for some, Bradley may simply take his place among all the other coaches who failed to guide the Pharaohs to the World Cup. They’ve entered the past 11 and managed to qualify just once . But for most, it will be the body of work that counts.
"As a national coach you have some people on your side and some who are against you. I understand the disappointment. I see it when I see people in the street,” he told the AP, adding that there also are occasions when people approach him and say, "'Thank you for giving everything at the time when the country is going through so much trouble, so much turmoil.'" Whether Bradley returns to the U.S. to coach in MLS, continues his journey in Europe or takes some time off, it will be his conduct and contributions under adversity that should be remembered, not last month’s result in Ghana. The wins on Tuesday, on the field and in the stands, should help.