It was nearly 1 a.m. Cairo time last Friday when Bob Bradley called. If you're the Egyptian national soccer coach, as Bradley has been since last September, lack of sleep is understandable these days. On Feb. 1, more than 70 people died in violent clashes after an Egyptian league game between Al-Masry and Al-Ahly in Port Said.
Bradley was not at the game, having decided to attend a different one in Cairo instead. Like all Egyptians, he was profoundly shaken afterward. "No one comes close to anticipating something like this," the former U.S. coach told me. "The focus has to be on the respect for these families and the overall sadness about a senseless tragedy."
Most foreign national-team coaches in Africa would have taken the first flight out of Cairo last week. But Bradley was different. The day after, on Feb. 2, he and his wife, Lindsay, marched with thousands of Egyptians in Sphinx Square to honor the dead. The Bradleys also visited a memorial at Al-Ahly, where fans, players and relatives of the dead had gathered, posting pictures of those who had been lost. The Bradleys made sure to meet not just with club officials but with the players and fans, too.
Bradley's decision to stand together with the masses is of a piece with the choice he made upon taking the Egypt job in the first place. Some coaches would have considered living in Europe -- Bradley's son, Michael, plays in Italy for Chievo -- but that wasn't a realistic option, he says, after he visited Cairo and accepted the job.
"I came away with a sense that to do this job right meant you needed to be part of the life here, needed to get to know people here, needed to understand what the culture was about," Bradley says. "It wouldn't work if you thought you could live somewhere else and just fly in for camps." Nor would the Bradleys live in gated compounds in greater Cairo, where he decided you would always feel like a visitor. Instead they chose to live in a neighborhood in central Cairo.
Could Bradley have taken a job in which politics is more entwined with sports? Probably not. Egypt is still in the transition stage of a revolution, one in which young soccer ultras -- many of them connected to Al-Ahly -- played a significant role in the ouster of former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak. Martial law still exists, and the country's military rulers have come under harsh criticism for the lack of security around the stadium violence and subsequent Cairo street protests (which have left a dozen more dead).
What's more, Egypt's military government is in a burgeoning crisis with the Obama administration over the criminal prosecutions of 19 Americans from nonprofit pro-democracy groups who are accused of manipulating the Egyptian political process. One of the accused, Sam LaHood, the son of U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood, has sought refuge in the U.S. embassy in Cairo. Tensions have gotten to the point that the U.S. is now warning it could withhold $1.55 billion in annual aid for Egypt, most of it military aid.
Against this backdrop Bradley is currently one of the most prominent Americans in Egyptian public life. "Anyone who has spent any time in Egypt comes away amazed by the passion that the people have for football," he says. "People here are warm, very welcoming and incredibly proud of their country and culture. And they want you to experience all of this. Whenever you do anything that's seen as being good for the country, it is so significant to people. They appreciate everything you do in that regard."
Bradley has stressed Egyptian unity since taking the job. Besides marching with Egyptians last week, Bradley and his wife have visited the Cairo children's cancer hospital. They have also spent time in Imbaba, a bustling Cairo neighborhood where foreign tourists rarely venture. Bradley has also tried to learn as much as possible about what's going on around him, asking: Who goes to Tahrir Square? Is it one group? More than one? What are the agendas? Bradley has had long conversations with Zak Abdel, the Egyptian-born goalkeepers coach who has been on Bradley's staff with the U.S. and Egypt. And Bradley has read from the Middle East soccer blog by James Dorsey.
"People outside of Egypt just see certain pictures and have a perception based on what they see on the news," Bradley says. "When you are part of the rest of what goes on here and care about the things that are important to them, they appreciate it. So when an incident like this happens and you're in any position of leadership, there's a responsibility," Bradley said. "It means a lot to people that you're with them."
From a soccer perspective, the challenges that Bradley now faces are plenty. The Egyptian league, which employs most of the national team players, has been suspended and may or may not resume. Bradley's bosses at the Egyptian soccer federation have all resigned in the wake of the Port Said tragedy, although FIFA has said it may pursue their reinstatement since it appeared they were originally fired by Egypt's military rulers. (FIFA doesn't like it when governments "interfere" with soccer and could threaten to ban Egypt from World Cup qualifying to get its way.)
Then there's the mental state of the Egyptian players. Six of the players Bradley used in a November friendly against Brazil, his first game in charge, play for Al-Ahly, the team whose fans suffered the majority of the deaths on February 1. One of those players, forward Emad Moteab, 28, announced he was retiring from soccer in the days afterward. Doing the same was Ahly teammate Mohamed Aboutrika, 33, the most famous player in Egypt. Can Bradley help persuade the players to return? How much time will it take? You can't rush things after what happened in Port Said.
And yet Bradley also has a tremendous opportunity to help the Egyptian national team become the rare sports story that inspires not just the nation but the world. The Pharaohs may be in a rebuilding phase, but there is plenty of soccer talent in Egypt, which won three Africa Cups of Nations from 2006 to '10 before failing to earn a spot in the '12 event. The U-23 team (coached by Hany Ramzy) has qualified for this summer's London Olympics, an experience that should provide a few talented young players for the senior team's push to qualify for the '13 African Cup of Nations and the big one: the 2014 World Cup.
Earning berths in those two tournaments is Bradley's main goal, and it will require a keen focus given the small number of qualifying games. Just four games stand between Egypt and the '13 African Cup: a home-and-home series against Central African Republic (scheduled for February 29 and June 16), followed by a two-game playoff in September and October against a team that qualified for ACN '12. If Egypt could win ACN '13 in South Africa, the prize would be a berth in the 2013 Confederations Cup.
As for World Cup qualifying, Egypt will reach Brazil 2014 if it can survive an eight-game slate. (Bradley's U.S. team had 18 World Cup qualifying games in the last cycle.) The Pharaohs must first win their four-team group, which they will be favored to do against Mozambique, Guinea and Zimbabwe. (Group games start this June and run through September 2013.) And then they would have to win a two-game playoff against another African group winner.
Difficult? Perhaps. Impossible? Hardly. If Bradley could guide Egypt to the World Cup, it would be something truly remarkable. For all of Egypt's success in Africa over the past decade, it hasn't qualified for the World Cup since 1990. "With all the passion and the hope for the future in this country, a dream is to go to the World Cup," says Bradley. "That we can all work to make this happen is all part of pulling together."
It's a long road. But Bradley will be a legend in Egypt if they can do it.