After 22 people died prior to an Egyptian Premier League match on Sunday, former U.S. and Egypt national team coach Bob Bradley thought back to an all-too-recent and similar tragedy. The event at Cairo’s Air Defense Stadium happened just over three years to the day after the Port Said Stadium riot that killed 74.
“Terrible sadness, having seen what happened in Port Said, how it impacted families, clubs, the players, the football community as a whole,” Bradley told SI.com in a phone interview from Norway, where the American now coaches Stabæk. “To think that three years and a week later, that another tragedy takes place — young fans, going into the stadium — we can make no sense of it.”
In the aftermath of Port Said, Bradley resumed his role as the national team coach, trying to qualify Egypt for its first World Cup since 1990. With the Egyptian league suspended, his team carried out separate training camps for domestic players.
”Thoughts and prayers go again to the families, but I think also about all those players and how incredible they were after Port Said, the response and what went into trying to get to the World Cup,” Bradley said. “I still hear from so many of these guys. The league was back; they had just allowed fans back into the stadiums literally within the last, say, three weeks.”
Just 10,000 tickets were available for Zamalek’s match with ENPPI on Sunday as part of the continued restrictions on fans since the Port Said massacre. Now, once again, the league has been suspended indefinitely with less than a month remaining in the season.
“There’s so much hope that you always have, especially for these young guys that I got to know and their families and what Egypt’s all about,” Bradley said. “There’s talent, there’s potential, but still there are so many things that go on there that are so difficult. You think it’s made a step forward, and then just as quickly, it’s gone two steps back.”
The Egyptian government said fans without tickets to the match tried to force their way into the stadium. The Ultras White Knights, the club’s most vocal fans who have a history of political activism along with other ultras groups in Egypt, said police lobbed tear gas at supporters as they tried to enter the stadium through an entrance that was too small.
“The Zamalek fans tried to get in by force, and we had to prevent them from damaging public property,” read an official statement from the Egyptian interior ministry. Later, the state blamed supporters’ deaths on a stampede trying to get into the stadium, with many people “falling over each other.”
On their Facebook page, the White Knights said the “iron gate surrounded by barbed wire” through which fans had to enter couldn’t accommodate more than one person at a time.
“It’s always complicated. It’s very difficult to know the truth in anything that ever happens in Egypt,” Bradley said. “It’s always easy to see what’s on the surface; it’s always difficult to try to understand all the things that go on underneath the surface.
“This is already another one where obviously, in the recent months, [Abdel Fattah el-Sisi] as president means that the country is in some ways back a little bit more toward military rule. One of the things that was always true in the time that [Hosni] Mubarak was there was that security and police were pretty brutal in the way situations were handled. … The president of Zamalek has not managed to get along with the White Knights at all. He’s sort of from the old regime.”
Bradley said the basic tragedy of the situation rings out above any political implications.
“In the end, a bunch of young Egyptians … lose their lives going to a football match,” he said. “You just can’t understand how this can happen.”
Omar Gaber, a Zamalek player, whom Bradley coached on the national team, refused to play on Sunday after he learned that fans had died before the match. Gaber has an amicable relationship with the White Knights and told Egyptian television that a group of fans stopped the team bus on its way into the stadium and showed them photos of the dead.
“In the last few days, there are rumors that his contract has been terminated,” Bradley said. “He’s a young guy who in that moment said, ‘No, this shouldn’t happen.’ Omar’s a really good guy. We’ve traded some messages since then.”
Gaber, 23, played for Egypt’s under-20 national team at the 2011 World Cup and now has five senior caps. He has only played for Zamalek in his five-year professional career and developed in its academy.
“The one thing I’ve felt always in my time in Egypt is that these are young guys, good guys, and when you listen to them and you show that you’re there for them, that means a lot to them,” Bradley said. “I think a lot about a guy like Omar in this moment.”