Walk Like an Egyptian

Bob Bradley didn’t go to Egypt to give the Sphinx poker-face lessons. But he could have. I never knew much about him. He was the coach of the US Men’s National Team over the past years. He’s American, from New Jersey, as it seems about everyone significant in US Soccer is. He’s part of the Bruce Arena cabal. He played and coached at Princeton, but

This *is* Bradley's good mood.

was never a pro. He looks like a light bulb with a scowl painted on it:

He selected his son, Michael, to play on the team but it was merit-driven. Michael’s a professional in Italy’s Serie A right now, that speaks for itself.

Bob Bradley to many is the guy who followed Bruce Arena as coach of the USMNT in 2006. To others he is the guy who isn’t Jurgen Klinsmann. Sunil Gulati, the head of US Soccer, was making goo-goo eyes at Jurgen when he decided the time had come for Arena to go. But whether it was politics or money, he couldn’t seal the deal and so we got Bob. Bradley built a record of 12 wins, 1 draw, and 5 losses, going undefeated for a period of ten games over five months. And even then, he was viewed as nothing more than a stop-gap until a headline-grabbing international name could be found.

After our showing in South Africa’s World Cup where we did about as well as our world ranking would indicate,  Bradley was let go for Klinsmann to get a chance. (On the Soccer Power Index, we oscillate between 10th – 40th, currently at #36. A year ago the US was #17 and in South Africa they progressed to the round of 16).

This is not Bob Bradley.

I figured Bradley would follow Arena to the MLS and go back to his stomping grounds to coach the NJ MetroStars or the Chicago Fire. But after taking some time to evaluate options, he took the job as National Team coach of Egypt. Lately this sort of cross-pollination has become more popular. England hired the Swede, Sven Goran-Eriksson, who later coached Mexico. England also turned to the Italian Fabio Capello. Ireland pulled a “me-too” move, signing Trapattoni. It’s the old “an expert is a guy from out of town” meme. Bora Milutinovic was the poster child, he’d go anywhere and coach anyone. Guus Hiddink is the game’s version of Winston Wolf right now, the guy you call when you have a mess and need a miracle.

It seemed logical that Bradley would go on one of these sorts of junkets, charge a bunch of money and leave with millions when the inevitable truth set in: a coach can’t do much to further the likelihood of a team to progress in competition. Changing a coach is like changing a hood ornament on your car and expecting it to go faster. National team successes are dependent on the talent the nation has and partly the country’s GNP, they have to be wealthy enough

Also not Bob Bradley.

to have a decent infrastructure of fields, stadiums, physicians and the like. A coach will make a difference if he has time to set a tone and culture, but most pros don’t get that kind of opportunity. So I figured Bob Bradley would show up, wave, and leave with a suitcase full of money and souvenirs.

I was wrong.

On February 1, 2012 Egyptian soccer got a gut check like few have ever seen. Immediately after a match between two of the nation’s most popular teams, Al-Masry and Al-Ahly in Port Said, a skirmish broke out between rival groups of fans. But it quickly became apparent that this was not a normal conflict between supporters, as many in the Al-Masry contingent broke out knives and other weapons. From this report:

Police and security at the stadium’s entrances failed to search fans for weapons and allowed people to enter without tickets, resulting in a crowd of almost 17,000 people, the report said.

The 74 stadium deaths – the deadliest football violence in the country’s history – sparked days of violent protests outside the interior ministry’s headquarters in Cairo, in which another 16 people were killed.

Many of the dead in the February 2 riot were thought to have been Al-Ahly supporters, set upon by partisans of the local Al-Masry side after the Cairo team lost 3-1.

Soccer supporters known as the Ultras – mainly fans of Al-Ahly and another club in Cairo – played a prominent role in the uprising that overthrew president Hosni Mubarak a year ago. Commentators have fed speculation that pro-Mubarak forces were behind the massacre, or at least complicit.

This was not a “soccer riot” — this was an attack of one political group on another, where both adopt the guise of football supporters. The Al-Masry thugs used the match as the venue to carry out the attacks and knew that the police would stand by and do nothing, as they are both politically aligned with the old Mubarak regime. In fact, according to reports, the police locked the exit gates so the Al-Ahly fans could not get away.

Still, with soccer being the locale of the violence, anyone making a living in the sport knew their lives were now in danger. Many people would have pulled up stakes and gone home, citing security concerns for family. In fact that was what the Portuguese al-Ahly coach, Manuel José did, returning to Portugal to consider his future:

“I was beaten with fists and kicks to the neck, head and feet. [In the dressing room] I saw our fans die before us and we were unable to do anything. Nothing happened to any of the players but we feel overwhelming sadness and the return flight was made in silence, full of respect for the lives of our fans who died.

“I have to think about my life differently now. Although everybody loves me greatly here, this experience has changed my life completely.”

As a US citizen, Bradley knows he would be a high-value target among those who seek to create terror. But according to a recent Sports Illustrated article, when he took the Egypt job, he didn’t choose to live in Europe and jet in (remember his son plays in Italy). He didn’t opt to take residence in a secure, gated compound where he could enjoy a modicum of sanctuary. He vetoed that idea because “he decided you would always feel like a visitor.” What did he and his wife do? “Instead they chose to live in a neighborhood in central Cairo.” And true to form he started trying to get to know the Egyptians. He and his family visited the Cairo Children’s Cancer Hospital. Everything signaled that the Bradleys were “all in” and set for the long haul.

A body is removed from the stadium. 73 people are killed.

The day after the massacre, he and his wife, Lindsay, marched with thousands of Egyptians in Sphinx Square to honor the dead. This is the Bradley way. As his Princeton faculty peer, religion professor Jeffrey Stout said, “I can’t think of anybody who cares as relentlessly and passionately as he does. There just aren’t many people like him.”

So today I learned the Bob Bradley isn’t about managing his brand. He’s not about making himself famous or rich. He honestly cares about the game and connecting with his players. “It’s pretty simple,” says Jimmy Barlow, who played for Bradley at Princeton and now coaches the Tigers as well as the U.S. under-15 team. “He knows what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling before you even do. He will say things, and you just go, ‘Oh yeah, you’re right.’”

He understands what it means to lead a team. He knows that players are people who come from families, and that as coach he works all the way following the thread from player to family to community to country. When the people of Egypt march, he marches with them. He doesn’t fold up his tent when things get tough. In the ham and eggs world of soccer, he is the committed ham. I love this guy.

p.s. Expect Egypt to make it to the 2014 World Cup.

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More background:

Egypt coach Bob Bradley: Showing strength in the aftermath of a tragedy is imperative.

In aftermath of tragedy, Bradley stands in unison with Egyptians

I got a lot of information on the Port Said killings from AlJazeera English. This is their interview with Bradley. Other pertinent articles are here, here and here.

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