Jersey Guy in Cairo
Grant Wahl’s feature piece in Sports Illustrated on Bob Bradley, former head coach of the United States Men’s National Soccer Team, is a must read, no matter how much or how little you care about soccer. I can’t do the piece justice – you just need to read it. But for those of you who don’t follow soccer, I figured I’d write up a quick bit of background to help you appreciate the story a bit more.
Bradley is a born-and-raised New Jerseyan who was the head soccer coach at Princeton University, his alma mater, from 1984 to 1995, after which he became a reasonably successful coach for several teams in the newly-formed Major League Soccer American professional league, hardly a remarkable achievement in the world of soccer. In 2006, after his friend and mentor Bruce Arena was ingloriously fired as the head coach of the US Men’s National Team due to the team’s embarrassing performance at the World Cup that year, Bradley wound up being named the interim coach pending the expected announcement of German soccer legend Jurgen Klinsmann as the permanent coach.
All Bradley did was go 12-5-1 in his first year as head coach, including two victories over hated rival Mexico, leaving US Soccer little choice but to remove the interim label once negotiations with Klinnsman fell through. After that first year as head coach, Bradley led the team to finish atop the qualification standings in its region for the 2010 World Cup an reach its first-ever major tournament final (the 2009 Confederations Cup, in which they shocked the world by beating Spain, then ranked first in the world thanks to a 35 game unbeaten streak which Bradley’s team broke, and even briefly leading Brazil before losing in the final). At the 2010 World Cup, Bradley led the team, which included his son Michael, to win its first round group for the first time in team history, including a 1-1 draw with England, before losing a heartbreaking game in the elimination rounds to nemesis Ghana, a perennial African powerhouse, in extra-time (the equivalent of an overtime loss in other sports).
Unfortunately, despite a contract extension, the specter of Klinsmann never truly disappeared, and when US Soccer realized it would finally be able to successfully negotiate a contract with Klinsmann, Bradley was dumped when he lost a minor tournament final to archrival Mexico, barely a year after finishing atop the World Cup group.
With these successes in his pocket, it was widely expected that Bradley would get an offer to become the first American to coach an upper-division European team, but prejudice against American soccer continued to run too deep and no offers materialized. Instead, Bradley received an offer to coach the Egyptian national team, which had a glorious history and rabid following but had fallen on hard times, in September 2011. This of course was just months after Hosni Mubarak had been unseated by revolution, before any elections had taken place, and at a time when the country was in considerable turmoil, which of course has only gotten worse.
Soccer has had a significant role in that turmoil, both for better and for worse – organized groups of soccer fans of the al-Ahly club were particularly prominent in the protests that brought down Mubarak, while 79 of that team’s fans were massacred a year later after a game against al-Masry, a team whose supporters were generally associated with the old regime.
Amongst others on the national team, Egypt’s best player, a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood named Mohamed Aboutrika, played for al-Ahly, and one of those killed died in his arms. Other players on the national team took the field that day for al-Masry.
The Egyptian professional league was suspended in reaction to these events, and further riots would eventually ensue when most of the police officers who aided and abetted the massacre were acquitted of all charges.
World Cup qualifying was to begin just three months later, in June 2012. Nearly all of Egypt’s national team players plied their trade in the now-suspended domestic league, with only a handful deemed good enough to play abroad, meaning that the bulk of the team would have no ability to play competitively in the long droughts between national team games. The political situation, as we all know, has only gotten bloodier over the last year and a half, and the team is no more unified by politics than the rest of the country. Because of the political situation, Egypt has been required to play all of its home games outside of Cairo in empty stadiums, with fans prohibited from attending.
Under these circumstances, with an American coach, Egypt has had to attempt to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1990. Merely getting the team on the field for those matches would be a remarkable feat; having them competitive, Herculean; but winning them? Unfathomable.
Under Bradley, Egypt has done the unfathomable six times in World Cup qualifying, and the fathomable zero. They are the only team in the world to have a perfect record in World Cup qualifying. Perhaps even more remarkable is how Bradley has done it, which Wahl’s piece details – a story of quiet courage, humility, and humanity in a world of fear, arrogance, and inhumanity.
Unfortunately, because of the peculiarities of qualifying for the World Cup from Africa, Egypt needs to beat one more opponent in a home-and-home series, with the winner determined based on the number of aggregate goals scored. Despite its qualifying record, Egypt was somehow deemed unworthy of a seed, meaning that this series would be played against one of the strongest teams on the continent. That opponent? Ghana – Bradley’s old nemesis.
Ghana and Egypt play the first leg of their series next Tuesday in Accra. The second leg will be on November 11. For the first time in two years, that second game will be in Cairo, in front of fans.