Even before he moved to his new job, Bob Bradley knew something of how football and politics can cross. Prior to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the then USA coach and his squad were invited to the White House to meet President Obama and the former president Bill Clinton. Clinton then attended the Yanks’ round-of-16 match in Rustenburg – which the USA lost 2-1 to Ghana.
Of course, the White House’s involvement was a harmless photo opportunity. But as coach of the Egyptian national team since September 2011, Bradley has experienced a whole new game of political football.
“I think in many countries in the world there is a connection between football and politics “, says Bradley, 55. “But when you consider what happened in January 2011 and the role that Ultras played in that, I think that connection is even greater in Egypt.”
January 2011 was the start of Egypt’s Arab Spring. A month later, President Hosni Mubarak resigned after 30 years in power. At the heart of the revolution that displaced him were the hardcore fans of Egypt’s two biggest clubs, Al-Ahly and Zamalek – otherwise known as the Ultras.
For many years the Ultras had been involved in clashes with police and security officials. This experience, and their ability to mobilise people through social-media networks, contributed to the ousting of Mubarak.
“Before I arrived in Egypt I knew about the Ultras,” says Bradley. “When I was coach of the US we were scheduled to play a friendly in Cairo in February 2011. In the weeks before that friendly, like everyone in the world, we saw what was going on in Tahrir Square and I followed all that. Our friendly was cancelled and I started to read about what the people were trying to accomplish and the role the Ultras played in that.”
Fast forward eight months from January 2011 and after being released as coach of the USA, after a 4-2 defeat by Mexico in the final of the Gold Cup, Bradley was appointed coach of Egypt.
“For me, a few things were very important,” says Bradley, explaining his somewhat surprising move to Africa.
Firstly, the passion of football fans in Egypt is amazing and it’s up there with anywhere else in the world. From the first time I arrived everyone I ran into spoke about the national team, they talked about the World Cup in Brazil and how it was a dream for all Egyptians to get to the World Cup. With all the success of the national team in the Africa Cup of Nations they had not been to a World Cup since 1990, so this was really important for everyone.
After only four months in Cairo, Bradley was given a unique insight into the politicisation of football in the most populous Arab country in the world.
On 1 February 2012, 74 fans died after violence at a match between Al-Ahly and Al-Masry. At first it looked like a simple case of football violence, the rivalry between two clubs spilling over into chaos and death. But while there are several versions of what went on in Port Said Stadium that evening, certain facts are clear. The Al-Masry fans were heavily armed, with knives, clubs, swords and stones, and police inside the stadium did nothing to prevent the violence, refusing to open the gates to allow fans to escape.
There are 101 versions and conspiracy theories surrounding the events in Port Said, but there are two main premises. The first is that the authorities instigated the massacre as an act of revenge following the role played by the Al-Ahly Ultras in the the Arab Spring 13 months before. When Port Said happened Mubarak was no longer in power, but elements of his regime remained in positions of authority.
The second theory suggests the ruling powers prompted the disaster in order to justify the introduction of further and more rigorous security measures.
“Even to this day there are a lot of unanswered questions,” says Bradley. “But I have said all along it was a massacre. There were gates that were locked. The lights went out at a certain point. Many people have been put on trial for the roles that they played. Many of the Al-Masry Ultras were convicted. Some of the security officials at the stadium were convicted, many got off.
Like so many things in Egypt, as the months go by, you never really get to the bottom of what happened. But, at the end of the day, 74 people lost their lives and even now it is still incredibly emotional.
Today the number 74, painted in blood red, can be seen scrawled all over Cairo, from Tahrir Square, where Egypt’s revolution started in January 2011, to the subways and side streets and the Qasr al-Nil Bridge that spans the River Nile. Just like the Nile itself, the Port Said massacre will forever be a part of Egypt’s history.
But using the “m word” got Bradley into a heap of trouble. Many people interpreted the American’s description of Port Said as a massacre as a direct criticism of Egypt’s ruling regime. The Egyptian Football Association hastily called a press conference, at which Bradley denied his comments were a criticism of the country’s ruling forces.
If Bradley needed an Egyptian lesson in the blurred lines between football and politics, comment and innuendo and right and wrong, that was it. He could well have been tempted to grab his passport and, with his wife Lindsey, get the first one-way ticket back to the US.
“The question I have been asked more than any other is ‘why did we stay?'” says Bradley. “But for me it was simple. When you get involved in something, when you have a goal and when you get to know people and when you are challenging them every day to be part of something and to be committed and to stick with it, even if it’s not easy, I think it’s important that you show them that you are in for the long haul. I don’t think you are a good leader if at that moment you show any weakness.”
Bradley attended a peace march in Sphinx Square and the Al-Ahly club memorial and spent time consoling his national-team players:
“The first time I saw the players after Port Said you could see it in their eyes. They told me how the locker room became a hospital as they were treating the injured fans. Some of the players had fans dying in their arms. Several of them said they would retire from football if this was what it meant, but gradually we spoke to them and helped them through their pain.
“Little by little, they started to get back to normal and eventually the national team players got their focus back. We had become friends and brothers, and in a strange kind of way, the experience made us stronger.”
Bradley’s words and actions have earned him huge respect in Egypt and, given the myriad political divisions inside the country, you could argue Bradley is now the most popular man in the country.
“Egyptian people are so warm and friendly”, he says. “They really appreciate it if you do something that is seen as good for their country. As national-team coach the recognition factor is huge and everything you do gets noticed”.
The results of Bradley’s team have also made people take notice. The Pharaohs have been champions of Africa a record seven times, but their World Cup record has been poor. The last time they qualified for the main event was 23 years ago, in Italy, when they failed to advance from a group containing England, the Republic of Ireland and Holland. This time around, under Bradley, Egypt won all six World Cup qualifiers, the only African side to do so.
Such results seem even more remarkable when you consider that Egypt’s domestic league was cancelled after the Port Said tragedy and all the national team’s home matches have been played behind closed doors.
“The domestic league was suspended and so the players weren’t getting paid”, recalls Bradley. “It was a tough situation but we made it work because we had to. We took every training camp we could, we organized friendly matches in Khartoum, Sudan, we went to Dubai a few times, we played in Tripoli, Beirut. Over that time we really grew as a group and the more we spoke about it, the more we realized what an incredible dream it would be if we could qualify for the World Cup.”
To accomplish that dream, Bradley’s side will have to beat Ghana over two legs in a play-off. The first will take place in Kumasi on 15 October, with the second leg scheduled for 19 November in Cairo. Given that Ghana were Africa’s most successful team in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, reaching the quarter-finals and beating Bradley’s USA in the process, you would be forgiven for thinking that Bradley had been dealt another tough hand. But Egypt’s coach isn’t fazed.
The biggest fear for Bradley and the Egyptian Football Association was a play-off against their north African rivals, Algeria. In 2009, when the two sides met in Cairo for a place in South Africa, the Algerian team bus was attacked. Following the match, it was reported that six Algerian fans died. In retaliation, Egyptian interests in Algeria were attacked and diplomatic tensions between the countries became strained. Once again the lines between politics and football became blurred.
“I’m perfectly happy to be playing Ghana,” says Bradley. “Our players respect Ghana but, unlike a match against Algeria or Tunisia, the match will be just about football. There will be no politics and less emotion that can sometimes have a negative affect on the team.”
He has other reasons to be cheerful. “The most important thing for me was to be at home for the second leg,” he says. “For us to play in front of our fans, after everything that has gone on, would be an incredible reward for them and the players”.
The ongoing security situation in Cairo has led Ghana to request a change of venue, but it seems likely that Fifa will stick to the original plan. If the game does go ahead it will be the first time a match has been played in front of a full crowd in Egypt since the Port Said disaster.
Wherever Bradley turns in Egypt, there is politics in his way. Even the Egypt dressing room isn’t a politics-free zone.
“Inside our team there might be different opinions,” he says.
Politically, not everyone sees things the same way, but nonetheless there is still respect and we are still part of something together and when we step on the field, a united effort by us is a good example for everyone else in Egypt.
Bob Bradley has had everything conceivable thrown in his path during his two-year Egyptian adventure. On 19 November, his team’s destiny will be decided – and at least, for 90 minutes, it will be just about football.
“We have had a revolution and then a counter-revolution. We had a football stadium disaster that claimed the lives of 74 people. We had the domestic league cancelled. We had the offices of the Egyptian Football Association burnt down.
“There isn’t much that hasn’t happened since I got here. But the dream is still alive in what is a historic time for Egypt. Football is about the only thing that unites people in Egypt right now. So for as long as we can still qualify for the World Cup in Brazil we will keep on fighting.”
Source: The Guardian