When Jeffrey Plunkett ’97 describes his new documentary film project about Egypt’s national soccer team, We the Pharaohs, he begins with the basics. “On some level, it’s a very simple story: a team trying to qualify for the World Cup,” he said. “But the place and time make it interesting — and complicated.”
“Complicated” seems like a monumental understatement. Egypt has a history of talented soccer players and a strong fan base, but sports have taken a back seat to more pressing concerns. Less than two years removed from a revolution, the nation’s political future remains in flux, and in Cairo last month, crowds of Egyptians protested an anti-Islam film outside the American embassy. The biggest soccer headline of the last year was a tragic one: A stadium riot in Port Said killed more than 70 fans, and some remain angry about a lack of accountability for the deaths.
Enter Bob Bradley ’80, the American coach hoping to lead Egypt to its first World Cup berth since 1990 — and Plunkett’s college coach at Princeton. Bradley received a warm welcome when he took the job, and he made a strong debut, leading Egypt to a 2-0 start in World Cup qualifying. But in the teaser for We the Pharaohs, journalist James Montague succinctly summarizes the popular view that “if he starts losing, he’s not going to last long.” (See full video below.)
Bradley, with his piercing blue eyes and straightforward speech, is a compelling central figure for the film. (“He’s the most honest, direct person I’ve ever met,” Plunkett said.) The most powerful scenes, however, are on the periphery, in the gatherings of fans who hang on every crossing pass.
Soccer’s appeal, Plunkett said, has roots in the oppressive regime of President Hosni Mubarak, who allowed Egyptians few opportunities to gather in large groups. One gathering place was the mosque; another was the football stadium. The stadium terraces provided some measure of freedom, Plunkett said, and the camaraderie spilled over into the Arab Spring protests in Tahrir Square, where football songs morphed into songs of revolution.
“Yes, there are other countries in the world that, like Egypt, are passionate about soccer,” Plunkett said. “But Manchester United’s fans didn’t help overthrow a regime.”