After tragedy in Egypt, shooting for a World Cup

For Bob Bradley ’80, coaching Egypt’s national soccer team means taking on the hopes of the Egyptian people, who long to qualify for the World Cup.
For Bob Bradley ’80, coaching Egypt’s national soccer team means taking on the hopes of the Egyptian people, who long to qualify for the World Cup.
PHOTO: AP IMAGES

On June 1, Egypt’s national soccer team played Mozambique in a World Cup qualifying match. Bob Bradley ’80, the Pharaohs’ new coach, was on the sidelines. Fifty-six minutes in, Egypt’s Mahmoud Fathalla angled a ball off his right leg past Mozambique’s diving goalie and scored. In the stands of the 86,000-seat military stadium in Alexandria, there was silence. Every seat was empty.

Since February, the team has played home games in a vacant stadium. Spectators have been banned since a riot following a match in Port Said that killed more than 70 people. 

Competing without cheering fans is just one of the challenges facing Bradley, who took the job last October. Following his dismissal as coach of the U.S. men’s team in July 2011, Bradley might have waited for a coaching job with a prestigious club in Europe, something he always has dreamed of. From 1984 to 1995, Bradley was the men’s soccer coach at Princeton, leading the Tigers to a pair of Ivy League titles.

But during his two visits to Egypt to consider the job, Bradley was overwhelmed by the country’s passion for soccer. Though deeply divided over politics, Egyptians could agree on one thing: an obsession with Egypt’s qualifying for the World Cup, something that nation has not done since 1990. Bradley’s contract takes him through the 2014 World Cup, and he knows how huge a responsibility he has assumed in what is, basically, a brand-new country after the fall of Hosni Mubarak last year.

“In a country where there’s so much hope for the future, the dream of getting to the World Cup again is a big part of it,” Bradley says. 

Unlike some of his predecessors, who lived outside Egypt and flew in to coach, Bradley and his wife, Lindsay, moved to a hotel apartment in Zamalek, an affluent section of Cairo built on an island in the Nile. Neither speaks much Arabic, but that does not stop them from interacting with the Egyptian people, which usually produces chaos — Bradley is recognized everywhere he goes. 

He is enmeshed in Egyptian life, ­getting out to the bustling market at Ataba and visiting the Children’s Cancer Hospital of Egypt. The day after the riot at Port Said, he and Lindsay joined thousands at a rally at Sphinx Square to honor the victims. 

Coaching a team of 30 Egyptian Muslims is very different from coaching in the United States. Some players speak English, but to communicate with the rest he often employs a translator. Whenever the team travels, a player leads a prayer on the bus ride. During Ramadan, when Muslims fast from dawn to sundown, the players train from 10 p.m. to midnight. 

“Egyptians are a proud people. They’re proud of their history, their culture, and their soccer,” Bradley says. “If you come here and are part of those things, they appreciate it.” 

Egypt is 2–0 in World Cup qualifying games and leads its group. Its next qualifier is in March against Zimbabwe. If the team plays at home, the stadium still may be empty, but the whole nation will be watching. 

Merrell Noden ’78
Merrell Noden ’78
PHOTO: FRANK WOJCIECHOWSKI

Merrell Noden ’78 is a former staff writer at Sports Illustrated and a frequent PAW ­contributor.