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American is coach, protester in Egypt

By Ashley Fantz, CNN
February 7, 2012 -- Updated 1735 GMT (0135 HKT)
Egypt head coach Bob Bradley watches his team play against Brazil in November.
Egypt head coach Bob Bradley watches his team play against Brazil in November.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • American Bob Bradley took Egypt national soccer team coaching job five months ago
  • Bradley joined protesters after a riot at a soccer match killed more than 80
  • Bradley: "It's important ... to let people know how you feel"
  • World Cup dream still alive, players need time to heal, he says

(CNN) -- Bob Bradley knew the job would be tough when he took it.

The former coach of the U.S. national soccer team arrived with his wife, Lindsay, in Cairo about five months ago to take over Egypt's national football team.

As the couple looked for a house, they were shown gated communities with names like New Cairo and 6th of October City, luxurious spots far away from the teeming metropolis. The couple opted instead to live in a neighborhood in the heart of Cairo.

"Why be here if you're not really part of it, if you can't be with the people?" Bradley said Monday.

That's exactly what the 53-year-old coach has done the past few days, after a riot at a Port Said soccer match killed more than 80 people last week.

On Thursday, Bradley marched in Sphinx Square alongside protesters who screamed that security officials had not done enough to prevent -- or had even orchestrated -- the melee sparked when Cairo's Al-Ahly club lost to hometown Premier League team Al-Masry 3-1 the day before.

"It's important for me as a person, and for my wife, and all the people who have reached out to us since we've been here, and as a leader with the national team," he said. "To let people know how you feel."

About a dozen players on both teams are part of the national team pool, he said. Big hopes hang on their talent. Though it's a longtime African soccer powerhouse, Egypt hasn't played in the finals of the ultimate soccer crown, the World Cup, since 1990. The huge crowd of demonstrators that Bradley joined in Sphinx Square formed shortly after Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri disbanded the Egyptian Football Association's board of directors and announced that all games in the country were canceled indefinitely.

No soccer?

The announcement stoked emotions in an already frenzied nation that has sacrificed so much in the past year and whose identity has historically been tied to the game. There is a complex web of implications from last week's violence.

Bradley knows that soccer is part of Egypt's national fabric. It inspires fanatical emotions. And it's intertwined with protest and politics.

Highly organized anti-authoritarian groups of soccer fans known as "ultras" prospered in recent years, using conflict with police at soccer stadiums as a form of dissent against the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak. Ultras then played a key role in last year's Arab Spring protest in Cairo's Tahrir Square that led to the end of Mubarak's rule. But even with Mubarak out of power, some view the ultras as a problem in the new Egypt, author James Montague wrote in a CNN opinion article earlier this month.

Last November, the first game Bradley coached with Egypt was against Brazil, played in Qatar. Two hours before kickoff, Egyptian fans chanted, "Asha'ab yureed isgat albrazeel" which means "The people want the downfall of Brazil." It was a slight variation on "Asha'ab yureed isgat annizam" -- "The people want the downfall of the regime" -- which Tahrir Square protesters chanted in January 2011. (Egypt lost the match against Brazil.)

"There's no doubt about it, the revolution is part of this," Bradley said. "And there has to be respect for that."

Since Thursday, numerous clashes have erupted between security forces and demonstrators over the soccer match -- and again raised a crucial question: Can Egypt's military-led government quash violence that has flared throughout the country since the revolution that unseated Mubarak?

On the smallest personal scale, it meant Bradley's job was in question.

Connect with the people

Photographers captured the coach, his shaved head, steely eyes, straight-line mouth, next to his wife, pushing forward, shoulder to shoulder with Egyptians, at the march in Sphinx Square.

Some international reporters and sports journalists gasped.

Here was a well-known public figure in Egypt, tantamount to an official, a person of prestige, someone you might not expect to see in a chanting crowd. Some wondered if he had considered that he's an American in a climate some view as especially risky for Americans now.

Then there were people who said it just didn't seem like something a guy like Bradley would do. He's not known for stirring it up. He's deeply private, a coach who says few words and doesn't look for headlines. Far from raging against the machine, he's more likely to respond to someone out of politeness, according to journalists who cover him. And though it takes some work to get him to open up, they say, once he does, he's so regular-guy friendly that it's easy to forget he's a major force in international soccer.

That paragraph, read to Bradley, is a bit much for him. Joining protesters and attending a memorial to the people who died last week seemed like the right and obvious thing to do, he said. He said it was a chance for him to "shake hands and give some hugs," a sensitivity that's absolutely uncontrived, according to people who have written about him.

"When you take these kind of positions you understand the responsibility, your leadership is (dependent) on how you connect with the people, what your players care about, what is their character, what do they value," he said. "You try to have a vision of what you want the team to be all about."

He prefaces sentences with "honestly" a lot.

"I've said it many times, people are really incredibly warm and welcoming to us. Egyptians have huge hearts, they're very good people and so proud of their country. Honestly, when they meet you at first, it means so much to them to get a sense that we are comfortable here and we enjoy going to different parts of Cairo."

"I felt such sadness for what happened (at the soccer match) and I was asking a lot of questions about why," he said.

Asking questions

The night of the riot, Bradley was attending another game, which was halted at halftime when news of the violence spread. He went home to watch the news about Port Said.

He called everyone he knew, asking questions. He couldn't understand why, if Al-Masry won the game, that team's fans had instigated the violence. He was trying to wrap his mind around the history of violence at Egypt's soccer matches, reading everything he could, immersing himself particularly in James Dorsey's writing on the topic. Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, authors the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

Bradley has talked with his son Michael, who plays professional football in Italy and played for the U.S. national team when Bradley was the U.S. coach. His son has been sending him articles about Egypt, its history and the intertwining importance of politics and soccer.

"I try to keep some things private," he said. "But the conversations I've had with him in the past few days have been important to me."

Bradley is also protective of his players and declined to offer details about how footballers from Al-Masry and Al-Ahly in the national team pool have been been shaken, or whether they've been given access to psychological counseling.

"I want to understand what they need, and I want them to know that I'm there," he said.

A quiet coach

This kind of quiet earnestness is Bradley's calling card, said Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl. He has covered Bradley since the coach played on the Princeton University soccer team and later became its head coach.

"Bradley could have easily taken a job in the U.S. and that would have been the safe thing to do," Wahl said. "He could have made good money and done well."

But Bradley is more adventurous than that.

"He's a pretty extreme guy when it comes to how he goes about doing his work," the journalist said. "With Bob, he's all about respect within the team and having that come from everybody. He's good at team building. I wouldn't use the term 'beloved' when you talk about his players, as I would respect. He doesn't take a day off, ever."

Bradley said he's aware that some reporters prefer covering bombastic personalities.

"I might have a reputation for not always being media-friendly (but) the concept of building a team, that's a responsibility," he said. "You don't want anything to get in the way of that."

Wahl says that's the pro and con of having Bradley leading Egypt's national team.

"He's not a salesman," Wahl said, and that may have hurt him in the U.S., where efforts are under way to sell the sport to a mainstream audience weaned on basketball and the other kind of football.

In 2006, Bradley took over as head of the U.S. national team from Bruce Arena, who has won more games that any other coach in U.S. soccer history. Bradley was merely named interim coach, Wahl points out, even though many said Bradley more than earned the respect and right to a permanent post.

Bradley led the U.S. soccer team to victories in his first 11 matches, and won the 2007 Gold Cup. The team finished second at the Confederations Cup in South Africa in 2009, the best the U.S. had performed in a major FIFA tournament. The team also qualified for the 2010 World Cup, advancing out of group play but losing in the round of 16.

But Bradley was canned in July 2011. Charismatic German Jurgen Klinsmann took over, and Bradley found work in Egypt.

"It's fascinating to me that he's taken the Egypt national coaching job. There are few cases of American soccer coaches ever getting important jobs outside the U.S.," said Wahl. "Egypt in particular is an interesting case because they have the best team in Africa."

Time to heal

Bradley took the job in Egypt in part because he has a lot of great talent to shape. To reach the players, he'll have to go beyond inspirational locker room speeches.

"I've got to let them know that I am trying to understand their country and what is, on a deep level, important to them," he said.

He thinks often about friends he and his wife have made outside of soccer circles, like a young physical therapist who he's asked about Tahrir Square and the revolution.

"When I ask him, 'Who goes to Tahrir Square?' he says that it's a lot of young people like him," said Bradley. "He says that he works incredibly hard and long hours. ... And if you want to get married and have a life, it's very hard for young people. He is one of the young, intelligent type people that I know who are driving some of these issues."

Monday night in Cairo, Bradley had a lot on his mind. He watched the news change quickly. At least one person was killed near the office of Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim, with scores more people injured. More than 100 members of Egypt's parliament have called for Ibrahim to be tried on charges that he failed to properly handle out-of-control fans.

Military rulers have appointed a civilian advisory council which has suggested that rather than wait until June, the country should hold a national election much sooner.

It's possible that Egypt's next game, on February 29 against the Central African Republic, could be postponed if players aren't feeling mentally up to it, Bradley said.

"These players need time," he said. "They need to have the time to heal and I'm trying to give that to them."

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