Five months after Bob Bradley was appointed head coach of the Egyptian men’s soccer team in September, tensions between the United States and Egypt are running high, and revolutionary violence and turmoil continue to plague the latter country.
But in the wake of fan violence at a game in the Mediterranean city of Port Said that resulted in the deaths of over 70 fans, Bradley’s decision to participate in a march commemorating the victims and publicly express his support for their families has thrust him into a role as a sort of cultural interpreter that most national team coaches never have to fill.
“We all felt it was important to be in Sphinx Square with the people and make sure that in a simple way we were showing our respect,” Bradley said in a telephone interview from his home in Cairo, referring to the location of the march. “In a country where there’s so much passion for football, it’s incredibly sad that a group of young people would lose their lives at a football match.”
In a Feb. 1 match in Port Said between two Egyptian club teams, fans stormed the field after Al-Ahly, a top Egyptian club team based in Cairo, lost 3-1 to longtime rival Al-Masry, leaving thousands injured and the nation’s facade of security tarnished.
The next morning, after discussing the incident with assistant coach Diaa El Sayed and goalkeeper coach Zak Abdel — a longtime friend of Bradley’s who served the same role while Bradley coached the U.S. national team — Bradley and his wife Lindsay decided to attend the march commemorating the victims.
Bradley, who served as the head coach of the Princeton men’s soccer team from 1984-95, emphasized that he did not think the Port Said riots could be dismissed as simple soccer violence, arguing instead that the recent riots were premeditated and inextricably linked to the political tensions that continue to plague post-revolutionary Egypt.
Many of the die-hard fans — known as ‘ultras’ — who instigated the riots were passionate participants in the 2011 protests that ultimately led to the overthrow of former president Hosni Mubarak.
Furthermore, Near Eastern studies professor Bernard Haykel noted that there is suspicion that the Egyptian government deliberately ordered the police not to intervene in order to allow the chaos to demonstrate the necessity for a strong military.
“In this particular event, there are allegations — not proven, but allegations — that the government allowed for these riots to take place and for these deaths to happen for political purposes of their own,” Haykel said.
Because of the larger political implications surrounding the Port Said incident, Bradley’s attendance at the march received a significant amount of international media attention; it is not common for a coach, let alone a foreign-born one, to become so visibly and outspokenly associated with the internal politics of the country he represents.
But those who know Bradley well were not surprised by his decision to attend the march. Current men’s soccer head coach Jim Barlow ’91, who played for Bradley while at Princeton, said that he noticed the same senses of thoughtfulness and respect that he associated with Bradley’s coaching style while reading Bradley’s quotes in recent articles.
“I wouldn’t have described him as a political activist, but he’s always put a lot of thought into a lot of different topics,” Barlow said. “He could engage us in conversations about politics that would challenge us in similar ways to how he challenged us about the game.”
“Most people, if they found themselves in his situation, would get out of it as quickly as possible,” religion professor Jeffrey Stout, who was close with Bradley during his coaching days at Princeton, said in an email. “Yet Bob understands that he owes the Egyptian people not merely an honest attempt at World Cup qualification but also a steady of example of just behavior.”
Scott Bradley, Bob’s younger brother and current head coach of the Princeton baseball team, said that Bradley had been deeply immersed in Egyptian daily life since his arrival. According to his brother, Bradley declined the option of commuting back and forth between Egypt and the United States and even refused to live in a gated community in the Cairo suburbs, choosing instead to live in the heart of the city.
In their spare time, Scott Bradley said, his brother and Lindsay enjoy frequenting the imbaba market in Cairo, a vibrant shopping district very popular among locals but rarely visited by foreigners.
“He felt like to really do the job right he really needed to get an understanding of the people and the culture,” Scott Bradley said. “He and his wife threw themselves right into the middle of it.”
While the turmoil has led top Egyptian soccer officials — including the soccer federation president who hired Bradley — to resign, Bradley has remained committed not only to his goals of helping Egypt qualify for the 2013 African Cup of Nations and the 2014 World Cup, but also to showing support to the victims of the tragedy.
“When he commits to something, he commits to it 100 percent,” Barlow said. “He’s not the kind of person to take a job like that without really investing himself in doing the best job he can.”
Bradley’s forays into Egyptian public life come at a contentious time for the normally warm relations between his home country and the country for which he currently coaches. In late January, Egypt began cracking down on American NGOs and human rights groups and detained many U.S. nationals — including Sam LaHood, the son of Barack Obama’s transportation secretary — at the Cairo airport. In response, the United States threatened to withhold military aid to Egypt.
But, despite the tensions, Bradley noted that there is little correlation between how Egyptians feel about American policies and how they treat Americans. Haykel agreed, noting that Egyptians are for the most part appreciative of Bradley’s service and will not let politics get in the way of that.
“The fact that he went out and showed respect for the people who were killed in those riots, he’s doing a really great service for Egypt and the national football team,” Haykel said. “They know they have a much better chance of winning with him around.”
And as the coach of the national team, Bradley said he has a responsibility to be a force for unity and understanding.
“Because of the passion that Egyptians have for football and because of the way politics and football are connected here, at this time the national team must be strong,” Bradley said. “We must be strong; we must be a good example; we must help people be united.”
“The response of leaders in these moments is very important for helping the people be united and for giving an idea now of moving forward,” Bradley added.
In a country where soccer and politics are deeply intertwined, many Egyptians’ hopes for the national team’s success are connected to hopes for their country’s progress.
“I know my brother’s abilities as a coach and his abilities to bring people together and to really get them to understand that they’re playing for something much bigger than soccer,” Scott Bradley said.
But just as the Egyptian government faces many challenges in its transition to a stable, functioning democracy, the national team will have to overcome many obstacles in its quest to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1990.
The Port Said incident led many Al-Ahly players who also play for the national team to retire from soccer, leaving Bradley’s team with a depleted roster. A slate of friendly matches scheduled for late February have been cancelled, as has the Egyptian club teams’ league season.
The team will soon set up camp in Qatar in order to prepare for qualifier games for the World Cup and African Cup of Nations — of which Egypt is a seven-time winner — in June. Bradley is reportedly attempting to convince some top players to reverse their decisions to retire, and he expressed confidence on Wednesday that veteran right wing Mohamed Barakat would come out of retirement.
Bradley acknowledged that there is more riding on his team in this slew of international competitions as a result of Egypt’s current political situation.
“At a time when there’s so much hope for the future of the country, the hope for the national team to qualify for the World Cup, it’s almost like these things are linked,” Bradley said.