April 17th, 2012
03:14 PM ET

Can soccer be Egypt's salvation?

American coach Bob Bradley is seeking to rebuild the fortunes of Egypt's national football team.
American coach Bob Bradley is seeking to rebuild the fortunes of Egypt's national football team.

While the soccer world sharpens its hyperbole for Wednesday’s European Champions League semifinal first leg between Chelsea and Barcelona, another arguably more important match will take place on the other side of the world between two teams from two troubled countries.

In the neutral environment of the United Arab Emirates, the Egyptian national team – led by former U.S. coach Bob Bradley – will take on Iraq, a side now being marshaled by Brazilian legend Zico. There will be few column inches to elucidate the result.

 The friendly game will give both teams an opportunity to test themselves before June’s busy schedule of 2014 World Cup qualifiers. Iraq has impressed under Zico, winning its Asian qualification group and reaching the final round of qualifiers. A handful of games were even played on home soil as Iraqi football, for the first time in almost three decades, tasted some semblance of normality.

Bradley, on the other hand, has been operating in a chaotic post-revolutionary environment. Almost as soon as he took the job last year, Egypt's former president Hosni Mubarak was ousted in a bloody uprising in which Egypt’s football ultras – politically minded, organized groups of fans – played a crucial role.

The league was suspended before finally being canceled after February’s Port Said tragedy, where 74 Al Ahly fans were killed after a league match against home team Al Masry.

Many of Bradley’s best players were on the pitch that day and saw death close up. With no league and his squad’s most important players traumatized by what they had witnessed, football seemed to be the least of Egypt’s worries.

Yet Bradley has transformed the national team’s fortunes over the past two months, organizing training camp after training camp to knock his players into shape while navigating the choppy political waters in a country where some still view an American in charge of the national team as bordering on sacrilegious.

After the Pharaohs beat Mauritania 3-0 last weekend, Bradley’s record stands as played eight, won six, drawn one, lost one. The single loss was against Brazil last year.

When I met Bradley in Cairo in February, he spoke passionately and eruditely about the political problems in the country, his love of Egypt, his new life in Cairo and the soul searching that the Port Said tragedy had provoked.

But he also spoke about how the game could be a genuine force for good while politicians squabble for relevance in post-Mubarak Egypt. As several candidates were excluded by Egypt’s Electoral Commission ahead of a historic, if fraught, presidential election, the national team has been quietly building momentum using a squad drawn from across Egypt’s social spectrum.

And for Bradley, qualification for the 2014 World Cup – the first time arguably Africa’s greatest team of the past two decades would qualify for the finals since Italia '90 – would be the game’s own important contribution to Egypt’s revolution.

The 54-year-old doesn’t have to look far past his next opponents for proof of the power that football can have on a country struggling to find itself. In 2007 I spent a week with the Iraqi national team as they trained in Jordan, in exile, in preparation for the Asian Cup – the region’s equivalent of the European Championships.

Under threat of assassination, as hundreds were being slaughtered back home every day, a united team made up of Sunni, Shia and Kurdish players somehow won the continent’s top competition even as celebrating football fans were being targeted by insurgent suicide bombers.

That victory took place in Iraq’s bloodiest month. But it proved to be an apex. The Iraqi flag was seen to be proudly flown on the streets of Baghdad for the first time in years.

Psychologically it proved to a conflict-jaded country on the verge of partition that, yes, Iraq was still greater than the sum of its parts. The deaths fell after that famous victory in July, and they kept falling.

Last week Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone – under fire over the hosting of the Bahrain Grand Prix as the Gulf Kingdom tries to come to terms with its own uprising – declared that sport and politics should never be mixed. He was wrong, of course. Sport can no more exist in a separate universe from the rest of society than can art or music.

But as Iraq proved in 2007, football can succeed where politicians fail. Victory against Iraq will be noticed by few outside of the two countries. But as Bradley continues to build momentum towards Brazil 2014, the Pharaohs could yet prove to be an example that others should follow.

soundoff (18 Responses)
  1. Amir

    Soccer is the only thing that will bring Egyptians together. Bradley, the whole nation is counting on you.

    April 17, 2012 at 4:51 pm | Reply
  2. alehandro

    It's been proven time and again that sport can be a unifying force, even in countries not emerging from the extreme turmoil Egypt has faced in recent times. And Bob Bradley is the ideal manager to guide Egyptian soccer through this renaissance as his is a methodical, studious, no frills, pragmatic style that's tailor-made to promote stability. Ironically, the very qualities that earned him scant praise during his time in charge of the US national team are likely standing him in good stead in Egypt where a coach who builds solid foundations is currently more relevant than one who provides flamboyant inspiration. So Bradley and the Pharaohs are a timely and perfect marriage, and that's all a coach or a team can ask for.

    April 17, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Reply
  3. Wodja

    Soccer? No. Football? Maybe. Even the caption under the picture reads: "American coach Bob Bradley is seeking to rebuild the fortunes of Egypt's national FOOTBALL team". Sorry, just can't stand how football is called soccer in N. America where American football has little to do with "feet". On a more serious note, doubt that this can be a unifying force. While I wish the best for this coach (and for my neighbor Egypt), the problems there are immense. Sports, especially Football can serve as a means to gain National pride and also, as escapism. It can't solve the problems of a nation wracked by Political turmoil, instability, a massive population which keeps on growing and an economy hard-hit by the revolution.

    April 17, 2012 at 11:13 pm | Reply
  4. Michael Siong

    Egyptians don't know what "Soccer" is i'm afraid!.

    April 17, 2012 at 11:32 pm | Reply
  5. Bobby Dias

    Soccer nothing new to Egypt- I had 1000 soccer balls sent them 40 years ago- but now it is the Muslim Brotherhood(Obama's sect of muslim). Take away their guns may stop them from killing the opposition like they have been(the last election's losers are the new leaders after they started to kill off those that won the election).

    April 18, 2012 at 3:25 am | Reply
  6. Roderick

    Why is Jason Kidd on the team?

    April 18, 2012 at 3:32 am | Reply
  7. Human Rights

    Will anyone interested in "human rights" boycott this Egyptian team because of the murder and discrimination of the Christian minority there? How about the fact that some 90% of women have their genitals mutilated in this wonderful country? To say nothing of the fact that it is now in effect ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood that is the mother of many terrorist groups involved in suicide bombings including Hamas.

    "No, lets not mix sports and politics" some of you will say. "Why are you bringing this up here?"

    The answer is simple: if Egyptians and the other Muslim states want to bring up "human rights issues" everytime Israel is mentioned in any context. I think they should get a taste of their own medecine.

    Salam.

    April 18, 2012 at 4:02 am | Reply
  8. Mistake

    Bradley took over after Mubarak had already been ousted.

    April 18, 2012 at 4:46 am | Reply
  9. Peter

    I sincerely hope that Bradley will help lead the Egypt soccer team to victory. That country above all in Africa needs something to cheer for and bring people together. The politicians cannot bring people together because they are all corrupt.

    April 18, 2012 at 8:03 am | Reply
  10. alehandro

    Boring, boring, boring! Not the article, the pedants who repeatedly refer to the fact that Americans call football "soccer". Get over it! There are dozens of etymological discussions you could have over the global variants in the English language just as there are frequently dozens of words for the same thing - that's why they invented the thesaurus. What the Brits call football is commonly or occasionally called soccer not just in the USA but in Australia, South Africa, Canada, New Zealand and Ireland. Why? To avoid confusion with other, sometimes more popular, codes of play – Rugby Football, Aussie Rules Football, Gaelic Football etc. Furthermore, legend has it that it was the aristocratic Brits who first referred to the game as soccer as slang for Association Football in the late 19th century! Whatever the truth, the fact is that when you see and hear the word "soccer" you know what it means. So stop clogging up the web with tedious semantic arguments...Web?... Surely I mean net, cyberspace, information superhighway :-)

    April 18, 2012 at 1:30 pm | Reply
  11. novenator

    Sports play a huge cultural role as ritualized combat strangely enough. They have a uniting quality for a region or nation, so yeah, if the Egyptian soccer team heats up, it could really pacify the internal divisions in the country.

    April 18, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Reply
  12. salvador

    Football is the offical name of the sport, you yankee, we can't be saying a sling word as the real name, alehandro. That's what happens when you play 'American Football', you get hit in the head and say "Soccer is the offical name'!!!!!!!!

    April 21, 2012 at 2:54 am | Reply
  13. mario monteiro

    Bradley was always a excellent leader with the USA team and he`ll be with the egiptian team, they will gel together and be the best african national team just like before. Bradley is the right man for the job,he is a serious leader.

    April 21, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Reply
  14. markdbiram2011

    totally agree with alehandro, it's boring to keep going on about how the US uses the word soccer. i'm english and of course would more naturally say football in conversation, but it's not a problem to me. it doesn't impede understanding in any way.

    bob bradley seems a well-spoken thoughtful kind of guy. i think he did a great job with the ever-improving US team. hope it goes really well for him with the egypt team. egypt are traditionally strong on the african continent, both at club and international level, so he's got a country with great potential.

    April 22, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Reply
  15. Tripp

    CNN=Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. This is American and we call it SOCCER. If you don't like it go to one of your great TV or News networks that myself and most other people have never heard of too complain. The point of the article is about a good guy trying to help rebuild something that has fallen apart in a very dangerous time and place. He didn't have to take this risk but he did, not all Americans and American things are bad WODJA. You need to get over yourself and climb back into the 5th Century with the rest of your beliefs and negative attitudes. Go Mr. Bradley the YANKS believe in you even if the Muslims can't JUST because your not one of them. Sad

    April 30, 2012 at 6:11 pm | Reply
  16. Egypt 4 ever

    Bob Bradely is an excellent coach ,hopefully he makes our team better .and not only the Yanks believe in him but also the Egyptians.and once he lives in Egypt he became one of us .he is an Egyptian Yankee.

    May 3, 2012 at 8:33 am | Reply
  17. JEsus

    " American coach Bob Bradley is seeking to rebuild the fortunes of Egypt's national football team. "

    already failed

    it all started with the word soccer, and the second failure is American Coach.

    get a European to teach you about real football

    May 3, 2012 at 8:42 pm | Reply
  18. Scott Chalaban

    Football is the greatest game ever, I love to view football on the television while consuming popcorn. I bet that all americans would love to watch football at their homes .,'"

    July 9, 2012 at 11:49 am | Reply

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