Egypt’s footballers hold together improbable dream of World Cup unity

Former US coach Bob Bradley hopes goal of qualification for tournament in Brazil will give a divided nation something to cheer

Egypt’s national football team often plays to empty stadiums these days, under orders from the security forces. Some of the players don’t get paid. And recently, many team members got stranded at Cairo’s airport by the 7pm curfew.

In a time of revolution, even Egypt’s beloved football stars have suffered from violence and economic crisis. Now, an unusual figure – an American – is trying to hold the team together in its improbable quest to qualify for the World Cup despite a military crackdown that has divided the country.

“Inside our team, clearly not everyone sees things the same way,” said Bob Bradley, who became Egypt’s coach two years ago after managing the United States national team. “Like everywhere in Egypt, that means there are discussions and disagreements. But inside the team, there’s still a strong bond.”

The stakes for the Pharaohs, as the team is known, go well beyond a few football games. The squad has vaulted into the last stage of qualifying for the World Cup finals in Brazil, a tournament that Egypt hasn’t reached since 1990. Winning one of the 32 berths in the 2014 tournament could rally a nation rent by politics and religion, where more than 1,000 people have been killed since the military deposed an unpopular elected government in July.

“The national team is the only thing that unites all Egyptians,” said a fan, pharmacologist Marwan Mohammad, 28, who was attending a recent packed “friendly” match between two domestic teams, Al Ahly and Shibin.

In this football-mad nation, the national pastime has long been more than just a sport. Toward the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign, hardcore football fans known as ultras often skirmished with police, a sign of how Egyptians were chafing under authoritarian rule. The ultras of Al Ahly turned into the toughest defenders of Tahrir Square during the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak, and football diehards have played a role in demonstrations since then.

Bradley, a New Jersey native with a no-nonsense manner, is well aware of how politics has been entwined with football in Egypt. He has been trying to keep the national team from getting sucked into the fray. “This is a difficult period, a tough time in the country,” said Bradley, 55, as he sat in a cafe overlooking the Nile one recent afternoon. “Throughout all of that, we always tried to talk [with players] about the fact that during this period we had a chance to do something special, something that was important to everyone in Egypt, and that we had a big responsibility.”

Just months after Bradley started his job, he got a taste of how political tensions could flare in Egyptian football. In February 2012, Al Ahly fans were attacked by ultras of their rival Al Masry in the Suez Canal city of Port Said. Police looked on impassively as at least 74 people were killed with knives and clubs. Al Ahly fans claimed that police allowed the bloodbath in revenge for the ultras’ role in bringing down Mubarak, a charge denied by the government.

Bradley watched the scenes of carnage with horror from Cairo. In his long football career – which includes positions as an assistant coach with DC United in 1996-1997 and head coach of Chicago Fire, New York/New Jersey MetroStars and Los Angeles-based Chivas USA – he had seen fights. But nothing like this. He met several of his players at a memorial service for the victims a few days later. “The emotion, the look on their faces told the story,” he said. Bradley had players on both teams. He counselled his men to get over their anger, honouring the dead but maintaining their responsibility to their team and country. One of his stars, Al Ahly midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika, initially threatened to quit the sport, but he backed down.

Still, another problem loomed. Because of the tragedy, Egyptian authorities suspended play in the domestic football league, which employed many of the national team members. “We had to come up with a plan to keep them motivated, fit, sharp,” said Bradley. He and his assistants scrambled to set up friendly matches in Sudan, Lebanon and other countries.

Egypt’s political turmoil has escalated since then. In August, the Pharaohs were in the Red Sea resort of El Gouna, preparing for a match, when phone calls started arriving from Cairo. Security forces firing guns and teargas had broken up two massive sit-ins organised by the Muslim Brotherhood to protest against the ousting of President Mohammed Morsi. Hundreds of civilians were killed.

The coach met with his distraught players. “We said this, ‘Look, the result of our match today doesn’t change what’s taking place, but it’s still our chance for 90 minutes to go on the field and be a symbol of being strong and being united,'” Bradley said. The team defeated Uganda 3-0 in an empty stadium, as state security has often required during the charged political times. That night, the Pharoahs flew back to Cairo, which had been slapped with a 7pm curfew. Many players, unable to get through police checkpoints, had to stay at the airport hotel.

With the Egyptian domestic squads idled, some of Bradley’s players have joined European teams. Others are unpaid, living off their savings. “They’re not sure what’s happening with their careers,” said Bradley. “And yet every time we had national team camp, they came into camp, ready to be there, still honoured to be part of the national team.”

The Pharaohs have already finished top of their World Cup qualifying group, thereby qualifying for the African playoffs this autumn as one of 10 teams that will vie for five places at the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil.

Even before moving to Egypt, Bradley had seen his share of ups and downs in football. He coached the US men in the 2010 World Cup but was fired the following summer. Getting the Pharaohs into the tournament would be a different kind of World Cup dream, one he shares with millions of Egyptians.

“It would unite people and make people love the Egypt they knew,” said Abdul Rahman Mustafa, a 69-year-old football fan standing outside the friendly match in Cairo. “The joy would make us forget what is happening now.”

Steven Goff in Washington and Amer Shakhatreh in Cairo contributed to this report

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