IT WAS WHEN THE ASSAILANT drove his pocket knife at him that Ahmed Mohamed Ahmed began to recite the shahadah, the Muslim affirmation of faith. The air inside Port Said Stadium was brisk but hung thick with the stench of death. Thugs had demanded that Ahmed remove the Ultras Ahlawy T-shirt he wore over two sweatshirts, identifying him as a hard-core supporter of Egypt’s most successful football club, the Cairo-based Al Ahly. “I will not,” he said, his fear masked by defiance. Ahmed’s fate seemed sealed. The knife drew within inches of his midsection. “I started to become a martyr,” he recalls. But at the last moment, he kicked out a leg. The weapon slipped from his would-be murderer’s hand. Ahmed slinked away to temporary safety. He dropped off the offending shirt in a friend’s bag.
Around him, the slaughter continued. High in the stands, fellow Ahlawys were hurled to their deaths on the terraces below. Others died from blows to the head delivered by sticks loaded with nails. Lifeless bodies lay under seats and in the aisles. Ahmed spotted three of his friends among them.
These are the images that 19-year-old Ahmed relives on a daily basis. A high-school student in Cairo whose boyish face has yet to fully shed its baby fat, he has been consumed for months by the haunting memories of that night. “Every day, I was thinking. Every day,” he says. “I was repeating the songs about the martyrs that we created. And then I couldn’t think about my studies, my exams, my life. I just think that I will wake up tomorrow and go to the court.” Seventy-five people, including nine police officers, are on trial in connection with 74 deaths at the stadium.
There were two marquee matchups on the Egyptian Premier League calendar that night – Wednesday, February 1st: Ahly and Masry were scheduled to kick off in Port Said in the early evening, Ahly’s two biggest rivals – Zamalek and Ismaily – were to face off immediately afterwards at Cairo International Stadium.
The Egyptian national team head coach, Bob Bradley, tuned into the first match with his wife Lindsay from his hotel room in the upscale Cairo neighborhood of Zamalek. Bradley, an American, was hired by Egypt in September last year, less than two months after being unceremoniously dumped as U.S. coach, a post he had held for more than four years. At halftime, Zak Abdel-Fattah, Bradley’s Egyptian-American goalkeeping coach and longtime confidante, joined him and Lindsay for the ride to Cairo Stadium. They reached Bradley’s box above the halfway line just in time to catch the last few minutes of Ahly-Masry on television.
Inside Port Said Stadium, Ahmed had grown anxious. Insults rained down on the more than 1,000 traveling supporters. He had heard warnings against coming to the Mediterranean city, 125 miles northeast of Cairo. The two sets of fans had a history of bad blood; a fight had broken out the previous season in the corresponding fixture. Ahly fans raised a banner suggesting there were no men in Port Said. Some Masry fans unsuccessfully tried to storm the Ahly section in the first half. As nightfall descended, a few of Ahmed’s friends decided they had had enough and returned to Cairo.
When the final whistle blew, Masry having secured a precious 3-1 victory over the club beloved by millions of Egyptians, reviled by millions more for their success and perceived coziness with the country’s political elite, a number of Masry supporters leapt out of the stands and onto the pitch. The riot-gear-clad police who ringed the running track around the field didn’t attempt to intervene. They neatly parted as the hordes – at first hundreds, then thousands – surged through. Ahly’s players sprinted for their lives, escaping through an exit at the east end of the ground.
Back in Cairo, Bradley and Abdel-Fattah watched on TV. Neither thought much of it. Pitch invasions at Egyptian football matches – particularly since the 2011 revolution – were commonplace.
But Ahmed immediately sensed trouble. From his position close to the track, he spotted the wave bearing down on him. “When I saw these people coming to us, I was scared, and then I was climbing up,” he says. “In this case, most of the people tried to climb up like me. But we couldn’t see any doors open. And the doors – they were blocked. We didn’t know what we should do.” One Ultra, named Youssef, struggled to pry a gate open, but it collapsed, crushing him and others. Four-and-a-half minutes after the assault began, the stadium lights cut out. The assailants, wielding neon-green light sticks, carried on.
The attack, Ahmed estimates, lasted only about 15 minutes before the killers melted away into the darkness. Security officials finally entered the terraces to direct the survivors down to the field. They were kept there for the next two hours. There was some crying, and a lot of silence. Ambulances whisked away the casualties.
Bradley and Abdel-Fattah had since turned their attention to the match in front of them, but after 20 minutes, word of a fatality in Port Said filtered through to their box. Minutes later, it was two dead. Then more. The game was suspended at halftime. Bradley, Lindsay, and Abdel-Fattah hurried to the exit. As they left, they could see part of the stadium’s upper deck in flames, reportedly set alight by angry fans.
Bradley spent much of the night glued to the television. The jumpy footage of the mob racing across the Port Said turf rolled again and again. At Ramses Station in downtown Cairo, thousands gathered to meet the returning Ultras. Their wrath was focused on the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and its leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. Cries of, “We will secure their rights or die like them” reverberated off the station walls.
Ahmed’s train reached the station at around 4.30 a.m. He took a short taxi ride home. “I hugged my mother and my father, and then I thanked Allah that I was still alive,” he says. “And then I slept in the same clothes.”
JUST FOUR MONTHS into the job, Bob Bradley confronted the greatest crisis in the history of Egyptian sport. From the moment Bradley came to Egypt in September 2011, the country’s fragile security situation had threatened to derail his entire project, one the chairman of the Egyptian Football Association at the time, Samir Zaher, puts to me bluntly: “We had one aim with Bradley: World Cup.” The inability of Africa’s most successful football-playing nation to qualify for the quadrennial tournament since 1990 has been nothing short of a national embarrassment. Qualification for the 2014 finals in Brazil is a must.
Yet in the weeks and months that followed Bradley’s hiring, the unresolved conflicts and contradictions of post-Mubarak Egypt came to a head. Deadly clashes between protesters and security forces through the rest of the year left dozens dead, engulfing downtown Cairo in a thick haze of tear gas and smoke. The military, hailed as the saviors of the revolution in January and February last year for not firing on protesters, viciously cracked down on the same crowds who months earlier cheered, “The people and the military are one hand!” A variation of the revolutionary chant calling for Mubarak’s demise rang out with growing frequency: “Yasqot, yasqot hokm el askar!” [Down, down with military rule!]
In the oppressive summer mix of heat and smog, Cairo was a tinderbox, set to ignite with the slightest spark. On September 9th last year, a protest in Tahrir Square devolved into an assault on the Israeli embassy. Leading the rampage – by most accounts – were Ultras. Images broadcast around the world, including a mob driving an improvised battering ram through the embassy’s protective wall and an Israeli flag set ablaze, suggested to viewers a nation spiraling into anarchy.
Bradley watched the ugly scenes unfold – and promptly put them in perspective. Although, by all accounts, he approached the prospect of accepting the Egypt job with his customary meticulousness, he recounted his deliberations with something close to breeziness when we met in April this year. “I saw the images on television when that incident took place, but I spoke to people and had a sense that, again, it was something that was designed for a day, or two days, or three days, and then it would quiet down again, then something, at some point, would spark another incident.”
Less than two weeks later, Bradley arrived in Cairo to finalize the deal. From a total of 35 original candidates, Bradley had been the obvious choice for Zaher, who led the search for a new coach. He won unanimous approval from the EFA’s board of directors.
Despite living only a couple of miles from Tahrir, Bradley and his wife Lindsay were, to all intents and purposes, a world away from the upheavals downtown. With few exceptions, the violence since the revolution has been highly localized. Zamalek – a leafy island in the middle of the Nile, full of embassies, high-end coffee shops, and luxury hotels – was known for being particularly detached from the battles on the opposite banks. Even as the nightly news back home showed increasingly apocalyptic images of downtown, Bradley and Lindsay could, without the slightest exaggeration, reassure friends and family that all was quiet in their neck of town.
Bradley, at the time, was far busier navigating the politics of Egyptian football than those of Egyptian society. It was a story of unclear lines of responsibility, competing agendas, and glaring inefficiencies. The board members atop the EFA were a collection of largely Mubarak-appointed businessmen, doctors, and engineers. Their agendas behind pushing for a particular game or a certain appointment were often opaque to Bradley and his staff. Bradley had a close relationship with the chairman, Zaher, but grew frustrated with how slowly things moved under his stewardship. Many in Bradley’s staff considered the federation downright unprofessional.
Assurances one day could be disregarded the next. From the start, Bradley had insisted on bringing in the German fitness coach Tomasz Kaczmarek, who – having been promised the post – had already quit his job in Germany. The federation then reneged on its pledge. Board members insisted that Bradley consider the CVs of Egyptian trainers. Bradley wouldn’t budge and a stalemate ensued.
Then there was the schedule. National federations tend to operate within certain parameters set by FIFA, football’s global governing body, which sets aside days throughout the year for international matches. Domestic leagues schedule around those dates to avoid conflicts. The Egyptian federation, however, dances to its own tune. Egypt’s players returned from their mid-November friendly against Brazil (Bradley’s debut as coach) to a league suspended for an entire month to facilitate the Under-23 national team’s preparations for the final rounds of Olympic qualifying.
Grasping the intricacies of merely arranging an exhibition match was part of an extended education for Bradley in Egyptian bureaucracy and the internal politics of a game in which his fellow players – from board members to the Under-23 coach to the league coordinator – had years of experience. “For me, more than anything, there’s just been these types of things that you’re trying to get a feel for,” Bradley says. “Trying to get a sense if there is an opportunity to play a match and if it conflicts with the league schedule, will they change the league schedule? And when do you push for that and when do you not? So this was just the normal process.” He pauses. “Well, normal wouldn’t be the right word.”
The tensions that had been simmering for months between Bradley and the federation came to a boil in January. A board member, Dr. Gamal Mohamed Ali, had proposed an alternative schedule to the one Bradley had drawn up for the next year. In addition to his other frustrations, this was too much for the usually unflappable Bradley. For several minutes, he berated the stunned Ali. Ali protested that he understood. He was a coach too, he said. “You’re a coach? On what level?” Bradley snapped back.
The more assertive tack seemed to pay off, and Kaczmarek signed a contract soon after. The national team had scheduled a couple of friendly games in late February to prepare for Bradley’s first competitive outing, a February 29th Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Central African Republic. Meanwhile, the political situation had calmed. Some activists excitedly predicted a “second revolution” on the first anniversary of the Egyptian uprising on January 25th, but the occasion passed without incident. At last, a real, if imperfect, transition to civilian rule seemed within reach. One week later, a bloodbath in a football stadium delivered that optimism a crushing blow.
ONE MONTH ON FROM the Port Said disaster, Bob Bradley sits in a hotel restaurant in Doha, Qatar, lingering over the last few pieces of honeydew melon in his bowl. The team meal has wrapped up, and the American coach cuts a solitary figure in his red Egypt tracksuit. With the domestic league indefinitely suspended, the Africa Cup game postponed to June, and home games off-limits, the Egyptian team has found itself exiled in Qatar for friendly matches against three middling African rivals.
It has been a trying month from the moment news of the tragedy rolled in. For Bradley, it has also been a defining one. The day after the incident, Bradley and Lindsay met Abdel-Fattah at EFA headquarters in Zamalek. Bradley asked for an update. The death toll had stayed at 73 overnight, Abdel-Fattah told him. He added that a popular TV personality, Ahmed Shobeir, had called for a march from nearby Sphinx Square to mourn the victims. “What time does it start?” Bradley asked. “At 12,” replied Abdel-Fattah. It was 12:05. “Let’s go,” Bradley said.
For 45 minutes, Bradley marched with Lindsay alongside the swelling masses. The last time a national team coach had made such a high-profile appearance at a public demonstration was when Bradley’s predecessor, Hassan Shehata, participated in a “stability” rally in support of Hosni Mubarak during the revolution.
That night, on Egyptian television, Bradley gave his first interview since the disaster. He was asked about speculation that he might leave, at least temporarily. “I have not thought about this at all today… [We] feel strongly about what we’re here to do in Egypt,” Bradley replied. “It’s the dream of all the people here to qualify for the World Cup, and we came here to work with the people and work in the federation to try to accomplish this dream, and today is just a sad day that’s hard to understand.”
If anything, the tragedy stiffened Bradley’s resolve – and his sense of investment in a country he had never set foot in before the previous summer. As Bradley would say repeatedly, he was drawn to Egypt by the challenge it presented. Now, he had not just a challenge, but a cause. In Qatar, he frames his charge in lofty terms. “There’s a big responsibility because of the importance that football and the national team has in Egypt,” he says. “It’s a big responsibility because it’s the dream of every Egyptian for the team to qualify for the World Cup in 2014.”
Port Said had forced Bradley into the wider political spotlight for the first time. Immediately afterwards, recriminations had started to fly. The Muslim Brotherhood-led parliament threatened the military-appointed cabinet with a no-confidence vote. The military, in turn, deflected blame onto smaller fish, including the Egyptian Football Association. Prime Minister Kamal El Ganzouri sacked the EFA’s entire board the next day. When FIFA complained about government interference in the sport, the board ‘resigned.’ (FIFA couldn’t complain if it was the board’s own decision.)
Ultras Ahlawy had no doubt who was responsible. Since Ultras groups from different clubs first formed in 2007 – generally dominated by idealistic, well-educated teenagers and early twentysomethings inspired by predecessors in Serbia and Italy – they have repeatedly clashed with security forces.
From the start, the Ultras exploited the relative freedom of football stadiums and the safety of strength in numbers to issue a rare challenge to the Mubarak regime’s stranglehold on public expression. Their favorite acronym, emblazoned on banners and graffiti in stadiums and the sides of buildings, is A.C.A.B. (All Cops Are Bastards). More than anything, the Ultras view themselves as character-shaping organizations, promoting discipline and fraternity, alongside a – violent, at times – rejection of traditional authority. “Revolution is our principle,” Ahmed El Kelaya, a member of Ismailia’s Ultras Yellow Dragons tells Rolling Stone, recounting how they erected a banner of Ché Guevara at the stadium in 2008.
Their defiance wasn’t something the regime could countenance, and the brutality of its response politicized the groups. Come the revolution, Ahlawy and White Knights, Ahlawy’s Zamalek counterpart, lent their fighting experience to the demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
For the Ultras, then, the reason for what happened at Port Said was clear as day: It was payback.
In the days following the killings, as clashes broke out between Ultras-led protesters and security forces in downtown Cairo, Bradley granted a slew of interviews to foreign media outlets. In his bluntest set of remarks, to Al Jazeera English, he said, “This has all the markings of a setup, of a massacre, and with it there’s been many levels of questions that have been asked, and that’s why in the last few days there has again been confrontation in and around Tahrir Square.”
He couched his words in the language of an outsider relaying others’ perspectives, but his endorsement of the crux of the accusations against the government was unambiguous – and potentially explosive. After Mubarak’s fall, the armed forces’ influence has only grown. In the year after the uprising, over 12,000 Egyptians were tried before military courts, and some were convicted on charges like “insulting the military.” In the meantime, the government barreled ahead with its crackdown on foreign NGOs. On February 5th, it announced its intention to prosecute 16 American employees of four Washington-based NGOs, who were accused of illegally meddling in Egypt’s political affairs.
Bradley, a cautious man by nature, had never waded beyond the shallow end in his public comments about Egyptian politics. Now, he was neck deep, and not backing down. Back in Qatar, I ask him about reports that he had been misquoted in labeling Port Said a “massacre.” In contrast to the default Bradley response to a question – a slight scowl, a wistful shake of the head, and what can feel like an eternal silence before sound at last emerges from his lips – his reply is instant: “No, I used the word. You know, there’s a certain responsibility that goes along with being the national team coach... I think that it’s important that you don’t have your head stuck in the sand, that you’re [not] missing…” Bradley gropes for words, “…some of the, some of the reasons behind not only Port Said but some of the reasons behind the moments of violence that have taken place since the revolution.”
There were too many unanswered questions, he suggests: Why didn’t the police intervene? How did spectators get weapons through security? Why were the gates locked? Why did the lights go out? “This is information that has been released and all these things certainly led me to feel very strongly that it’s pretty clear what had happened.” As I begin another question, he jumps in. “Actually, ‘pretty clear’ is not the right way to say it, ’cause it’s not clear,” he says, before finally settling on a formulation: “There were deeper questions about what took place.”
His alternatively assertive and halting responses underline the high-wire act he is engaged in: Keep your mouth shut and risk looking like the out-of-touch foreigner, cosseted away in a swanky Zamalek hotel, blind to the travails of the people whose aspirations you claim to represent. Come out too stridently and risk incurring the wrath of some very powerful forces.
The overwhelmingly positive response to his handling of the tragedy (which included a large undisclosed donation to the families of the victims) revealed a deep reservoir of public support. By this time, Egyptians had been sliced and diced along innumerable political and religious and cultural fault lines, so not everyone shared Bradley’s view of what had taken place in Port Said. But his obvious compassion and the way he embraced his adopted country at a painful hour earned plaudits, rather than censure.
An article in Al Ahram, Egypt’s flagship state-owned newspaper and occasional mouthpiece of xenophobic hysteria (one day that same month, it led with the headline: “American funding aims at spreading chaos in Egypt”) captured the prevailing mood: “Despite his nationality, which always invokes reservation in Egyptians, Bradley has quickly entered the hearts of the Egyptians due to the actions he takes that make him seem as if he were a native son of this country.”
"BRADLEY IS LIKE AN EGYPTIAN." It was already a common refrain before Port Said, but afterwards it grew into a cultural meme. Bradley’s glaringly un-Egyptian physical features – long, narrow head, blue eyes, pale white skin – aside, Egyptians had grown to feel he was one of them. You could hear the trope from street vendors, from Ultras, and from prominent figures in Egyptian football.
Prior to Bradley, the suggestion of an American coaching the Egyptian national team would have been absurd. Bradley, however, had left a lasting impression at a 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa, where his U.S. team smoked Egypt 3-0. Zaher remembered that match as he considered candidates last summer. “I saw that this guy – he can do something in Egypt,” he says. “He can make something with the Egyptian team.”
Bradley is just the fifth American-born coach to lead a foreign national team. In the States, coaches tend to attribute the low figure to a lack of respect for U.S. soccer abroad. That no doubt exists, but a reluctance to accept the kinds of pressures and lifestyle changes required by a move to unfamiliar environs (much less those required in the most populous country in the Arab world when it’s in the midst of one of the greatest political upheavals in modern history) has certainly factored in as well.
According to Manfred Schellscheidt, the former Seton Hall University men’s soccer coach and Bradley’s longtime friend and colleague, Bradley’s obsessive focus on his job to the exclusion of all else made him the ideal candidate to take on the professional challenge. Yet, in ways big and small, Bob and Lindsay Bradley have overcome the personal challenge too. They have made Egypt a real home. From the start, they frequented restaurants and a market in their neighborhood. They toured a children’s hospital in a poor area of Cairo. Bradley devoured literature about his new home. In the fall, they paid a much-publicized visit to Imbaba, a hardscrabble Cairo district of sprawling informal settlements, dirt roads, and some of the best local cuisine in the city.
Bradley is famously uncharismatic. His success in winning over Egyptians was rooted in a simple insight that precious few of his fellow Americans shared: Egyptians like America. And Americans. Tell someone – anyone – in Cairo that you’re American and the response will, more often than not, be: “America kwayis!” [America is good!] (The smooth-talking merchants in tourist hotspots like Aswan and Luxor say the same with especial zest, though when they start professing their love for Barack Obama and George W. Bush, one begins to suspect ulterior motives.)
Bradley traces his appreciation of Egyptians’ complex view of America to his childhood. “There’s a difference between how Egyptians might feel at any moment about American policy and how they feel about Americans,” he says. “I grew up in North Jersey, not far from New York and Queens. There’s a very, very big Egyptian-American community in North Jersey and parts of New York and Queens. [Since being] here, I’ve met all sorts of people who have relatives in the U.S., who travel [there] regularly.” So, a reservoir of goodwill for an American coach already existed. But it required someone who recognized it was there.
In fairness, it’s not an obvious insight. Poll after poll shows that Egyptians vigorously disapprove of American foreign policy, particularly its perceived pro-Israel bias. A Brookings Institute survey in May found that 68 per cent of Egyptians hold a “very unfavorable” view of the United States. American support for Mubarak’s decades of repression has not been forgotten. Nor have the tear gas canisters his security forces shot at demonstrators bearing the imprint “Made in U.S.A.”
This ‘unfavorable view’ of America can often transform into outright xenophobia – a fact that Egypt’s military has skillfully harnessed to deflect criticism from its own failings. In June, a pair of “public service announcements” appeared on state television warning Egyptians to watch what they say around foreigners. In one, a devious-looking khawaga enters a coffee house and sits down alongside a group of young Egyptians lamenting the country’s problems. The “spy” furtively taps away on his phone. The ad concludes: “Every word has a price; a word can save a nation.”
"BRADLEY THE EGYPTIAN" has a nice ring to it, but his “Americanness” has arguably held just as much appeal for Egyptians. When Bradley succeeded Hassan Shehata – who had led Egypt to three consecutive Africa Cup of Nations triumphs, but never to World Cup qualification – his appointment was met with a widely positive response. Shehata, though considered a first-rate tactician, was also believed to have enabled some of the worst vices of the Egyptian players, namely their indiscipline and sense of entitlement.
Bradley only coached one game in his first five months in Egypt, the 2-0 loss to Brazil, but commentators and members of his staff already credited him with instilling a new mentality within the national team. The language barrier aside, he was blunt in dealing with Egypt’s coddled players. His approach to coaching was held up as a model of practicality. Bradley was not just respected, he was routinely held in a kind of awe. Ahmad Saied, the chief editor of the popular Egyptian football website filgoal.com, breathlessly recounts a story meant to highlight Bradley’s scientific ways. During his interview the previous summer, Saied says, Bradley had blown away the officials in attendance with… a PowerPoint presentation. (Never happened, Bradley tells me later.)
He also won over a constituency crucial for any coach in Egypt: TV presenters. From the start, Bradley made himself regularly available to the endless parade of football-devoted talk shows – notoriously sensationalist spots where well-groomed men sit around large, shiny tables parsing the most trivial matters and gossiping about the juiciest rumors. A coach pisses them off at his peril.
So Bradley nipped the potential problem in the bud by becoming a familiar presence alongside his translator, Abdel-Fattah. He didn’t do it because he was a big fan of the shows (nor always by design: Bradley returned home to Cairo in June from a match in Guinea to a call from one presenter live on air. “Yeah, I just got home. I finally get a few minutes to see my wife and the phone rings,” Bradley greeted him, annoyed. The presenter, not quite following the English, laughed awkwardly. “No, it’s not that funny,” Bradley shot back), but because it was the smart thing to do.
Bradley’s “American” methods weren’t universally popular, and, inevitably, he encountered negative whispers about his nationality. His suggestion on a BBC radio program aired in late March that the military might have been complicit in the Port Said tragedy stirred a brief firestorm on TV. On one program, former national team coach Mohsen Salah said, “I think he’s come in an attached capacity – with one of the human rights associations or the like.”
But these rare allegations did little to alter the generally positive perceptions of Bradley. His continuing popularity represents a remarkable turn of fortunes for a man who managed the (impressive) feat of inspiring in Americans an intense animosity towards a soccer coach. During his time in charge of the American team, Bradley was routinely scorned as an uninspiring stand-in for the man who had been U.S. Soccer’s first choice in 2006, the former German star striker Jürgen Klinsmann. The media complained that Bradley’s teams lacked flair (a reflection, it was suggested, of their dour manager, who manned the sideline stone-faced and whose sense of humor, if he had one, was rarely glimpsed).
Bradley’s tenure even bred a grassroots uprising of sorts. “Fire Bradley” sites popped up on the internet. One featured a rendering of Bradley in the style of Shepard Fairey’s 2008 Obama campaign posters, with “HOPE” replaced by “NOPE.”
In Egypt, though, Bradley’s ‘flaws’ became assets: his seriousness, his no-nonsense approach, his emphasis on the physical aspect of the game. That’s not to say Egyptians have been shy about giving Bradley a piece of their minds. In his debut against Brazil, Bradley left the legendary, but ageing, playmaker Mohamed Aboutrika out of the squad. In the weeks after the game, Bradley would routinely hear a call on the streets: “Aboutriiiika.” Not even the sacred confines of the pyramids at Giza offered a respite. Shortly after the Brazil game, Bradley visited the ancient wonders. Inside the Great Pyramid, the guide showing Bradley around the millennia-old tomb stopped and put his hand across his heart. “Aboutrika, Aboutrika,” he said softly.
WHILE THE PORT SAID tragedy intensified Bradley’s sense of purpose, it also reinforced Egyptians’ estrangement from the national team. In the months after Port Said, the team was a distant afterthought. Few cafés bothered to show the matches against Kenya, Mauritania and Iraq. In those that did, the sheesha-puffing patrons were more likely to be absorbed in a game of tawla (Egyptian backgammon) or a political debate than watching the football. Bradley was hired to resurrect a tired and declining side, but the rot within Egyptian football runs deep. In a society where almost everything was political, Mubarak transformed football into one of the most politicized spaces of all. Especially in the last five or six years of his reign, he exploited his ties to the team to burnish his popularity and tamp down growing dissatisfaction with the regime.
“[Mubarak and members of his regime] used to show up at football matches and football events,” says Inas Mazhar, the head of the sports section at Ahram Weekly, an English-language sister publication of Al Ahram. “It was a very powerful way to distract people from any political problems or the main social problems – poverty, health issues, unfair justice and social welfare.”
Former EFA chairman Zaher, a regime appointee to the EFA board back in the 1992 who also served in parliament in Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, embodies the country’s unholy union of politics and football. In the offices of the trading company he heads in the wealthy Cairo neighborhood of Heliopolis, photographs of Mubarak and his sons, Alaa and Gamal, celebrating various triumphs with players and coaches dot the walls. Zaher chuckles as he points to one of the posters. “That’s Hosni Mubarak, eh? You can go look, if you like.”
Mubarak treated the team like royalty. Mazhar was the media officer for the 2009 Confederations Cup squad. “We lost to Bob Bradley – to the United States – three-nil, and we came back home the following day, and we were expecting people to be angry,” she recounts. “But then we were given a heroes’ welcome at the airport with Gamal Mubarak waiting for the team. And the following day, the president had breakfast with the players.”
Egypt’s famously football-mad fans had poured their hearts and souls into supporting the team. So, when the revolution came and their heroes were either nowhere to be found or, worse, out professing their fidelity to the crumbling regime, the sense of betrayal was acute. “They felt they used to support these players and accept their excuses, whatever they are,” says Mazhar. “And all of a sudden they didn’t feel that they gave it back. They weren’t seen. They didn’t go to Tahrir Square and join them. They weren’t there with them.”
Once a sacred institution, the national team became a pariah. Revolutionaries compiled a blacklist of coaches and players, along with other celebrities, labeled regime apologists. Since then, much has been forgiven, much forgotten. Yet as politics has risen to national obsession, football has come to mean less and less.
As the election neared, Egypt lurched from one crisis to the next. In April, the disqualification of Salafist candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail triggered more than a week of deadly clashes near the Defense Ministry in the pro-military stronghold of Abbasseya.
The Ultras have fully embraced their political role. They staged marches and sit-ins with the same fervor they used to bring to the stadium. “No sports!” they would chant. To a man, they vowed not to return to games until, as they put it, the rights of the martyrs had been restored.
World Cup qualifying approached. The challenge of rallying a wounded and divided country around the national team motivated Bradley, but outside the confines of the team and the EFA, successes or failures hardly registered. The unity once reflected in the national team’s prominent stature was, for better or worse, gone. In its stead, a bitter political divisiveness had taken root; the promise of the revolution continued to fade and Egyptians clung to increasingly narrow identities. In the first round of the presidential election in late May, the two most polarizing candidates – the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi and Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister Ahmed Shafiq – squeaked into the runoff, despite capturing less than half of the total vote between them. The choice facing Egyptians now, one young idealist despaired, was “whether one prefers one’s dictatorship straight-up, or with a bit of religion mixed in.” For millions, it was as if those glorious 18 days the previous winter had been a mirage.
THE DAY AFTER THE ELECTION, Bradley strolls into the lobby of the team’s Cairo hotel, where the squad has assembled ahead of the World Cup qualifier against Mozambique. The Interior Ministry has at last agreed to allow a national team game on Egyptian soil – the first in eight months – although it will take place in a military stadium outside of Alexandria which is closed to fans.
This arrangement essentially forfeits Egypt’s home advantage, but, by this point, Bradley is used to less than ideal conditions. He acknowledges that the pressure is mounting, but is in an unusually relaxed mood. He watches with a wry smile as a wedding band inflicts untold hearing damage on everyone in the lobby. Having spent so much time in Egyptian hotels these last months for training camps, he assures me over the blaring trumpets that the band will soon wrap up and move on, most likely to another wedding. A few minutes later, the room is quiet again.
“Every now and then, there’s a day when something that should take 10 minutes takes all day,” he reflects, “but usually you can find a way to laugh about it and move on.”
One week later, inside a glistening and all but empty Borg El Arab Stadium, Egypt labor for 55 minutes to break down Mozambique’s determined defense. Central defender Mahmoud Fathalla opens the scoring with a tap-in, and Egypt add another seven minutes later to secure a 2-0 victory. Bradley has his first competitive win in Egypt under his belt.
His evening’s work isn’t over just yet. In the post-game conference, he delivers a message to Egyptians watching around the country. “This first win in World Cup qualification was for all the people of Egypt. We’ve all had many challenges, and the team felt that it was important to go out tonight and play for everyone. We [said] before the game to look into the stands and to see 90 million fans because they were all with us tonight.”
Any good vibes from the game vanish within 12 hours. The next morning, Judge Ahmed Rafaat of the northern Cairo criminal court sentences Hosni Mubarak and his former Interior Minister Habib Adly to life in prison, but acquits Mubarak’s sons and several of the regime’s top security henchmen on murder and corruption charges. By nightfall, tens of thousands have flooded Tahrir Square to protest the exoneration of the security chiefs believed to have been responsible for hundreds of deaths during the revolution.
By Egypt’s next World Cup qualifier eight days later in Guinea, the demonstrations have mostly dissipated. Several blocks east in the outdoor café-lined maze of alleyways known as Borsa, dozens of televisions broadcast Egypt’s dramatic last-minute 3-2 victory over Guinea in Conkary to the delight of the hundreds of spectators in attendance.
Bradley had delivered. But nothing in Egypt these days is so straightforward. Over the next few weeks, Egypt would see democracy dangled before it, only for the military to stage what many analysts labeled a soft coup. Hosni Mubarak “clinically died” one Tuesday night according to state media reports, only for it to later emerge, as The New York Times reported, that he “simply fell down in the prison bathroom.” Issandr El Amrani, a Cairo-based political analyst, referred to Egypt’s situation as one of “quantum entanglement” where “things both are and are not.”
So it makes a certain twisted sense that when Egypt returned to the field in Alexandria the night before the mid-June runoff, they would lose to minnows Central African Republic 3-2 in the postponed first leg of a qualification playoff for the 2013 Africa Cup. And that two weeks later, needing a win in the return leg to avert the embarrassing fate of missing out on two successive continental championships after winning the previous three, they were able to muster just a 1-1 tie.
The rumor mill started spinning. “Bradley Could be Toppled for 1,950,000 Pounds,” read the headline in Shorouk, one of Egypt’s major papers, presumably in reference to the amount the football federation could save by firing him. Other reports suggested Bradley’s salary was set to be reduced.
The EFA moved swiftly to quash speculation. In a release on the EFA website the day after the Africa Cup exit, titled “EFA Forgives Bradley,” federation spokesman Azmy Megahed “requested forgiveness for Bob Bradley,” citing the difficulties of preparing for competitive action after Port Said.
The public response can best be described as a collective yawn. One group in particular wasn’t paying much attention. Ahmed Mohamed Ahmed says he caught bits and pieces of Egypt’s dramatic win in Guinea but watched “not regularly and without interest.” His attention was fixed on the Port Said trial. He and his fellow Ultras were busy demonstrating outside the courthouse in the Police Academy on Cairo’s eastern outskirts.
A week after Egypt’s exit from Africa Cup qualifying, several dozen Ultras – many in the black T-shirts they have been wearing at marches and rallies ever since Port Said with the words “Never Forget” and a stenciled “74” containing the names of the victims – are gathered outside the Police Academy for the latest session. Photographs of those who died hang from barricades manned by black-clad police officers.
They are joined in the oppressive July heat by a handful of victims’ family members. Anwar Sayed Eid Jallel, who shields herself from the sun underneath an oversized umbrella, wears a photograph of her only son, Amr Ahmed Mohamed Atar, around her neck. He was 26 when he died in Port Said. He was a good kid, she says. “I raised him well and raised him respectfully.”
She claims she now hates Egypt and wants to leave. She says that the Egyptian people are liars. “We’re Muslims. We’re one people. How can we kill people like this?”
Ahmed Ghaffar, 29, one of the founders of Ultras Ahlawy, is also there. A mild-mannered hotel worker who speaks impeccable English with a hint of a British accent, he was in Port Said Stadium that February night. The pain, he tells me, hasn’t gotten any better with time. “We almost don’t sleep,” he says. “It’s almost like the World Trade Center in America, when people said that everything is different.”
After Port Said, Ghaffar started keeping a baseball bat in the back seat of his car for protection. He says that if someone messed with him in the street once upon a time, he might have let it go. Not anymore. “We’re all more angry than before,” he notes.
An hour after the session begins, a lawyer for the victims’ families emerges to announce that the trial has been adjourned to the following day. I ask Ghaffar if he is confident that the court will deliver justice. “If the court is not fair, there will be blood,” he warns, his demeanor calm as before. “This is our problem in life. We will solve it no matter what.”
Ghaffar gives me a lift to Nasr City. Along the way, we swing close by Cairo Stadium, which has been deserted for more than five months. Earlier in the week, the EFA announced that league action would resume in late August pending the implementation of new security measures at the stadiums. That date has now shifted to mid-September.
Bradley, surprises notwithstanding, would now have nine months to prepare for Egypt’s next World Cup qualifier in March against Zimbabwe. Yet for a coach who arrived as a fixer, then recast himself as a sort of healer, the hard reality of today’s Egypt is manifest in the words of the friends and family members of the Port Said victims: There are certain wounds that won’t mend, certain scars that run unfathomably deep. Bradley may well lead Egypt to the World Cup finals in 2014, but it’s far from clear anymore what exactly that would mean for his adopted country.