“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 U.S. men’s national soccer 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 soccer games. The squad has vaulted into the final stage of qualifying for the World Cup, a tournament that Egypt hasn’t reached for nearly a quarter-century. 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 on July 3.
“The national team is the only thing that unites all Egyptians,” said a fan, pharmacologist Marwan Mohammad, 28, who was attending a packed “friendly” match Sunday between two domestic teams, Al Ahly and Shibin.
In this soccer-mad nation, the national pastime has long been more than just a sport. Toward the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign, hard-core soccer 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 soccer die-hards have played a role in demonstrations since then.
Bradley, a bald New Jersey native with a no-nonsense manner, is well aware of how politics has been entwined with soccer 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, muscular and fit at 55, in a blue Nike T-shirt, shorts and sneakers, 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 soccer. 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.