Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the team, Pharaohs. This version has been corrected.
CAIRO — Egypt’s national soccer team often plays to empty stadiums these days, under orders from security forces. Some of the players don’t get paid. And recently, many team members got stranded at Cairo’s airport by the 7 p.m. curfew.
In a time of revolution, even Egypt’s beloved soccer 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 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.
Bradley watched the scenes of carnage with horror from Cairo. In his long soccer career — which includes positions as an assistant coach with D.C. United in 1996-97 and head coach of the Chicago Fire, the 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 counseled his men to get over their anger, honoring the dead but maintaining their responsibility to their team and country. One of his stars, Al Ahly midfielder Mohammed 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 soccer league, which employed many of the national team members.
“We had to come up with a plan to keep them motivated, fit, sharp,” Bradley said. He and his assistants scrambled to set up friendly matches in Sudan, Lebanon and other countries.
Egypt’s political turmoil has only escalated since. In mid-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 tear gas had broken up two massive sit-ins organized by the Muslim Brotherhood to protest the ouster of the country’s first Islamist president, Mohamed 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 — playing in an empty stadium, as state security has often required during the charged political times. That night, the Pharaohs flew back to Cairo, which had been slapped with a 7 p.m. 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,” Bradley said. “And yet every time we had national team camp, they came into camp, ready to be there, still honored to be part of the national team.”
The Pharaohs have already clinched first place in their World Cup qualifying group. Regardless of the outcome of the Sept. 10 final against Guinea, they have secured a place in the African playoffs this fall as one of 10 teams that will vie for five spots in the World Cup field.
Even before moving to Egypt, Bradley had seen his share of ups and downs in soccer. He coached the U.S. 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 soccer 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.