Mohamed Salah was a quiet teenager who had made just one appearance for Egypt when Bob Bradley took over the country’s national team in the summer of 2011.
Now Salah is Egypt’s leading active scorer and the talisman on a team about to play in its first World Cup in 28 years. And he’s not the only one whose career blossomed under Bradley, a former U.S. national team coach and the current Los Angeles Football Club manager who took Egypt to within a game of the World Cup in his only qualifying campaign there.
“Most of the players that are playing now, and the starting players, Mr. Bob is the first one who chose them,” said defender Omar Gaber who, as one of those players, unfailingly uses the honorific “mister” when referring to the coach.
But Bradley didn’t just rebuild the Egyptian team, he saved it. And that, more than anything that happened on the field, is what made this World Cup visit possible.
During Bradley’s two years in Egypt the country endured rebellion, revolution and a counter-revolution, with the promise of the Arab Spring giving way to a dark, cold winter. Every segment of Egyptian society was affected and soccer was no exception.
When the country’s first-division league was shut down, taking the players’ paychecks with it, Bradley took the national team on a barnstorming tour of the Middle East. When Egypt played its first competitive game for the coach, it did so in front of an empty grandstand behind the locked gates of a military stadium. Another home game was played on the road, also in an empty stadium.
Through it all the team persevered, became closer, became better.
But the coach did more than just coach the Egyptians. After the Port Said massacre, where 74 spectators were killed inside the stadium following clashes between rival fans, Bradley marched with the people in protest. After an accident involving a bus and train killed dozens of children, he mourned with their families. And the more he met with the families and victims of violence, the more he did to quietly raise money and support to help.
Bradley may have come to Egypt as a foreign-born manager, but he left with a far more important title.
“He’s an Egyptian,” said Hassan El Mestikaway, a well-known sports commentator.
Truth is, Bradley never should have been in Egypt in the first place. After a successful World Cup with the U.S. in 2010, he signed a four-year contract extension and seemed safe in the job until his team blew a two-goal lead and lost, 4-2, to Mexico in an emotional 2011 Gold Cup final.
A month later, Bradley was fired and six weeks after that he was gone completely, agreeing to take over an Egyptian program that had made one World Cup since 1934.
On the field the timing was right. Egypt was beginning a soccer renaissance, having won the African Cup of Nations three times from 2006 to 2010 and only narrowly missed the World Cup after losing a playoff to Algeria. The country rebounded with a big performance in the U-20 World Cup, and the core of that roster —Salah, Gaber, Mohamed Elneny and Ahmed Hegazi — was about to move up to the senior team just as Bradley arrived.
Off the field, however, the timing couldn’t have been worse. Nine months earlier popular demonstrations had driven Hosni Mubarak from power, and violent, often deadly, street protests were soon to come. Bradley’s players soon scattered
The coach’s job was to restore normalcy and order, and Bradley did that, in part by getting his players to concentrate on the World Cup. If the country could survive a revolution, surely its national team could survive a little qualifying tournament.
United behind that goal Egypt went on a stunning run, winning all six of its games to advance to a two-leg playoff, where it was stopped by Ghana, again one win short of the World Cup.
Bradley soon moved, coaching in Norway, France and England before taking over LAFC for its inaugural MLS season. But the team he left behind finally grabbed that elusive World Cup berth last year, and Salah, who became a national team regular under Bradley, broke the Premier League scoring record while leading Liverpool to the Champions League final.
“Mr. Bob,” said Gaber, who followed Bradley to LAFC, “did a great thing for Egypt. In this period the situation was not so good for football. A lot of problems. We had bad moments and bad situations. (But) we kept focused and we kept fighting.
“This generation, we have big ambitions, big dreams to achieve.”
Bradley declines the credit, deflecting it to Argentine coach Hector Cuper, the man who finally got Egypt over the World Cup finish line. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel pride.
“During a very difficult time in the country, we always tried to be strong and united in our work together,” he said. “For me those experiences mean a lot. And when I see these guys, so many of them now having a chance to play in the World Cup, I’m so proud of all of them.”
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