The American Pharaoh who marched with fans

On the Road With Football's Outsiders: A World Cup Odyssey James Montague

Editor’s Note: CNN is serializing extracts from Thirty-One Nil, a new book from author James Montague, who traveled the globe documenting qualifying games for the World Cup. Here, Montague meets Bob Bradley in Cairo as the former U.S. coach tries to steer Egypt’s national team to the World Cup finals in the wake of a revolution and a deadly encounter between fans.

Chapter 2

Cairo, Egypt, February 2012

Bob Bradley speaks with measured intensity, chewing over every sentence before he delivers it. He hadn’t expected an easy ride in charge of the Pharaohs. He has been in the job for six months now, having been let go by the U.S. national team despite qualifying for the World Cup, where the U.S. reached the knockout stages, making it to the final of the Confederations Cup and winning a Gold Cup, too.

He’d been hired in Egypt’s post-revolutionary squall, where football was just another battlefront for the revolution. The league had been postponed because of the instability, and then suspended due to violence, thanks largely to the security vacuum, and then restarted. Olympic qualification had been canceled too.

When Bradley arrived the league had just been suspended again. He had been in the job for six months now and not yet taken charge of a competitive match. His first, a friendly against Brazil in Qatar’s capital Doha, ended in a 2-0 defeat, but he saw enough in the squad to realize that the team could go far.

“I knew they had a group of players that had been the nucleus that won the Africa Cup of Nations in ‘06, ‘08 and 2010, and that [previous coach] Hassan Shehata was a good man,” he says when I ask what he knew of Egyptian football before he got here.

Bob Bradley took over as Egypt coach in October 2011.

Bradley had met Egypt’s previous coach when the U.S. played them at the 2009 Confederations Cup. Shehata had been Egypt’s most successful coach, winning three Africa Cup of Nations in a row. But he had been seen as being too close to Mubarak and the previous regime and had to go.

“The way they thought of it in Egypt, this was their golden generation,” he says. “I ended up coming here, speaking to the people. The bottom line is you’re now trying to size up the situation from a football perspective, building a new team. The dream is the World Cup in 2014. But obviously there’s a lot more to it.”

A lot more to it. The U.S. had planned a friendly against Egypt in Cairo two weeks after the January revolution. It was canceled but Bradley watched the revolution on TV from afar, not knowing that a few months later he would be sacked by the U.S. team before heading to Cairo himself. He adapted well to the chaos of Cairo and settled down to life in Africa’s largest city.

Most of the city’s wealthy abandon central Cairo the first moment they can, to escape the gridlock and the pollution. Bradley was different. He and his wife moved into an apartment on Zamalek, an island on the Nile, in the heart of the city. He walked around the streets speaking to fans who begged him to play Mohamed Aboutrika, Egypt’s legendary forward who was a hero to millions across the world because of his piousness and desire to stand up for the poor and disenfranchised.

I’m one that asks questions. I asked: ‘who goes to Tahrir Square? Is there a real agenda?’

Bradley tried to blend in − as much as a white, bald American with piercing blue eyes could blend in. He read, asked questions, tried to understand.

“When I took the job it coincided with some of the protests that turned violent,” he recalls. “I’m one that asks questions. I asked: who goes to Tahrir Square? Is there a real agenda? Are there people there planted by others to create problems? You start to recognize the different levels of each situation. You also get a real sense how football is part of all this revolution. Clearly the football and politics in different ways are totally connected.”

He would soon see how closely linked the two were. On 1 February 2012, a few weeks earlier than our meeting, Bradley was traveling to the Cairo International Stadium to watch Zamalek, the other half of Cairo’s footballing duopoly, and Ismaily play in the Egyptian league. The league had started again after a 40-day suspension.

“That day Masry and Ahly was in Port Said but it’s a couple of hours away,” he says. “Some people told us that there might be some trouble at the game. But let’s get it clear. We heard the fans didn’t get on. We watched the first half on TV. It was a competitive game. Before we left there were a few things that were concerning. Fans running on the field, fireworks.

“We went to the Cairo Stadium and there’s a TV in the lobby area. We see the third Masry goal and the whistle and see fans running on the field, and the Ahly players sprinting off the field.”

It was in the next 15 minutes that the young supporters of Al Ahly were killed.

Eyewitness reports and medical records show that the majority had been crushed to death in a tiny exit tunnel under the stadium. The door had been locked. One supporter had left early to use the bathroom. When he returned the gates were shut fast and his friends crushed on the other side. He tried to break the lock with a stone, but the gate collapsed on him. He was the first to die. Others had been stabbed to death or thrown off the top of the stands on to the concrete below.

Football fans march in protest at the 72 deaths at the Port Said Stadium.

Bradley saw it on a TV in the Cairo International Stadium. As news of the tragedy filtered through, Zamalek fans began setting fire to the stadium. He quickly left.

“By the time we go into the federation it’s clear that this was not a typical case of fan violence,” he says. “There was one incredible question and answer with the captain of Masry. He didn’t play but talked about what they saw. He says something to the [Masry] supporters and the supporters didn’t recognise him and he’s thinking: ‘these aren’t our supporters.’”

The Port Said massacre stunk. The police and the army were nowhere to be seen. The gates had been locked and no effort was made to prevent the Al Masry fans attacking the Ahly ultras or the players, who fled to the dressing room where the dead and dying were being brought. “You know the story?” Bradley asks. I didn’t. “Here’s a young fan in a locker room. The fan says to Aboutrika: ‘Captain, I always wanted to meet you.’”

The fan died in Aboutrika’s arms. In the immediate aftermath of the match, Aboutrika and several other Al Ahly players retired from football. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) blamed football hooliganism for the deaths, but no one was buying that. For Bradley the tragedy meant two things.

To think young, talented, intelligent people lose their lives at a football match blows you away.

“First and foremost our thoughts and prayers are with the young people who lost their lives,” he says, looking at his hands as he speaks. “Young people who, in a group as the ultras, played a big role in the revolution. To think young, talented, intelligent people lose their lives at a football match blows you away. You think of the people who were in the stadium that night.”

Secondly, it also meant he didn’t have a national team to coach. The up-and-coming Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against the Central African Republic, which was to be his first competitive match in charge of Egypt, was canceled. He was at this five-star resort, not out of choice, but because the training camp for the game was due to take place then.

Bradley decided to gather what players he could anyway. But the players of Al Ahly made up the vast majority of the national team: perhaps eight or nine in any starting XI. They were emotionally shattered by Port Said and the bloodshed they had witnessed first-hand. And, besides, no one knew whether Mohamed Aboutrika and the others would ever choose to return.

“I spoke to them and at this moment those players need time,” Bradley says. “Right now we have left them and little by little we will find the right time and the right way.”

In the aftermath of Port Said the league was canceled and the Egyptian FA resigned. There would be no football in Egypt for a while. Yet, in the weeks that followed, the Ahlawy took to the streets. They protested in Tahrir Square. Their numbers and their legend grew rather than diminish because of Port Said.

Bradley and his wife, Lindsay, joined them on the streets, marching alongside the Ahlawy in a rally to Sphinx Square.

“We would go to Sphinx Square as a sign of respect for those who lost their lives and a sign of respect for the families,” he recalls.

Bob Bradley leads a training session at Cairo's Air Defence Stadium.

“In a moment like that I think it’s important you are with the people. It was a simple sign of respect and a simple sign of being with football people, knowing this was a senseless tragedy in a country that is trying so hard to move on and a country we have grown to love.”

The fallout from Port Said would last longer than anyone could have predicted. SCAF’s original explanation for the tragedy − mindless violence − was rejected by the Egyptian public.

There was too much evidence, too many suspicious circumstances and coincidences. The Ahlawy believed they had been punished for their role in the revolution. The fans of Al Ahly had fought the police in the four years before January 2011, fought them on the barricades in Tahrir Square and, now, vowed to protest and prevent the league from restarting until they got justice for those who had died. Bradley, too, believed that Port Said was more than just fan violence.

“People are protesting because they want the handover to civilian rule to move faster,” he says of his time speaking to people on the streets during those marches. “And then something happens in Port Said and now there are camera reports that the gates are welded shut. One of the first things you see is the police doing nothing. When I ask opinions of people, they say the military in their own way is trying to say: ‘Fine. You want us out so this is what it is going to be like without us.’”

A national team, to be successful anywhere, has a connection to the people. Now more than ever here.

We’ve been talking for over an hour now, and he is no closer to an answer. “There’s been a number of protests that have turned violent since the revolution and if Port Said is part of bringing about this change then I think it will prove even more that this was not just fan violence,” he says.

“The flipside is I don’t think you can come here and be the national team coach and be oblivious to all this, have your head in the sand when you have players and a team that are so deeply involved in all these things.”

The team. Bradley was here to build a team. Now, because of the revolution and because of Port Said, he had a much more important role to play. To pick up the pieces and build a team that wouldn’t just make it to the World Cup finals in Brazil, but could show a divided country a positive reflection of itself.

“A national team, to be successful anywhere, has a connection to the people. Now more than ever here,” he says. “Everyone has a dream for the World Cup. So that responsibility, of what it means when we step on the field, is making sure that we’re representing what these people are all about.”

The World Cup, Bradley hopes, will be his own small contribution to the revolution. “Everyone you talk to says: ‘We must go to the World Cup,’” he explains.

It is time to go. It is late. Bradley is taking a training session early in the morning and I have to catch a bus back to central Cairo. We shake hands. No one knows when football will return to Egypt, nor whether the price of watching those young men die in Port Said will be too much for Al Ahly’s players to pay. Maybe it will be too much for Bradley as well.

Egypt's World Cup dreams were ended by Ghana in the playoffs.

Postscript: Egypt had to play Ghana in a play-off round to qualify for the World Cup finals in Brazil. But it all fell apart in West Africa, where Egypt lost 6-1. In the return match in Cairo, where the fans were allowed to return, Egypt dominated but only won 2-1. Bradley's contract was up, but he left with his head held high.

Copyright James Montague, 2014. From Thirty-One Nil: On the Road With Football's Outsiders: A World Cup Odyssey, published by Bloomsbury in the UK at £12.99 from May 22, 2014.