May 23, 2012


Soccer in the Storm (Wayne Drehs, ESPN The Magazine)

The next morning, Bradley sits patiently at the Qatari airport waiting to board his flight home to Cairo when a stranger plops into the empty seat next to him, interrupts our conversation and hands Bradley his cell phone.

"What's this?" Bob asks.

"It's my friend," the Egyptian man eagerly explains. "Say hello."

Bradley shakes his head, rolls his eyes and grabs the man's phone. There's no catch. On the other end is simply some guy who can't believe he's talking to Bob Bradley.

"Shokron," Bradley says. "Shokron."

The conversation lasts for all of 20 seconds and throughout its entirety the man next to Bradley is glowing. When the call is over, he leaves. "You see this?" Bradley says. "This is what my life is like here."

It's been this way all day. When Bob steps off the team bus upon arriving at the airport, a man jumps in front of him and yells, "What about you? What about Egypt?" In the airport, another man stops Bradley to tell him he was at the game last night. "You should have had three goals," he says. A security guard then approaches, extends his hands and asks for a picture. "Must have," he says.

"They all say that," Bradley says.

After the photo, the man tells Bradley he hopes Egypt makes the World Cup but that the team will need to go through Tunisia to make it.

"So you're Tunisian?" Bradley asks.

"Yes," the man says.

A few seconds later, an Egyptian boy, no more than 8, stands next to Bradley and stares at him. He doesn't speak. He doesn't ask for a photo. He just stands there, completely still. Eventually, his eyes cross paths with Bradley's. The coach smiles. Nods. The boy sheepishly smiles back. And then he turns around and walks away. I mention how that's the first person I've seen recognize Bob and not ask for a photo. "No, he got one earlier by the bus," Bradley says.

This is Bradley's life. In Egypt, soccer is king. Egypt's friendly against Congo aired on 12 different channels. A 2011 study found the No. 1 reason for divorce in the country was husbands caring more about soccer than their wives. But because Bradley's predecessor was a Mubarak loyalist, hordes of fans lost interest in the national team. Bradley is trying to change that. He needs to change that. If he wants to make the World Cup dreams of the Egyptian people come true, he believes he needs the entire nation behind him and his team. So one fan at a time, one picture at a time, Bradley works like a politician in the stretch run before an election. He smiles. He laughs. He tries to speak in broken Arabic. He's not just a coach. He's become an ambassador.

In a way, it's a strange role for an American. According to the Pew Research Center, four out of five Egyptians have an unfavorable view of the United States, and more than half the country wishes it had fewer ties with America. And yet the man they all seem to want to meet is an American.

"At first, most people were like, 'We don't want no damn American,'" Abdel says. "They thought Bob was all about fitness. His teams won because they were in the best shape. But now they've gotten to see the man and know the man. And they love him. Now, he's a rock star. He's bigger than Obama."

The Egyptians have been particularly impressed about the way Bradley has handled the unstable post-revolution climate. After Port Said, he and Lindsay walked with thousands of Egyptians in Sphinx Square in honor of the victims, and he donated an undisclosed amount of money to the victims' families. He also publicly questioned the motives behind the attack, telling Al Jazeera English, "This wasn't just fans losing control. This has all the markings of a setup, of a massacre."

"I couldn't pretend this was something else," Bradley tells me. "It doesn't do anybody any good to just not say anything and pretend this stuff doesn't exist when everybody knows it does."

On multiple occasions, Bob and Lindsay have visited Children's Cancer Hospital of Egypt, also known as CCHE 57357. They've taped public-service announcements in English asking for donations while contributing an undisclosed amount themselves. They've also taken daughters Kerry, 23, and Ryan, 20, to the hospital to visit sick children. It's all opened the eyes of Middle Easterners everywhere.

"He's stepping into a mine field, but so far he has been on the right side with nearly everything he's done," says James Dorsey, a Middle East expert at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, "The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer." "This is unlike anything any American coach has ever experienced. It's not just football. It's not just team-building. There's so much more that comes into play. And he's performed well. He's pushing all the right buttons."

Bradley insists he isn't doing anything differently. He's just being himself. Lindsay agrees. He's always been this way. But I'm not so sure. At the very least, Bradley seems to be opening up more to the Egyptian people. When Kerry and Ryan visited from Southern California a few months ago, they saw shades of a new man as well, someone who rode a camel across the Egyptian desert and laughed when a street vendor shuffled hats on and off his head.

"It's opened him up a bit," Ryan says. "He's more open to different possibilities now."

"It brings out more of my dad's adventurous, free-spirited side," Kerry adds. "That's a good thing."
Enhanced by Zemanta

Posted by at May 23, 2012 5:20 AM

blog comments powered by Disqus