Monday, May 7, 2012

Bradley finding his footing in Egypt

When soccer riots broke out in Egypt in February, Bob Bradley did not hesitate to speak out despite having only just arrived as the new coach of the national team.

It didn't matter that the American had been in Egypt less than six months or was still coming to terms with the country's post-revolution politics.

He felt he needed to make his views clear on the events of Feb. 1, when up to 74 people were killed when supporters of two rival clubs clashed. The cause remains murky. Several police officers have been charged with helping supporters of Port Said's Al-Masry club attack rivals from Cairo's Al-Ahly.

"It became apparent this was way more than rival fans who didn't get along," said Bradley, whose team was in Dubai for several exhibitions before the team's 2014 World Cup qualifiers in June.

"As the coach of national team, you have responsibility," he said. "The national team has to be connected to people, represent the people. There is a responsibility when something like this happens. You can't just ignore what took place. You can't have your head in the sand and totally ignore it."

Bradley's willingness to be heard on the issue has helped make his months on the job a success so far.

Although he barely speaks Arabic, never coached abroad and was replacing a legend in Hassan Shehata, fans and pundits have given him high grades. They have praised his technical skills, his experience and the commitment to returning Egypt to the World Cup for the first time in 24 years.

"This is our goal, our mission," Bradley said of reaching the 2014 World Cup. "Every time we get together, we are focused on what it will take to get to this World Cup. This is something that will drive us all."

This was a coaching appointment that could have gone bad quickly. Bradley was fired by the U.S. in June after his team lost to Mexico in the Gold Cup final. Even though he had helped the U.S. reach the round of 16 at the 2010 World Cup, critics felt the team's progress had stalled. He was replaced by former Germany coach Jurgen Klinsmann.

Bradley arrived at a difficult time for Egypt and its soccer team. The country was still reeling from an uprising that forced long-term president Hosni Mubarak from office.

Only this week did approval come from the interior ministry for Egypt to host its opening World Cup qualifier against Mozambique at Borg El-Arab Stadium in Alexandria on June 1. It was unclear if fans would be allowed to attend. Egyptian clubs have played continental matches behind closed doors since the Feb. 1 riot, while the national league remains in abeyance.

Bradley also was tasked with reviving a team that missed out on the 2010 World Cup and then the African Cup of Nations for the first time in 33 years.

"There is very good talent." Bradley said. "There is the passion of the whole country and there is motivation of the players especially of the ones who are getting toward the end of their careers and haven't yet been to the World Cup."

Known for his scientific, methodical ways, the American rarely raises his voice and shows little emotion on the sidelines.

"I'm happy to work with a big name like Bob Bradley," goalkeeper Essam El Hadary said. "In these circumstances, we are doing very well with him. He is treating all the players like brothers and we will do our best to qualify for the World Cup."

The team's style of play is still a work in progress, as Bradley assesses the options ahead of the start of World Cup qualifiers in June.

"He still experimenting with several formations, and he is yet to settle on the ideal line up," said Hatem Maher, senior sports editor at Ahram Online who follows the team. "But one prominent change is that he does not rely on a traditional 3-5-2 formation, which was mainly used by Shehata who preferred to play with a sweeper. In recent friendlies, Bradley opted to field many attacking midfielders with only one holding midfielder."

After losing to Brazil in his first match, the team has been unbeaten in its past seven exhibitions. The most recent camp in Dubai showed a team that was still finding its footing - showcasing a potent attack in a 3-2 win over Nigeria but looking sloppy in the last 10 minutes of a drab draw against Iraq.

"When you build a team, there are different periods," Bradley said. "In this period, it's still getting a feel for the group, establishing good ideas of how we play, establishing good mentality.

"Once the foundation is built in each area, it's sharpening things up to the highest level. It's getting close to that time."

Among the biggest challenges facing Bradley has been the political chaos in Egypt. The league started late in 2011 because of the protests, was suspended so players could prepare for Olympic qualifiers, then the Feb. 1 riot hit and the league was shut down.

The fans - some holding posters memorializing riot victims at the Dubai exhibition with Iraq - sympathize with Bradley's challenges.

"It's made things very challenging," he said of the riots. "You have players from Al-Ahly in the stadium who saw people die, not just people but their fans die. Immediately after that happened, there were players who said they wouldn't play anymore."

"He was very (respectful) of those who got killed in Egypt," said Hiatham Abdul, who works in a Dubai restaurant. "We like his style. He is kind of personal. We like him so much."

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