When we were getting ready for Egypt we knew we had to win 3-0 and Italy needed to lose 3-0 against Brazil [to qualify for the semi-finals]. We won, Italy lost, and we advanced to the semis to beat Spain. But I had a good sense of the Egyptian team through Zaki [Abdel-Fattah, the former USA goalkeeping coach]. I had met [then Egypt coach] Hassan Shehata. I knew they had a group of players that had been the nucleus that won the [African] Nations Cup in 2006, 2008 and 2010, and that Hassan Shehata was a good man. The way they thought of it in Egypt, this was their golden generation. 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.
When you arrived in Egypt the country was in the throws of revolution. How did you see it, as an outsider?
Last year, when I was coaching the US, we were supposed to play a friendly in Cairo on February 9. And then weeks before that we are watching the images everyone else was watching – Tahrir Square. The game was cancelled. Being around Zaki, I’d ask him what happened, read different accounts. But when you come here you have a chance to see for yourself what’s going on in the country. When I took the job it coincided with some of the protests that turned violent. I’m one that asks questions. Who goes to Tahrir Square?
Is there a real agenda? Are there people there planted by others to create problems? You start to recognise the different levels of each situation. You also get a real sense of how football is part of all this [the revolution]. When you come to coach Egypt after the revolution, after all these years of [Egyptian president Hosni] Mubarak, you hear from different people about how the successful teams were seen as Mubarak’s teams. When I got here I saw a number of matches in the league where people would set off fireworks. Some were played behind closed doors, with no fans, as this was the response by the FA. I started to read more and more. Clearly, the football and politics, in different ways, are totally connected.
How did you deal with the residual effects of the regime and the perceived closeness of the national team, some of its players and its coach, to Mubarak?
It would be inaccurate to say we have done that already. That is a big part of the job. All the skills you have tried to hone over the years, this is a test of all of them. We’ve not yet pulled it all together. When I first arrived the league started late because of the revolution. We only had six games. The Olympic qualifying competition was due to take place in Egypt but that got cancelled. You watch six rounds, you get your group together, play Brazil [in a friendly], and then they stopped the league for 40 days. And there was the Port Said tragedy.
All of these different events had an impact on Egypt and the football community. The president of the Egyptian FA and the board resigned. Our match [an African Nations Cup qualifier against Central African Republic] was postponed. After the revolution there’s still a lot of people who have hope for the future and, in some ways, with the national team 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. We are trying to put together the right group of players who have the commitment to get through to the World Cup finals.
Where were you when you heard of what happened in Port Said?
The league games were rolling around and the staff were trying to organise a camp with friendlies before the game against Central African Republic. That day, Al Masry and Al Ahly played in Port Said. It’s a couple of hours away, so we would watch the first half on TV and then watch Ismaily v Zamalek in the Cairo Stadium. Some people told us that there might be some trouble at the game, 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 worrying, such as fans running on the field, fireworks. But you still had a feeling it was typical fan stuff. We went to the Cairo Stadium and there’s a TV in the lobby area. We saw the third Masry goal, the whistle, the fans running on the field and the Ahly players sprinting off the field. At half-time we got reports that people had died. Now the second half [in Cairo] wasn’t going to be played. We got out quickly.
There were some fires set by supporters inside Cairo Stadium but we’d left. We get back to our apartment and watch it on television. By the time we went into the federation it was clear that this was not a typical case of fan violence. There was one incredible question and answer with the captain of Masry. He didn’t play but he talked about what they saw. He said something to the [Masry] supporters and the supporters didn’t recognise him and he’s thinking “these aren’t our supporters”.
When we left the office we heard there was going to be a rally in Sphinx Square and we thought, as a staff, and Lindsay [Bradley’s wife], 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. In a moment like that I think it’s important you are with the people. A lot was written about us being there, but 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.
People get an isolated picture of Egypt, that it’s not safe. They don’t have a good picture of what life is like here, how good the people are, how people are working hard trying to make money and take care of their families. At a time when people think it’s not safe, people are appreciative that I take my wife and daughters out for dinner, living not in a compound but in Cairo. We walk to the market, meet all sorts of people.
You have no security?
It’s quiet enough, there’s no getting around it. If you are the coach of Egypt there’s a high recognition factor. But we can still find places for privacy. People want to take photos, but we can sit and enjoy a meal. You learn the passion for football.
How have you dealt with the Al Ahly players who experienced the tragedy and have since said they would retire? One report said that, in the dressing room, Mohamed Aboutrika held a fan who died in his arms…
You know the story? Here’s a young fan in a locker room. The fan says to Aboutrika: “Captain, I always wanted to meet you.”
First and foremost our thoughts and prayers are with the young people who lost their lives. Young people who, in a group [as the ultras], played a big role in the revolution. Young people who, on the simplest level, loved football. In a country that is so passionate for football 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.
That level of understanding and respect for Al Ahly, which is an incredible club. We went to their memorial and it makes you feel what this club is all about. On one side were the club officials and on the other side the fans were mourning. Ahly has always been an important club and will always be an important club for the national team. But at this moment those players need time. Right now we have left them, and little by little we will find the right time and the right way.
You talk about showing the world a different side of Egypt. Do you think your actions show Egypt a different side of America?
I’ve said before there’s a big difference between what Egyptians think of American policy and what they think of Americans. When we came here we immediately felt that welcoming side of people who were excited that we would want to come here. There is no doubt that in order to do the job well you have to live here. Egypt has had a few foreign coaches and none of them has done well.
I felt strongly that to have a chance here you had to get a better feel about how people here live and think. And even the difference between living on the outskirts and living in Cairo is significant. Meeting people, talking to people, getting a sense of what their lives are like every day. From the beginning our idea was that when you come here it’s a responsibility. Everyone you talk to says “we must go to the World Cup”.
When you’re a leader in any way and there’s a tragedy, the way you react, the way you respond, this is important. [We are] trying in a small way to help the Egyptian people as a whole. In some small way, when we are with the national team we set an example.
Were you aware how significant football’s role was when it came to the January revolution that ousted Mubarak?
I knew that with football and fans there was a connection with the revolution. But when you come and live here you see it in a clearer, deeper way. Moving forward we are building a team that does have the right connection so that people can support us and we represent them. This has to be some part of what we try to do.
Has the Port Said tragedy helped to refocus and reignite the revolution against military rule?
There are so many levels to this question. It’s only level one. A lot of the protests that have taken place since the revolution were about people saying Mubarak is not here but the military is part of the old regime. And now they are protesting because they want control to civilian rule to move faster. And then something happens in Port Said and now there are reports on the news that the gates have been 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”. You read about that and see what took place and read some of the inside reports of Masry players not recognising Masry fans. There have been a number of protests that have turned violent since the revolution and if Port Said, like those, is part of bringing about this change then I think it will prove even more that this was not just fan violence. This was much more complicated.
I’ve been here six months. I don’t want to sound like I am an expert on the political side of everything here. I ask a lot of questions, I read the things that are intelligent. The flip side is I don’t think you can come here and be the national team coach and be oblivious to all this. You can’t have your head in the sand when you have players who are so deeply involved in all these things.
Interview by James Montague