It has been a challenging 18 months since American Bob Bradley took over as head coach of the Egyptian national team. The 55-year-old, who previously led the USA to the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, took the Pharaohs job in the wake of the Egyptian Revolution and was quickly confronted by the Port Said riot in February of last year and the resulting unrest and suspension of the domestic league. The thoughtful coach tells FIFA.com, that after an emotional and difficult time, the record seven-time African champions are attempting to consolidate after a good start to Brazil 2014 qualifying.
[This is part 1 of the interview with Bob Bradley. Part 2 will be published tomorrow, when he talks about missing out on the CAF AFrica Cup of Nations, the improving football scene in Africa and his ultimate goals as a coach.]
FIFA.com: What have the challenges been for you job-wise since Port Said and trying to build a competitive national team?
Bob Bradley: The tragedy in Port Said touched all Egyptians, and it certainly impacted the football community. The first challenge after that was to give players time and talk to them and try to support them in any way. It required us adjusting, and trying to figure out how to keep them training and motivated and keep them sharp. We tried to use every opportunity to have camps, and what we were able to do through that was establish a trust and a way of communicating. We talked about the fact that we have this special opportunity; that people in Egypt had this hope and dream to get to the World Cup and that ultimately that was our responsibility. And we tried to say that whenever we came to these camps - I use the expression sometimes, 'it's a chance to breathe' – and we didn't want to forget about Port Said, but we wanted the time together to be our chance to concentrate on how we could build the team and move forward so we would have a chance to go to the World Cup.
And how did the group react?
I've said over and over that the response of the players through the whole period, and the belief that they have had, has been incredible and that's been our foundation. They deserve congratulations because all of them had moments where they weren't sure what was happening with their careers. Most of them weren't getting paid, so to put all of those things aside, the credit that they could handle that the way they did, is all theirs. I have tremendous respect for all of them through this whole period.
Everywhere we went after that, people would say, 'You must pick Aboutrika'. He's incredibly popular and the people love him.
How much of that was down to the experienced core at the heart of the team or is it fair to say there has been a significant transition to a new generation?
It's both really. With all of the success the older players have had at the Cup of Nations or especially with Al Ahly, the simple fact is that what's missing for them is a World Cup. There are some really talented youngsters - Mohamed Salah, Ahmed Hegazy, Mohamed El-Nenny, Mohamed Ibrahim and I can go on – but it's always important to keep in mind, for players like Mohamed Aboutrika, this is their last chance to go to a World Cup. For experienced players to get that urgency across to younger guys, that's key. Their motivation is part of the transition that builds on the experience of this great generation of players but also moves along the right young guys who are ready to play important roles.
How important is Aboutrika to that?
When I first got here, I got the opinion from a lot of people that we needed a new team, that some players were too old. Aboutrika was not playing much when I arrived, and we did not select him for our first friendly, and you know his response said everything about his character and his integrity. He never complained, and he realised that it was up to him to show that he could still play a big part in the team. After that he started playing more, and I could see he still brought intelligence and vision and talent. Everywhere we went after that, people would say, 'You must pick Aboutrika'. He's incredibly popular and the people love him. He's respected not just as a player but as a man. He did all of the right things to keep himself at a high level. He is without a doubt a leader for us, and he brings experience and intelligence in a way that can make a very big difference in the group.
Where does the team stand for the match against Zimbabwe on 26 March?
The good news is the league has started again, which means we have players inside Egypt getting regular matches. There are also more players playing outside Egypt. So while things were difficult here, other opportunities opened up. And we feel good about it all. We have Zimbabwe coming up and then two matches in June, and then the final match in September. We haven't gotten ahead of ourselves but we feel good about our first two results (victories over Mozambique and Guinea) and we have got something going that we believe in. Qualification in Africa is difficult, that home and away ties against another group winner, there will be no margin for error. But we are trying to use every moment and every match to learn and become more confident. We're excited to get back into World Cup qualifying after nine months.
You seem to have formed quite a bond with the team. Did you ever think it wasn't going to be worth it?
When I started talking to people about taking this job, I realised that it would be a unique and amazing challenge and an incredible experience. Of course the one thing that nobody could have ever predicted was the tragedy in Port Said. But once we started coming to understand that we all have to do something that will mean a lot to everyone in the country, to be a leader in that situation, you have to be committed. You're asking people to trust you. So it was never a question. When I came here, I had a strong feeling that we had to be all in, that we couldn't be part-time. I get asked, 'Have you thought about leaving?' And the answer is always the same: we have a group and we're committed to what we're trying to achieve, which is reaching the World Cup in Brazil.