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The Egypt-Bob Bradley Adventure in Review: Part 1
This is Part 1 of a planned five-part series and it serves as an introduction. Look at the end for a brief description of upcoming parts.
Football is a very inexact science. The degree of success that can be achieved is based on a massive list of factors, from the obvious (formations & tactics) down to things as unpredictable as one linesman’s alertness and as incidental as the quality of a player’s nap on the plane heading to a certain game. This means it’s impossible to come up with a winning formula half as accurate as those found in the “hard sciences” (physics, chemistry…). Yet, in spite of this unpredictability, and no doubt because of its resulting drama, we’re endlessly fascinated by the ways in which various methods and various people come to influence the game, the heights of glory to which some are held while others miserably, often cruelly, fail. ‘Tis the nature of the beast. It enjoys the love of millions, as well as the deference of its victims.
The high potential for drama has made of football an ideal sport of passion for the masses, but also as a result, a highly competitive global business machine. It’s created an increasing need at the high level for more specialization, more competent football “scientists” so to speak (coaches, managers, analysts behind the scenes…) exacting the most out of this most inexact science, pinpointing the ways they can get an edge in the playing field.
Although I do believe that at the end of the day, the most important variable and game-changer is simply the mood of each player on a given match day, I am not at all suggesting that those attempts to gain an edge through management and coaching are a vain effort. On the contrary, today’s game requires more effort than ever from the people in charge of teams to boost their chances by making all the right calls, from player selections to the scheduling of friendlies, from assessing players’ psyches to directing their in-game movements. Reflective, meticulous managers will always help more in those regards than impulsive, loudmouthed charlatans. Bob Bradley, US coach for five years, top candidate to coach Egypt in the fall of 2011, was a man clearly befitting the former description. Unfortunately, when he accepted Samir Zaher’s job offer, his arrival came in an Egyptian footballing landscape where, increasingly through his tenure, the loudest and least helpful voices ran the show. To understand this contrast we need to take a few steps back and look at the broader picture…
Football is, almost everywhere in the world, per journalist Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World, “the province of the working class.” In Africa especially, that class gets minimal quality education. In Egypt, this is added to the fact that clubs are able to (and do) hold on to their players much more than the rest of Africa in response to European offers. It means that the majority of players who go on to become stars of our national team come from very modest backgrounds with no experience of living in Europe. But none of that is a problem in itself. Bradley, a Princeton graduate, chose to stay in a neighborhood in the heart of Cairo to get a feel for ordinary people, and was struck by the friendliness and enthusiasm of everyone he met there and lived around for two years. He would often speak of the “incredible passion” for football in this country. From the start, it seemed to be one of his main reasons for coming – and then for resolutely staying in spite of all kinds of trouble that got thrown his way. If anything, the connection he developed with his players on one hand and with people in his neighborhood on the other was a motivation rather than any kind of hindrance. And the beautiful game is at its most beautiful when its adherents among the higher classes are seen sharing with the less fortunate the same kind of raw, unbuttoned passion.
But the problem of inadequate education rears its head elsewhere: at the moment when football stars hang up their boots and transition either to the media or to the top of the football hierarchy. I mentioned the great need for specialization and competence in football management. In Egypt, it’s more a case of “the lunatics have taken over the asylum”. Professionalism is a word that gets thrown around a lot here but is almost never applied. When any star player can become a TV pundit overnight if he wishes to, and anyone with the right connections and star power can get appointed to the all-important managerial and administrative posts of the business, something is clearly wrong. Anything passes for football analysis, whether it’s from people who never played or from old former stars so self-assured they don’t bother to check their facts first before launching into interminable TV rants over a fact they clearly got wrong in the first place. Yellow journalism is the norm, is simply called “journalism” and takes as its motto “We make things up, you deny what isn’t true.”
In came Bob Bradley, arriving from a country that, per Foer, distinguishes itself by an inverted social order of the game, a place where “the working class couldn’t give a toss about it”, considering it an un-American, unwelcome European import embraced by yuppies. What interests us here is Bradley’s background. Here’s a coach who, we can infer, has probably always approached management of the game in an enlightened way, being surrounded by a similar-minded football environment. In Egypt, he must have found an antithesis to much of his philosophy. Two-years’ worth of criticism thrown his way have ranged from ludicrous accusations of political spying to random jibes from individuals begrudging an American’s appointment to this most coveted position. Lapses of common sense, non-existent factual basis, group-think… these are the usual features of a large part of our footballing community. But it hasn’t all been negative for Bradley. In addition to applause for his footballing achievements, most prominent and unmistakable was a deep appreciation for Bradley’s relentless humanity and professionalism, which had multiple opportunities of shining through. It may be what remains most vividly in the minds of people now that Bob’s reign has ended in a footballing failure, despite a number of successes along the way.
The national team rod has now been passed onto Shawky Gharib, who started with a very convincing friendly win over World-Cup-bound Bosnia and Herzegovina followed by two more sobering games with Chile and Jamaica. As this summer’s World Cup in Rio is now over (during which we’ve grieved some more at yet another Egyptian absence) and with African Cup of Nations qualifications about to start, we now look ahead to a new phase and set our sights on 2018.
What follows in this series of articles is an attempt from me to lay out the key features of our national team’s experience under Bob Bradley and the resulting meeting of two cultures. I try to examine its lasting positive legacies, the reasons for its failures, and the way each aspect is now looking under Shawky Gharib.
A couple of disclaimers before I start…
1. My aim is not to criticize anyone for the sake of it but to encourage better practices.
2. I am aware that this series would have been more timely if written during Bradley’s time. In fact, I planned to write something much sooner and then kept putting it off. Still, I’ve decided to go through with writing now for a number of reasons. First, I feel there’s still a thorn in the side of many Egyptians because we were absent from yet another World Cup. With the benefit of hindsight, I simply hope that to better understand what happened to us this time can help us accept it more easily. Second, I feel that I still owe something in my own small way to Bob Bradley, who gave us so much. Finally, I hope the comparisons with Shawky Gharib will provide some timely commentary on what the future holds for us while we are on the threshold of AFCON 2015 qualifications.
3. When it’s someone’s opinion I’m echoing or someone’s reporting I’m burrowing from, I’ll always mention a source. But for statements I’ve heard or read in the news, I won’t mention sources for simplicity’s sake. But I guarantee they are all taken from audio/video recordings, in addition to some trustworthy websites. (This excludes an awful lot of Egyptian websites).
With that, we can now delve into the heart of the topic.
Next week, in Parts 2 to 4, I will review an assortment of general aspects of the Egypt-Bob Bradley adventure, most of which are off-the-field matters (but still have a connection to football). Part 5, to be published the week after, will have a more technical footballing focus.
Foer, F. (2004). How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization. New York: HarperCollins.