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The Egypt-Bob Bradley Adventure in Review: Part 4
This is Part 4 of a five-part series. Part 1 served as an introduction. This week, in Parts 2, 3 & 4, I 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 later on this week, will have a more technical footballing focus.
I continue in this part to look at some of the difficulties Bradley faced and the ways in which he addressed them…
7. A strong mentality
Despite having only a small handful of Europe-based players to rely on (see Section 6 here), Bradley has managed to instill an outstanding mentality in his players in three key areas: tenacity to score and win games after conceding, lack of complacency against inferior sides, and playing away with performances equal to (and in some cases better than) the ones given at home. Regarding the team’s tenacity, Bradley’s influence is clear when we see that in official matches, in 8 out of 11 instances in which we conceded a critical goal (one that brought our opponents level or put them ahead), we were then able to make a comeback to the initial result. As for playing away, this has been an embarrassing aspect for Egypt in the past. We usually failed to put two passes together in most of our away games. Our football used to be terribly random in fixtures such as in Zambia or in Niger. This and our habit of complacency against minions were the two main factors leading to our failure in both 2010 World Cup and 2012 AFCON qualifiers. Bradley has taken this aspect and turned it completely on its head. It must have required a lot of work with the players because for the first time in forever, we could be seen playing attractive on-the-ground football with style and identity no matter where the game was held and no matter who we played. Ghana was the clear and painful exception. Bradley considered it the one time where the Egyptian mentality of “faltering when things weren’t going according to plan” had taken over. I would tend to agree. “We got off to a nervous start,” Bradley told KingFut. “For so many it was a lot of weight on their shoulders and they lost their ability to fight through it. For whatever reason that day it was too much for the group.”
The Gharib Comparison: Not applicable as no official fixtures have been played yet.
8. Africa’s play-offs
Play-offs can be very unreliable indicators of a side’s worth. Because only 90 to 180 minutes of football are used to determine the superior side of the contest, everywhere in the world, they are used only as a secondary measure after other means of qualification have failed. In European World Cup qualifiers for example, teams that fail to qualify directly as group winners but come second are given an additional, more uncertain chance to qualify through play-offs. Nowhere in the world are play-offs used as a required stage of competition. Nowhere except in Africa, as Bradley soon found out. His first task was to get us through AFCON 2013 qualifiers, and these consisted of two rounds of play-offs. We were eliminated from the first one. And then in 2014 World Cup qualifiers, “the Pharaohs finished the group stage a perfect 6-0-0, the only one of 40 entrants to do so. But the continent’s unforgiving competition format required each group winner to face another in a two-game play-off. Egypt drew Ghana, arguably Africa’s best team, and was effectively out of the World Cup after one bad match. No other World Cup hopeful faced such steep odds.” (Straus, 2013)
The Gharib Comparison: Gharib’s immediate mission is to get us back to the AFCON after a five-years absence. For the AFCON 2015 qualifications, teams were first divided into four different pots of decreasing strength according to their “CAF Ranking” (calculated based on a team’s performance in CAF competitions during the past four years). Then, to form a qualifying group, one team from each pot was randomly drawn. Egypt was one of the Pot 2 teams. We were not in Pot 1 because of our absence from both 2012 and 2013 AFCONs and we were not in a lower pot thanks to our excellent record in the 2010 AFCON and in 2014 WC qualifiers. In our group, Tunisia was drawn from Pot 1, Senegal from Pot 3 and Botswana from Pot 4. Group winners and runner-ups are to qualify. Despite the seeming strength of our group, we actually could have fared much worse considering our Pot 2 placement. Tunisia is ranked 7th out of 7 Pot 1 teams while Senegal is 6th out of 7 Pot 3 teams. So we can count ourselves lucky this time.
9. A disregard for FIFA rankings
The way FIFA rankings are computed makes them a mathematical joke that is such an inaccurate indicator of a team’s performances, it’s not even funny. For example, in some instances, even winning a friendly can decrease your overall ranking! So there’s no good reason to pay any attention to FIFA’s rankings except for one: FIFA does. FIFA uses them when performing any draw, and that makes them of paramount importance in dictating the paths of teams at tournaments and their qualifiers. They have a direct hand in boosting certain teams’ chances at the expense of others. In fact, if I were to make a list of reasons for which we didn’t make this year’s World Cup, I would put “FIFA rankings” at number one. We can talk all day about footballing mistakes in Kumasi, Ghana, but the fact remains that we deserved to contest our ticket to Brazil against a more manageable opponent than Ghana. We deserved it because, in normal circumstances, our perfect record in the group stage of qualifiers would have been enough to put us among Africa’s top five teams, to be seeded as a Pot 1 team in the play-off draw and to meet a weaker Pot 2 opposition. But that didn’t happen. The reason had nothing to do with our worth as a team and everything to do with technicalities. Our neglect of the way friendly matches impact FIFA rankings led us to narrowly miss out on a Pot 1 placement and we ended up as Africa’s 6th best in FIFA’s book, to be drawn from Pot 2 against a strong Pot 1 team.
FIFA’s rankings are an admittedly convoluted system to navigate. Bradley’s opinion of them was clear when he said they “are difficult to predict. I understand there are a lot of formulas involved.” He considered them one more distraction to his work, which was to constantly make his team better at football. Friendlies were seen as a means to achieve this goal and never as must-wins. With that in mind, he would often field B or C teams in friendlies played outside FIFA dates, trying to counteract local players’ lack of match fitness resulting from the stop-start league. We would go on to lose many of these friendlies and every loss was registered by FIFA with a deduction of points. Following some of these losses, Zaki Abdel-Fattah was heard on TV saying that the games were outside FIFA’s calendar so they won’t count, and if they did, we wouldn’t have played them. He was wrong. They counted. It’s a common misconception that assumes FIFA is more sensible than it is – that it wouldn’t count games clearly contested by B teams. But searching through FIFA regulations, I found an interesting fact: if both parties disputing a friendly agree beforehand that they don’t want their match to count towards FIFA rankings, it won’t count. If that was known to Bradley or to the FA prior to playing Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Qatar and Tunisia with an incomplete team, much leakage of Egypt’s FIFA points could have been prevented. In the end, we were 33 FIFA points short of entering Pot 1. To give a perspective of how narrow that was: we would have had the required points only if our friendly with Tunisia was made not to count or if we had beaten Tunisia (we lost that game 1-0 despite being the better team throughout the 90 minutes).
FIFA’s nonsensical rankings made things difficult for Egypt, but Bradley and the FA also have to shoulder part of the blame for not being more attentive to the concerns voiced in the media at the time about our ranking and for not trying to use FIFA’s system to our advantage.
The Gharib Comparison: Whose responsibility should it be to provide the mathematical background for a football team? I don’t know but I’m certainly sure every team needs one, and so does Shawky Gharib. Rabie Yassin’s U-20 team faced a similar mathematical slip-up in Turkey that made the team think they had qualified to the 2nd round for a few moments. They celebrated, wasting precious minutes they could have spent trying to get the needed third goal against England. Even in a great team like Manchester City, Manuel Pelligrini last year admitted that he thought his team needed 2 more goals against Bayern Munich to top the group when in fact it needed just one. It seems that maths is a recurring problem. During Bradley’s time, We Global Football published a report on what Egypt should do to improve its FIFA ranking ahead of the playoff draw. It was ignored. Should it really be the media’s responsibility though? I fear that in the future, Shawky Gharib might pay a similar price to the one Bradley paid, defeating all of his hard work with the team.