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As chaos hits Egypt, coach from US gives all

Soccer team sets World Cup goal

Egypt’s coach, New Jersey native Bob Bradley, is well aware of how politics has been entwined with soccer, and has been trying to keep the players focused on the game.

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/Associated Press

Egypt’s coach, New Jersey native Bob Bradley, is well aware of how politics has been entwined with soccer, and has been trying to keep the players focused on the game.

CAIRO — Egypt’s national soccer team often plays to empty stadiums these days, under orders from security forces. Some of the players don’t get paid. And recently, many team members got stranded at Cairo’s airport by the 7 p.m. curfew.

In a time of revolution, even Egypt’s beloved soccer stars have suffered from violence and economic crisis. Now, an unusual figure — an American — is trying to hold the team together in its improbable quest to qualify for the World Cup despite a military crackdown that has divided the country.

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‘‘Inside our team, clearly not everyone sees things the same way,’’ said Bob Bradley, who became Egypt’s coach two years ago after managing the US men’s national soccer team. ‘‘Like everywhere in Egypt, that means there are discussions and disagreements. But inside the team, there’s still a strong bond.’’

The stakes for the Pharaohs, as the team is known, go well beyond a few soccer games. The squad has vaulted into the final stage of qualifying for the World Cup, a tournament that Egypt hasn’t reached for nearly a quarter-century.

Winning one of the 32 berths in the 2014 tournament could rally a nation rent by politics and religion, where more than 1,000 people have been killed since the military deposed an unpopular elected government on July 3.

‘‘The national team is the only thing that unites all Egyptians,’’ said a fan, pharmacologist Marwan Mohammad, 28, who attended a recent match between two domestic teams, Al Ahly and Shibin.

In this soccer-mad nation, the national pastime has long been more than just a sport. Toward the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign, hard-core soccer fans known as ‘‘ultras’’ often skirmished with police, a sign of how Egyptians were chafing under authoritarian rule.

The ultras of Al Ahly turned into the toughest defenders of Tahrir Square during the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak, and soccer diehards have played a role in demonstrations since then.

Bradley, a New Jersey native with a no-nonsense manner, is well aware of how politics has been entwined with soccer in Egypt. He has been trying to keep the national team from getting sucked into the fray.

‘‘This is a difficult period, a tough time in the country,’’ said Bradley, still muscular and fit at 55, in a blue Nike T-shirt, shorts, and sneakers, as he sat in a cafe overlooking the
Nile one recent afternoon. ‘‘Throughout all of that, we always tried to talk [with players] about the fact that during this period, we had a chance to do something special, something that was important to everyone in Egypt, and that we had a big responsibility.’’

Just months after Bradley started his job, he got a taste of how political tensions could flare in Egyptian soccer. In February 2012, Al Ahly fans were attacked by ultras of their rival, Al-Masry, in the Suez Canal city of Port Said.

Police looked on impassively as at least 74 people were killed with knives and clubs. Al Ahly fans claimed police allowed the bloodbath in revenge for the ultras’ role in bringing down Mubarak, a charge denied by the government.

Bradley met several of his players at a memorial service for the victims a few days later. ‘‘The emotion, the look on their faces told the story,’’ he said.

Bradley had players on both teams. He counseled his men to get over their anger, honoring the dead but maintaining their responsibility to their team and country. One of his stars, Al Ahly midfielder Mohammed Aboutrika, initially threatened to quit, but backed down.

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