The crucible in Cairo
Bob Bradley moved to a country in turmoil and found his way with its biggest star
This story appears in the May 28 World Football Issue of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!
THE BOY IS DYING. He lies on his back on squares of sparkling white tile in the Al Ahly locker room, fighting for every last second. Mohamed Aboutrika, the most beloved player in Egyptian soccer, rushes to him, kneels down and takes the boy in his arms.
A postgame riot has brought the two together. The chaos on this February night in Port Said began moments after the match between Cairo's Al Ahly and its rival, Al Masry, as fans set upon one another with rocks, broken bottles and knives. When the stadium lights mysteriously flickered off, the riot police chose to stand by. The result will be the most gruesome tragedy in Egyptian soccer history: 74 dead. A thousand-plus injured. Millions outraged.
Some of the wounded rush to the Al Ahly locker room for help. It soon resembles a MASH unit: Injured and dying are everywhere, at players' lockers and in the hall. The dead lie on the floor amid duffel bags and dirty socks.
At the center of it all is Aboutrika. Al Ahly is Egypt's version of the Yankees; Aboutrika is Derek Jeter, an aging superstar who commands respect, a hero to fans. The dying boy on the sparkling white tile is one of them. He wants to see Aboutrika, touch him, so the player leans closer as the astonished boy says, "Captain."
A FEW MONTHS EARLIER, in a well-furnished Cairo office, a group of coaches mentions Aboutrika's name over and over. They are trying to decide whether he fits on Egypt's national team. The eyes in the room keep returning to Bob Bradley.
In 2010, Bradley coached the U.S. to the round of 16 at the World Cup, but he couldn't build on that success and was dismissed in July 2011. He then agreed to the unthinkable: to become the national coach in postrevolution Egypt. The jarring nature of the transition is as obvious as the 12 nails that still poke out of Bradley's Cairo office wall, nails that once held photos of ousted president Hosni Mubarak posing with Egyptian teams of the past.
Bradley and his staff want to add to the roster for a friendly against Brazil, Bradley's first match coaching Egypt. One decision, they know, will carry more weight than any other.
A 33-year-old attacking midfielder, the man known as the Smiling Assassin, Aboutrika is unlike most any other professional athlete. Cerebral, with a philosophy degree, Aboutrika once took a pay cut rather than earn more than a teammate he felt was equally valuable. In 2008, he became an Arab world hero when, after scoring in the Africa Cup of Nations, he lifted his jersey to reveal a shirt that read, "Sympathize with Gaza." His motive wasn't anti-Israeli or anti-Zionist, he would later say, just a public plea to stop ignoring a place plagued by poverty. Aboutrika received a yellow card for the display, and the Confederation of African Football scolded the move, but millions of
others loved it, with one Egyptian columnist referring to him as a "noble knight."
Egyptian assistant coach Zak Abdel says that a year ago, when hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square to overthrow Mubarak, the government begged Aboutrika to tell everyone to go home. He refused and instead went to the square the day Mubarak resigned.
"If he would have done what he was asked, there probably wouldn't have been a revolution," Abdel says. "People have that much respect for him."
Cerebral, with a philosophy degree, Aboutrika once took a pay cut rather than earn more than a teammate he felt was equally valuable.
On the field, Aboutrika is the beating heart of an Egypt squad that won an unprecedented three straight Africa Cup of Nations titles, in 2006, 2008 and 2010. Bradley had personally witnessed his role at the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa, when the U.S. beat Egypt 3-0. "I knew he was a player they relied on," Bradley says. "A player whose pure ability at certain moments to make the right choice, the right pass, the right play, made the difference."
But Aboutrika is older now. The talk in Bradley's office is of a need to develop younger players. Aboutrika is a born leader, they agree, but a calf injury has limited him to just three starts in Al Ahly's first six matches of the season, and his play was pedestrian. The more Bradley and his coaches talk, the more they think Aboutrika doesn't belong. When Bradley releases the roster, Aboutrika's name isn't on it.
The country goes into a state of shock: Is its hero done? Every media personality wants to know why Bradley left Aboutrika off the lineup.
"I understood he had been an important player," Bradley says. "But this was a group that made sense."
Aboutrika is crushed. He had dreamed of taking his country to the World Cup, and 2014 likely will be his last chance. He spends the first day after the news
alone, fishing. The next day, when he emerges and the media shove cameras and tape recorders in his face, he praises Bradley and insists it is on himself to improve.
But in the days and weeks that follow, Bradley begins to second-guess his decision. He listens as other players gush about Aboutrika's leadership. He walks the streets of Cairo, where nearly every fan he meets, from taxi drivers to schoolchildren, pleads with him: "Aboutrika! Aboutrika! Must have Aboutrika!" During this stretch, Aboutrika's play improves. Seven days after New Year's, he comes on at the half of an Al Ahly match against German giant Bayern Munich and slices a pass through a trio of defenders that sets up an equalizing goal. The more Bradley considers it, the more he believes he has made a mistake.
On the evening of Feb. 1, Bradley sits before the television in his Cairo
apartment to watch Al Ahly's match against Al Masry in Port Said. He keeps an eye on Aboutrika; Bradley plans to meet him in the coming days to talk about the national team.
THE UNQUESTIONED KING of African soccer, Al Ahly has won six CAF championships to go with 36 Egyptian Premier League titles. In 2007, with Egypt slipping into political turmoil, a faction of Al Ahly's most diehard fans established themselves as the Ultras Ahlawy. Antigovernment sentiment was soaring, and the Ultras Ahlawy ranks swelled with young men looking to release their frustrations. Soon the dual causes of supporting Al Ahly and ending Mubarak's reign were inseparable. "Down with the regime," they chanted in the stands. Throughout Cairo, they spray-painted "ACAB" or "All Cops Are Bastards." On Jan. 25, 2011, a holiday commemorating national police forces, the Ultras Ahlawy joined with fans of crosstown rival Zamalek SC, known as the Ultras White Knights, to march together in a violent protest of Mubarak. Two days later, the Egyptian government suspended the Premier League season to keep club supporters from congregating against it. Still, during riots of the Arab Spring, the Ultras Ahlawy provided the muscle, again standing foremost with the Ultras White Knights to fight Mubarak security forces in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
Against that backdrop, the Ultras Ahlawy came to Port Said on the first of February. Before the match, one Al Masry fan wrote online that Al Ahly's supporters should just buy one-way tickets: They wouldn't be returning home. Another fan went on Facebook and said that the Al Ahly faithful should be sure to leave a will for their mothers. Such rhetoric -- usually quelled by ever-present security forces -- is common in Egypt. What happened next is not.
Watching on television, Bradley senses something isn't right with the match. Aboutrika seems distracted -- the whole Al Ahly team does. During pregame,
Al Masry fans had shot fireworks at the Al Ahly players. After each of Al Masry's three goals, fans invade the pitch and have to be ordered back.
When the final whistle blows on Al Masry's 3-1 win, thousands of those fans jump onto the field and sprint toward the Al Ahly players and supporters. The players bolt for the locker room. Behind them, the match's riot police stand aside as the attackers climb into the stands and go after Al Ahly's fans. Some of them fight; others flee. Moments later, the stadium lights go dark. The Al Ahly supporters desperately trying to escape find the gate at the nearest exit inexplicably welded shut.
In the ensuing panic, fans trample one another. They hurl themselves against the closed gate, suffocating those already pressed against it. The thugs force Al Ahly fans up to the stadium's top row, where they jump or are thrown over the edge. Without knowing whom to trust, many of the injured seek refuge in the Al Ahly locker room. Doctors and trainers pour water on the faces of those who are unconscious, hoping to revive them. When they can't, the doctors lay the dead where space allows. Players wander around the room, some crying, others comforting the injured.
Aboutrika is furious. "This is not football," he yells in Arabic during a phone interview on the team's television channel. "This is a war. People are dying in front of us. There is no security and no ambulances. I call for the Premier League to be canceled. This is a horrible situation, and today can never be forgotten."
I have no doubt that this was not spontaneous and not coincidence -- but it got totally out of hand. I don't think anybody planned to kill 74 people.” -- James Dorsey
Soon a dying boy, 14 years old, is rushed into the locker room. He made the trip from Cairo to support his favorite club and to see his favorite player. He gasps for breath on the sparkling white tiles as Aboutrika comes over and cradles him.
"Captain, I've spent my life dying to meet you," the boy tells Aboutrika. "And now that I've met you, I know it is my time to die."
Aboutrika encourages the boy to repeat the Shahada, the Muslim testament of faith that declares an unquestioned belief in God and Muhammad. The boy does and a short time later stops breathing, still in Aboutrika's arms.
THE NEXT MORNING, the Egyptian Football Association suspends its Premier League season, eventually canceling it. Every member of the federation board -- the men who hired Bob Bradley -- resigns. Bradley and his wife, Lindsay, tell their families they're safe, but the riot affects the coach. "I've never seen him like that before," says Abdel, a longtime assistant to Bradley. "He was shocked. He didn't talk much. They said the number of dead on the TV, and he just shook his head." Adds Bradley: "It was a tragedy. So many young people losing their lives at a football match." Some media reports suggest the riot is only a case of brutal fan violence. Others hint at a government conspiracy, proposing that the country's military rulers
engineered the attack with the goal of undermining the Ultras and destroying their fearsome reputation with Egyptian revolutionaries.
"I have no doubt in my mind that this was not spontaneous and not coincidence -- but it also got totally out of hand," James Dorsey, an academician and author of the blog the Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, will say later. "I don't think anybody planned that they were going to kill 74 people." The day after the riot, Bradley marches with thousands in Sphinx Square to honor the victims. He and Lindsay donate an undisclosed amount of his salary to the grieving families. Then they join Abdel and other coaches for a memorial service at the Al Ahly headquarters. That's when they see Aboutrika.
He looks wounded, his gaze distant. Bradley and Abdel approach him; this is the first time Bradley has spoken to Aboutrika since accepting the job. But no one wants to discuss football. Aboutrika tells Bradley and Abdel that he wishes this nightmare weren't real.
"His mind just wasn't there," Abdel recalls. "It was like he was in a coma."
For the next couple of weeks, Aboutrika doesn't answer his cellphone; there are rumors that he has retired. He travels the country, attending as many of the funerals and visiting as many of the victims' families as he can. In March, on Egypt's Mother's Day, he hosts the families of all 74 victims -- more than 250 people -- at his home. He says he's committed to keeping in touch with those who lost loved ones.
"It is very hard to have young people die between your hands," Aboutrika says through an interpreter. "It's very difficult. All I could think about was how I could help these families and what I could do to help the people who had lost someone in this tragedy."
More than three weeks after Port Said, Al Ahly returns to the field, and
Aboutrika rejoins the team. Though the domestic season has been canceled, there are still international matches to prepare for. One day Bradley visits practice to meet with club officials and shake the hands of players. After a few weeks pass, Bradley quietly reaches out to Aboutrika to ask whether they can talk. Aboutrika agrees to a meeting in Bradley's Cairo apartment. "I will come to you, Coach," he says in Arabic.
Though Aboutrika understands English, the meeting is held in his native tongue. Abdel translates; Bradley senses that the player is nervous. But Aboutrika's message is clear: If Bradley wants to pick him for the national team because of public pressure, forget it. He isn't interested. But if Bradley thinks he can help the team, he wants nothing more than to again take the field for his country.
Bradley says he has given the decision a lot of thought. He'd love him for his team. The meeting ends with a hug.
ON MARCH 29, Aboutrika takes the field for the first time under Bradley's orders, in a friendly against Uganda. The match is played in Sudan because the Egyptian government refuses to secure games in Egypt. In the 92nd minute, with the game tied 1-1, Aboutrika connects on a cross, rises above a Ugandan defender and rockets a header past the diving keeper for a goal. Egypt 2, Uganda 1. A nation watching on television erupts in celebration.
In the locker room after the game, everyone smiles. This goal, on this night, is enough to momentarily veil the past and the daunting on-field challenges ahead: matches in June that begin a string of World Cup and Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers. Abdel walks over to Aboutrika and puts his hand on the midfielder's shoulder.
"Trika," Abdel says. "You needed this goal."
"Yes, Coach," he says in Arabic. "That's exactly how I feel."
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ESPN The Magazine: May 28, 2012