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|Egyptian national coach Bob Bradley was warned in advance to stay away from the match in Port Said.|
As Bob Bradley was preparing his schedule before the Egyptian Premier League's slate of games Wednesday, the decision about what matches to attend was pretty clear. With Al-Ahly playing 135 miles away in Port Said against Al-Masry, the head coach of Egypt's national team would watch the first half of that match on television, record the rest, and attend that evening's game in Cairo between Zamalek and Ismaily.
But if there was any doubt, that was erased during an exchange with an Egyptian journalist.
"He asked me if I was going to Port Said," said Bradley via telephone from Cairo. "Then he said, 'Don't go, because there might be problems there.'"
It could be argued that the journalist's warning wasn't all that farsighted. The fans of the two teams have clashed often in the past, and the political upheaval Egypt has undergone in the past year has been considerable, with now-former President Hosni Mubarak being driven from power almost a year ago. But little did Bradley know how prophetic those words would be. The violence that erupted at the end of the match cost at least 74 people their lives, with over 1,000 injured.
"You hear [a warning] like that, and then you see at halftime of that game the fireworks shot onto the field, and some supporters were on the field," Bradley said. "So there were some things that were going on that were concerning. But at the same time, none of that prepared you for the reports after the game that so many people lost their lives there that night. In so many cases it's young people."
As reports trickled in detailing the extent of the violence, the Zamalek-Ismaily match was abandoned at halftime. Bradley returned to his apartment and gleaned more details by watching television.
"I was totally saddened by everything that took place," he said.
Since then, matters have moved swiftly. Both the governor and police chief of Port Said province have resigned. Egyptian Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri has dissolved the board of the Egyptian Football Association. That has led to a flurry of questions surrounding the national team. Will Bradley be allowed to stay on? How will the preparations for the two friendlies and an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against the Central African Republic at the end of February be impacted. Will the games be allowed to go on?
But for Bradley, now isn't the time for such questions. His only concern at present is on the victims and their families.
We felt that it was important to be there with the people and show respect to the families of those who lost their lives.” -- Bradley on joining protesters at Sphinx Square
"When you take this kind of job, it's a great honor to be the national team coach and it's a great responsibility," he said. "And when there is a tragic event like this, the responsibility in that moment is to lead in a strong way to make sure that people know how you feel and to make sure that people know that you believe in the country and what you're trying to do here, and showing in a strong way the support for the people who deserve it: the families of those who died and for the teams and the players who were there at that time. That's the only focus for right now."
But lead is precisely what Bradley has done. Last month, in a separate interview with ESPN.com, Bradley noted that one cultural difference between Egypt and the U.S. is that stateside "there is a fairly direct way to get things done. Here, the direct path doesn't work as often."
But on Thursday he and his wife Lindsay made a powerful statement in a very direct way, joining a group of protesters at Sphinx Square. On the surface it's surprising that a public figure like Bradley would leave himself in such a vulnerable position. But clearly, the former U.S. national team manager has quickly grasped and embraced the cultural nuances of his new country.
"In all ways, since I've been here, the people really appreciate every little thing you do that they feel is good for the country," Bradley said. "When, at different times, we've visited the children's cancer hospital, or did some coaching clinic, when you participate in anything here, you'll hear it for days. People thank you for doing things that show that you and your family, that they enjoy living here, that you are proud to be here, you feel safe here, that you give back here. Whenever people see things that are for the good of the people, they go out of their way to show appreciation here.
That was the case at Sphinx Square. "We felt that it was important to be there with the people and show respect to the families of those who lost their lives. And it's a sign of support for the sadness that everybody in Egypt felt in that moment."
At some point, the matters affecting the national team will increase in focus. Already this season there have been games held without fans, and the league could return under those restrictions. Or the league could be shut down entirely, and an extended camp for national team players could be held.
Bradley said: "We'll wait and see how things develop in next few days, and from there what needs to be done moving forward with regards to national team."
Either way, Bradley will be leading from the front.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.