The Throw-In: Bradley to Egypt would be a historic feat
Although the deal isn't officially done yet as of Thursday evening, all indications point to Bob Bradley set to sign a contract that will make him the new manager of the Egyptian national team. An official announcement may not come until Saturday, but one there is one definite statement we can make right now:
This would be the biggest thing that has ever happened to a coach born and bred in the American game.
It’s bigger than any trophy position at a major European club, it’s bigger than an established national team job and it’s far, far bigger than his last gig in charge of the US national team.
And that’s ironic, considering there were so many fans who were hoping that Bradley would become the first American manager in the English Premier League or in the Mexican Primera División.
This is bigger. This new challenge would be the grandest possible endorsement of Bradley’s accomplishments. It is the last frontier in every way, a more herculean task than any position Bradley could have found anywhere in the world, at the club or international level.
First, the obvious: The former MLS Coach of the Year would become only the third American ever to coach a national team outside the US, and the first to lead one outside of CONCACAF. These are uncharted waters, and speak to the level of respect Bradley garnered during his five years in charge of the USMNT.
But Egypt is no Costa Rica to build from the ground up — it is an established power that is highly decorated within arguably the toughest federation in the world to coach. Africa is notorious for importing foreign coaches who fail disastrously because of their lack of understanding of how things work in countries where priorities, politics and a sense of urgency are completely alien.
Africa is a place where accomplished European coaches — the likes of Henri Michel, Carlos Queiroz, Carlos Alberto Perreira, Sven-Göran Eriksson, even Bora Milutinovic — have brought in their pedigree and supposed disciplined approach, yet fell short of translating it. That’s the precedent Bradley would have to battle.
“He’s so way out of his comfort zone, it’s frightening,” noted African soccer journalist Mark Gleeson told MLSsoccer.com by phone on Thursday. “This is a place where he’ll tell them to go left, and the entire troop goes right. Things happen in African football that are unfathomable.”
On the pitch itself, Bradley’s challenge will be just as immense: Rebuild the most successful program in African history. After a near decade of dominance under the predecessor, Hassan Shehata, the Pharaohs have begun to stagnate. The generation of impact players that guided Egypt to three straight African Cup of Nations titles has become long in the tooth.
Perhaps where Shehata failed was in lacking the foresight to see beyond his Golden Generation that included established stars and fan favorites. As a result, the Pharaohs disastrously failed to qualify for the 2012 Cup of Nations and will miss the tournament for the first time in 30 years.
Here Bradley would get a unique opportunity to put his own stamp on the team: Utilize the existing strength of the system and integrate youth into it. Eliminated in ACN qualifying, Egypt have begun fielding their Under-23 side that will attempt to qualify for next summer’s Olympics in London, starting in December.
How the former US manager would get to know his new players in a foreign country — where he doesn’t speak the language and must learn the nuances of a vastly different system — and how he deploys them will be one of the biggest tests of his 35 years of coaching acumen.
Fortunately, this is where Bradley’s reputation comes into play. Nearly all Egyptian fans were impressed with the US’ performance in dispatching Egypt from the 2009 Confederations Cup — really, Bradley’s best three-game stretch of his entire tenure — and they respect what he could bring to their team.
“Bradley [did] an excellent job of giving structure and routine to the American national team,” one Cairo resident observed on Wednesday to a friend of mine currently living in the Egyptian capital. “They are like soldiers in the military. They are strong. The Egyptian team does not have structure or routine, they are chaotic. They have skill, more skill than the American team, but they need a routine to build their strength."
One of Bradley’s former charges from that ’09 Confed Cup team thinks there’s plenty to work with.
“There’s some guys with a lot of size, there’s some guys with good athleticism and, I think in watching them play over the years, when they play together, they’re a good team,” Vancouver Whitecaps captain Jay DeMerit told MLSsoccer.com last weekend. “Hopefully Bob can make them better.”
But the biggest challenge of all is winning over the Egyptian public. Like many countries experiencing political upheaval, soccer is the best and most popular diversion in Egypt. Bradley would have to do enough to convince fans that their team is worth following despite him being a distrusted American, despite the team's current ebb, and despite what many perceived as the players' support of deposed former president Hosni Mubarak.
For a country that has been through hell and back during their revolution over the past 10 months, soccer can be the best salve to heal wounds that are still very raw. Hundreds literally died for their cause. Egypt could use something else to cheer for. No pressure there.
Will Bradley be the savior? Can he win over an Arab nation? Can he become the first foreign coach to lead Egypt to glory in the modern era — and the first coach, period, to lead the Pharaohs back to the World Cup for the first time since 1990? Only time will tell.
But what is clear is that, all of a sudden, whether Bradley succeeds will have a huge bearing on other opportunities for American coaches abroad. He is carrying the responsibility for all of American soccer, as well as MLS.
“The irony of American soccer is that, going back to the NASL days, the US was an importer of the world’s finest talent,” Gleeson noted. “MLS had those marquee players when it started as well. Now, in effect, you’re exporting your first marquee coach.”
Over to you, Bob.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. "The Throw-In" appears every Thursday.