Egypt's new head coach has a unique set of challenges both on and off the field.
For those who've may have lost touch with the significance of the term, I'd like to offer an alternative definition:
1. The act of globalizing, or extending to other or all parts of the world. Ex: the globalization of manufacturing.
2. Worldwide integration and development. Ex: Globalization has resulted in the loss of some individual cultural identities.
3. An American coaching a Middle Eastern country's national soccer team.
Former U.S. coach Bob Bradley's hiring by Egypt is a huge step forward for American soccer, but leaving it at that fails to recognize its cultural and global significance.
In purely soccer terms, Bradley's appointment is a validation of the growth of the American game. Only twice before has a U.S.-born coach been in charge of a foreign national team, and never before at this high-profile of a job. (Steve Sampson with Costa Rica from 2002 to 2004 and Bill Moravek with the British Virgin Islands in 2000 are the others)
Egypt has won three consecutive African Cup of Nations championships, but won’t have a chance to win a fourth straight after shockingly failing to even qualify for next year’s competition. Outside of its home continent, the nation has failed to make much of an impact, appearing in just two World Cups in its history, and none since 1990.
Make no mistake, though. Despite Egypt not qualifying for AFCON 2012, this is a high-profile position with a traditional soccer power ranked as high as ninth in the world by FIFA as recently as 2010.
Beyond the soccer pitch, the implications of Bradley’s appointment are hard to ignore.
Bradley enters a country and a region in a transition. It’s been less than a year since the world was introduced to the “Arab Spring”, a series of uprisings and revolutions across the Arab world. So far, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have experienced wholesale regime changes, while protests and violence continue in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen. Nearly every other Middle Eastern country has experienced some form of protest or attempted uprising.
Bradley's hiring can be viewed as a manifestation of the new democratic attitude starting to develop within the region. His selection to lead Egypt’s soccer team was not due to any outside loyalties he may have had (former coach Hassan Shehata was an avowed supporter of deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak), but simply because he was the best candidate. Egypt’s ruling military is currently attempting to organize a democratic election that will determine the next leader of the country in much the same fashion.
Although the United States’ relationship with Egypt is relatively strong, this is still an American coaching a national side in the most virulent anti-American region in the world. That’s progress on a level reaching far beyond the soccer pitch.
Culturally, compared to his experience coaching the United States, Bradley might as well be coaching the intergalactic all-star team from the planet Volta.
Shehata, the last coach of Egypt's national soccer team, once said he only wanted players on his team that were Muslim. When his name was linked with the Israel national team job, he said he would rather die of hunger than coach the Israeli team.
Bradley, an American, likely doesn't care what religion his players are, and presumably would take a position with Israel instead of succumbing to starvation.
The United States and Mexico have a nice little rivalry, but it’s like a rec-league derby compared to Egypt and Algeria, two North African countries with decades of bad blood between them.
Two years ago, the two countries met in a playoff for a berth in the 2010 World Cup. Algeria’s team bus was attacked by Egyptian fans in Cairo, injuring four Algerian players. Violence in both Egypt and Algeria continued throughout the two-leg tied, which was won by Algeria and ended with riots at the Algerian embassy in Cairo.
Many of the same Egypt supporters involved in these clashes were at the forefront of the Egyptian revolution last winter. These highly politicized ultras are deeply distrustful of the Egyptian Football Association, which many viewed and continue to view as an organization sympathetic to Mubarak. They will initially give Bradley the benefit of the doubt, but every word, every action, every move he makes will be under the microscope.
These supporters groups are still heavily involved in the Egyptian reformation process, as demonstrations and protests continue against the current ruling military for their failure to adopt changes and organize elections in a timely fashion.
The same groups form the backbone of the country’s soccer supporters. If Bradley doesn’t stay in their good graces, he’ll face a backlash that will render meaningless any kind of negative reaction he got from the American Outlaws for, say, starting Jonathan Bornstein.
On the pitch, Bradley will face a huge task: Rebuild a traditional soccer power’s program and qualify for its first World Cup in 24 years.
Off the pitch, he faces an even bigger challenge: Adapt to an African nation still in turmoil from a recent revolution, and bridge the gap between the West and the Middle East, all while treading a dangerously thin line between politics and sport.
In the end, how he deals with the latter set of issues may be more important than how he manages the former.
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