|Al Ahly players run for the changing rooms during a pitch invasion at Port Said that led to the deaths of 74 people [EPA]
Al Jazeera’s Paul Rhys speaks to the Egyptian national football team’s American coach, Bob Bradley, about the tragedy at a match in Port Said on February 1 that left 74 people dead and more than a thousand injured.
The invasion of the pitch after Al Masry beat Al Ahly 3-1 was initially assumed to be by fans gloating at their victory – and then as the sort of violent incident that has scarred global football for decades.
But accusations have since been levelled elsewhere. One such is that the violence was a conspiracy against Al Ahly’s hardcore support, the Ultras Ahlawy, who along with fans of other clubs provided much of the muscle as revolution swept Egypt in 2011.
Bradley, the former U.S. national coach who succeeded the venerated Hassan Shehata as Egypt coach last year, says that any idea that this was regular football violence can be dismissed, and describes his hopes that Egyptian football can recover from the tragedy.
The 53-year-old, who told Al Jazeera on Monday that he was committed to his position, also praises the role of football fans in the revolution, and hopes that Ahly players who have retired from football since being caught up in the killings at Port Said can one day play again for the national team.
Al Jazeera: What was your initial reaction to the violence in Port Said (Bradley and his coaches were at the Zamalek v Ismaily game that was later called off)?
When we sat down afterwards it became clear to us that this was not about fan violence, as much of the original coverage referred to it as. This wasn’t just fans losing control. This has all the markings of a setup, of a massacre, and with it there’s been many levels of questions that have been asked, and that’s why in the last few days there has again been confrontation in and around Tahrir Square.
|Bradley is surrounded by reporters as he arrives in Cairo to sign as Egypt coach last year [EPA]
Young people are again making their feelings known about the situation in the country and what has happened since the revolution. It’s on all these levels that this has been discussed and understood – that it is 100 per cent the case that this is way more than just a situation regarding fan violence.
How have the events at Port Said sunk in for you in the past five days?
I think like everyone in Egypt we feel incredible sadness at this tragic event. In a country where there’s such passion for football, to see so many young people lose their lives at a football match – words can’t possibly describe that.
Al Ahly is an amazing club with such support. These young people, the Ultras Ahlawy, have also played such an important driving role in what’s been happening in Egypt in the last year. In many countries there’s a connection between football and politics but none more so than Egypt.
I went with my wife to the memorial, and when you see the fans and their outpouring of grief, when you have the chance to see the players, knowing what took place in the stadium…the first days have all been about the respect for those young people and their families, and secondly of course what it means for the football community and for the country.
Some of the Al Ahly players who also play for Egypt – Mohamed Aboutrika, Emad Moteab and Mohamed Barakat – say they will never play again. Given what happened, how do you even begin to try and address that?
We have tremendous respect for what the players experienced, and it’s totally understandable when initially they have a feeling that they now want to retire from the game.
We need to get a sense from the players who experienced what took place, who were in the locker room where injured fans were taken when there was no proper first aid, and where in some cases players saw people lose their lives right in front of them. This is an experience that it will take everyone a while to get past, and it’s in this sense that we’re asking about what will happen with the Africa Cup of Nations qualifier (in the Central African Republic on February 29).
But the players I mention are all very good players, and more importantly are very good people. No player in Egypt is held in higher regard than Mohamed Aboutrika – he means so much to football and not just because of his achievements on the field. He’s a man of tremendous character – it has come through time and time again. Over time there will be the opportunity to talk to all those players and figure out what is best to do.
After you played Brazil in Doha in your first match last year, you told me about the strength of Egypt’s football culture. It sounds like you now have a real affection for the Egyptian people.
Since I got to Egypt, and since my wife joined me and my daughters visited, people have welcomed us in such an incredible way. Egyptians are proud of their country, proud of their culture, and that also means they are incredibly proud of their football.
“We need to get a sense from the players who experienced what took place, who were in the locker room where injured fans were taken, and where in some cases players saw people lose their lives right in front of them”
Bob Bradley, Egypt coach
I was well aware of their passion for football. That played a large part in my understanding of what a unique opportunity it was to become the national team coach – that and the history of Egyptian football, especially under Hassan Shehata and three Africa Cups of Nations in a row.
When you put all that together, there’s the link that the hope people have here, the hope that young people have for their country – it is linked to their hope for the national team and the World Cup in 2014.
There’s always been an understanding that to be the national team coach here is a great honour, and I understood from the beginning that it was a tremendous responsibility, and that responsibility becomes even more defined when there’s a tragedy like the one in Port Said.
In these moments it’s important to have leaders in any area – whether it’s a community leader or a government leader or a football coach. It’s your ability to help people be strong and to try to find the right way and the right time to never forget what happened, but to be able to move forward.
The dissolution of the Egyptian football association by the government brings with it the threat of Egypt’s national team being banned from competition by FIFA. Have you been able to take any practical steps to try and prevent this?
I’m aware of some of the different decisions to be made but clearly we (the coaches) are on the technical side, so we’re waiting to see how these things pan out.
We’re also waiting to see exactly what people have in mind for the national league, when it will start up again, if it will start up again, and if it will be played with or without fans. It will be our responsibility to find the right way forward as a national team.