In November 2011, former U.S. manager Bob Bradley made his debut as coach of Egypt’s national team. Less than three months later, the violence at Port Said Stadium plunged Egyptian football into turmoil. Two new documentary films look at Bradley’s tenure as manager of the Pharaohs, as the team tried to win a place in the World Cup finals without a functioning top league in the country, all set against the political upheaval in the wake of the Egyptian Revolution. Alon Raab gives his review.
The connections between football and social change are longstanding and deep. Recently the game has played an essential role in the revolts that swept the Arab world, with fans and players at the forefront of the struggles for democracy and justice. Two just-released films, Hossam Aboul-Magd’s American Pharaoh and Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker’s We Must Go, offer glimpses into these momentous events through the lens of American Bob Bradley’s two-year tenure as coach of the Egyptian national team, known as the Pharaohs.
Both films were several years in the making. The first day of American Pharoah’s filming, February 1, 2012, coincided with the Port Said stadium massacre in which 79 fans, mostly Al-Ahly supporters, were killed by Al-Masry fans and security forces. Unsettled by these events, Aboul-Magd considered returning to his home in the U.S. As he put it in our recent conversation about the film, “Even for an Egyptian like me the situation was too scary – this was not the country in which I grew and which I love. But when I spoke to Coach Bradley and his wife Lindsay and saw their courage and determination, I stayed.”
Nonetheless, for reasons of safety Aboul-Magd chose to do the film without a large crew that would have attracted attention. Thus he interviewed, filmed, recorded sound, and edited on his own, with Sandy Petrykowski, his American wife, co-producing the film. As dramatic events unfolded, such as the torching of the football federation building by ultras angry over close ties between the administrators and the hated regime, Aboul-Magd was there. Through careful observation and strategic use of contacts, he learned to be at the right place at the right time to witness events unfold and capture them with his camera.
Walker and LaMattina also cover these political events (as well as the World Cup qualifying matches). But in addition to Bradley, they focus on several other characters: Mohamed Aboutrika, leader of the team, chosen four times as Africa’s best player, and a devout Muslim; Mohamed Salah, the young star of FC Basel (and currently playing for Chelsea), whom Bradley mentored; Yasmin, sister of Karim Khouzan, an Al Ahly Ultras fan who died during the Port Said match; and activist Ahmed Sameh.
“American Pharaoh” was a title given to Bradley, an American in a region where Americans are not always welcome, who like the ancient Pharaoh was supposed to protect and guide his people. Bradley, whose previous coaching experience includes several MLS teams and the United States men’s national team, was faced with obstacles not normally associated with coaching a national team: no regular league games, matches held without any fans, the football association’s offices being set on fire in protest of the release of policemen who had been charged with the death of fans, and even a military coup.
While his players were united on the pitch, sharing the dream of reaching the World Cup, there were ongoing political tensions between players. Aboutrika, for instance, was a strong supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, while other players supported the youth movements that were active during the revolts, and members of the medical staff tended to back the deposed President Mubarak. Though the team failed to reach the World Cup finals in Brazil, both films provide a portrait of Bradley as a wise and inspiring coach, attuned to his players’ needs, who did the best job possible under very difficult circumstances.
Over the course of the films we also observe Bob and his wife Lindsay, a loving and close couple, in various social settings – being welcomed warmly in the market, a restaurant, and poor neighborhoods, with Egyptians responding to the obvious respect the Bradleys exhibit. Moving scenes show the couple participating in a memorial in honor of the Port Said dead and visiting bereaved family members. The films also succeed in giving the ultras a face, presenting this often maligned group of fans as thoughtful individuals with an agenda to change their society for the better.
Despite their similar subject matter, the films differ somewhat in focus. Aboul-Magd places greater emphasis on Bradley’s personal journey, while the two American directors devote considerable time to the story of several Egyptians who are also involved with the national team and immersed in the game. Both films succeed in presenting the story of a coach and a national team. In painting a portrait of a country in transition, the films reveal a nation beset by deep ideological rifts but united by its passion for football.
In the same spirit, it was a passion for football that inspired the creation of these films. Choosing the subject of football for his latest documentary came naturally to Aboul-Magd, who studied media journalism at the American University in Cairo and has worked as a TV journalist for the past two decades. As he told me in our conversation, “I am crazy about football, have played the game all my life and still play at age 42. When I read about Coach Bradley accepting the management of my country’s national team I was intrigued by this interesting subject.”
Walker and LaMattina also came to their topic through football, which plays a central role in several of their earlier films, despite being unfamiliar with Egyptian society and history when they started work on We Must Go. Because of this lack of expertise and their status as Americans, the filmmakers were initially worried that they would be viewed as outsiders. During our conversation they spoke of approaching the film as a process of discovery and growth. When interacting with their subjects, Walker and LaMattina asked what people would wish the film to carry from their experiences and what they would like to tell. “We hope we did justice to those we met,” Walker said.
Walker also noted that when he and LaMattina first arrived, they felt hopeful about the possibilities of change. But after witnessing the deaths of fans and experiencing political repression, this hope diminished. Nonetheless, the filmmakers left the country cautiously optimistic after meeting Egyptians and seeing their unbroken spirits, despite the many hardships and great odds they faced. This hope for a better future and willingness to work towards that goal is expressed most clearly in We Must Go by the teenager Yasmin, who plans on becoming a journalist in order to change things for the better.
These days, the national team is coached by an Egyptian, Shawky Gharib, and the Egyptian Premier League is again functioning – but stadiums are still far from tranquil. Fans have been barred from several games, and tensions between ultras and football and state authorities are still high. The recent assassination attempt on Mortada Mansour, president of Cairo’s Zamalek club, and the arrest of several members of the Ultras White Knights as suspects are but two examples of the challenges that Egyptian football and society still face.
PBS – 2014 – 60 min. – Dir: Hossam Aboul-Magd
Copper Pot Pictures – 2014 – 95 min. – Dir: Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker
Alon Raab teaches religious studies at UC Davis. He is editor of the books The Global Game: Writers on Soccer and Soccer in the Middle East, and he has written several articles and essays on soccer, cycling, religion, and politics in the Middle East.