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Bob Bradley goes to Egypt

May 17, 2012, 2:29 PM EDT

Egypt's head coach Bob Bradley of the U.S. reacts during their friendly soccer match against RD Congo in Doha Reuters

That Bob Bradley is coaching the Egyptian national team is not news. That the team, the country, and the coach have been through a lot recently is also not news. But man, this piece by Wayne Drehs in ESPN The Magazine’s International Soccer issue really puts it all in perspective.

The story centers around the former United States coach’s relationship with Egyptian star Mohamed Aboutrika, “an aging superstar who commands respect, a hero to fans.” The “Smiling Assassin,” a key figure in the Port Siad tragedy, is nearing the end of his career. The American must decide whether to include the attacking force on the roster for an upcoming friendly.

Bradley leaves him off:

Aboutrika is crushed. He had dreamed of taking his country to the World Cup, and 2014 likely will be his last chance. He spends the first day after the news alone, fishing. The next day, when he emerges and the media shove cameras and tape recorders in his face, he praises Bradley and insists it is on himself to improve.

But in the days and weeks that follow, Bradley begins to second-guess his decision. He listens as other players gush about Aboutrika’s leadership. He walks the streets of Cairo, where nearly every fan he meets, from taxi drivers to schoolchildren, pleads with him: “Aboutrika! Aboutrika! Must have Aboutrika!” During this stretch, Aboutrika’s play improves. Seven days after New Year’s, he comes on at the half of an Al Ahly match against German giant Bayern Munich and slices a pass through a trio of defenders that sets up an equalizing goal. The more Bradley considers it, the more he believes he has made a mistake.

On the evening of Feb. 1, Bradley sits before the television in his Cairo apartment to watch Al Ahly’s match against Al Masry in Port Said. He keeps an eye on Aboutrika; Bradley plans to meet him in the coming days to talk about the national team.

Disaster strikes that game, dramatically altering the lives of two men and the country they call home. What follows is heartbreaking and heartwarming all at the same time, and Drehs expertly chronicles the narrative.

But enough from me. Just go read it. (And there’s also another massively long feature from Drehs.)

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