CAIRO (AP) — Two years ago, American coach Bob Bradley was brought to Egypt with much fanfare to help the national soccer team qualify for the World Cup amid political turmoil.
With Egypt still reeling from last week's 6-1 loss to Ghana in a World Cup playoff that all but ended the battered nation's hopes go to Brazil next year, much of the blame for a surprisingly one-sided defeat in the Ghanaian town of Kumasi has been pinned on Bradley.
It put the future of the former United States coach in doubt and raised speculation that he might not be with his team for the second match in Cairo because of fears over his safety.
The criticism was a far cry from Bradley's first year in Egypt.
Although he barely speaks Arabic, and was replacing a legend in former coach Hassan Shehata, fans and pundits have given him high grades. They have praised his technical skills, his experience and the commitment to returning Egypt to the World Cup for the first time in 24 years.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Bradley shrugged off criticism that ranges from accusations that he made bad lineup choices ahead of the Ghana match and failed to make tactical decisions and fortify Egypt's defense as his side was being hammered. The fans back home said the coach's mistakes humiliated the team.
"I am strong in these situations," Bradley said. "As a national coach you have some people on your side and some who are against you," he said. "I understand the disappointment. I see it when I see people in the street."
But sometimes, the American said, people also come up to him and say: "Thank you for giving everything at the time when the country is going through so much trouble, so much turmoil."
The Ghana Football Association has asked soccer's governing body FIFA to move the Nov. 19 return leg to a neutral venue, citing security concerns if the game is played in Cairo. FIFA has given Egypt a deadline of Oct. 28 to provide "comprehensive security assurances."
Bradley was doubtful of Ghana's motivation for the request and said he's never feared for his safety despite choosing to move to Cairo in autumn 2011. Egypt was still restive in the aftermath of the uprising that forced long-time autocratic president Hosni Mubarak from office.
"It's very important for people outside of Egypt to understand that in moments when there's violence it happens in isolated places," Bradley said. "Cairo is a huge city and the people continue to go about their lives. They go to work, and they are trying to care about their families."
Bradley has lived in a Cairo hotel for much of his time in Egypt. He said he's never feared for his safety, even as the country faced further upheaval. He's never had bodyguards, and has frequently been seen dining with his wife in the capital's restaurants and shopping in Cairo's upscale Zamalek district.
He said he's never felt targeted as an American.
"I came to Egypt to be a leader, to be a friend, not a policy maker," Bradley said.
"We chose to live in Cairo," he said. "We've connected with Egyptian people and with everything that's gone on we found a way to challenge a group of players to be strong, to be proud and to understand that there is an opportunity that when everything in the country is going in one direction, maybe we can do something that will be a symbol of hope. "
Managing the team amid political chaos has been Bradley's main challenge. A stadium riot in the Mediterranean city of Port Said last year left 74 dead and devastated the sport, leading to the cancellation of games and the closure of others to fans.
More violence erupted earlier this year, when seven police officers were acquitted in a trial over the melee, while death sentences against 21 alleged rioters were confirmed. Angry fans rampaged through the heart of Cairo, storming the Egyptian soccer federation's headquarters before setting it ablaze.
Then in July, Egypt's first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, was ousted in a military coup that followed protests by millions demanding he step down. Since then, Morsi's supporters have staged near-daily protests and hundreds have been killed in a crackdown.
Through it all, soccer-crazed Egyptians were banking on the Pharaohs to earn a spot at next year's World Cup in Brazil, hoping that qualifying for the tournament for the first time in decades will restore some national pride and help bridge deep political and social divisions.
The turmoil has taken a toll on Bradley's squad in the key match of the qualifying campaign.
"When we went on the field in Kumasi last week, these were some of the things that the players were carrying on their shoulders," Bradley said. "It's a lot to ask of the players in a football match."
He defended his players and said he'd like to be with them during the final match next month that he hopes will take place in the Egyptian capital to give the national team a chance to restore pride to the game and the American coach a chance for a dignified exit from the country.
"Our team has worked very, very hard to try and make a dream, an important dream for all Egyptians," Bradley said. "I am sad that we've put ourselves in a position right now where that dream is at risk.
"It's going to be difficult, but we still have 90 more minutes," Bradley said.
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