Another beautiful piece from Miriti Murungi
Former USMNT coach Bob Bradley has moved on before. By my count he has moved on four times since 2005 when he was the MetroStars’ Leader of Men and Deflector of Soon-To-Be-Debunked Nepotism Claims (official titles). But his last move was different, not just because he moved to a place that requires you to dial 011 to alert the NSA that you’re dialing out of the United States; it was different because it shined a high-beam on the difficulty we have with reconciling coaches and context.
(CAIRO) On September 24, 2011, Bob Bradley stood to shake hands with his new federation bosses at his unveiling as Egypt’s men’s national team coach.
As the group exchanged grins and slapped palms for the cameras, behind them hovered the standard, massive advertising board.
But this one didn’t have the sponsors that American audiences had grown accustomed to seeing behind Bradley at USMNT pressers. There was no Nike, Gatorade, McDonald’s, or Jose Cuervo. Instead, the board displayed the sponsors of Bradley’s new employer: Etisalat, Juhayna, and, obviously, not Jose Cuervo.
Things were obviously changing for Bradley. But that moment was also the beginning of a shift in how Americans seemed to frame their former coach.
Over the course of a well-traveled career crisscrossing the U.S. soccer roadmap, Bob Bradley has wavered between being characterized as a square gym teacher in sweatpants and a pragmatic gym teacher in sweatpants. Everything about him was presented as measured and methodical, as if being measured and methodical are characteristics unbecoming of an experienced, high-level coach.
But then a funny thing happened.
The gym teacher got fired and went rogue. He bought a used, black ’78 Chevy Camaro with poorly tinted windows, threw two duffel bags and a box of ammo into the Camaro’s quasi-trunk, and focused his thoughts on experiencing something different, something far, far away, something that would leave many scratching their heads and thinking, “Whoa, I never saw that coming. I hope he’s OK.”
And then Bob flicked the shades perched atop his clean-shaven head onto the bridge of his nose, picked up a map with the entire continent of Africa circled, mumbled something about respect, and sped off toward the horizon.
Somewhere, Dave Chappelle smiled.
At least that’s how it played in my head.
Suddenly, Bob Bradley, Egyptian resident, was a man of intrigue, American soccer’s cross between Walter White and the Dos Equis man. Bob Bradley seemed to transform into the most interesting man in the world, right before our very eyes.
Bradley was now a man who walked with the people and possessed the calm, cool, measured, public temperament of man raised by Mother Teresa and Deepak Chopra. But the profile of this new, man-of-the-people Bradley was certainly enhanced by his job performance. Bradley was now also the man who had led Egypt through the group stages of African qualifying with maximum points. Six games. Six wins. Eighteen points.
Egypt (along with New Zealand) is the only team from the World Cup qualifying group stages still unscathed, still perfect. Worldwide, that’s out of a pool of 122 teams that participated in the last round of their respective regions’ group play. And Egypt did it in a climate that, to outsiders, might look like a rough cut of an Oscar-nominated action/drama set in the Middle East/North Africa, if somehow Ben Affleck was involved.
It was the perfect conclusion to the tale being spread across America about Bob Bradley: Father, Coach, Ambassador, Hero. Here was a dynamic icon succeeding at an exceptional challenge in a place where pyramids instead of massive metal structures are the main tourist attraction. Everything about the story was new and dynamic. So for American scriptwriters, it was the obvious time to write the long-running role of the pragmatic, sweatpants-wearing gym teacher out of the script. The old Bob Bradley was dead, which wasn’t really an issue because audiences had already fallen head-over-heels in love with his new, sophisticated, nuanced twin brother, Bob Bradley.
On September 24, 2013, eight days after the Confederation of African Football announced that Egypt will meet Ghana for a trip to the World Cup, Bradley celebrated his two-year anniversary as coach of the Egyptian national team, marking the near-end of an emotional and eventful qualifying run for both Egyptians and Bradley.
But for Americans, who have been at arms-length from Bradley for a little over two years now, a slightly different narrative is unfolding. What began as the tale of a pragmatic alum seeking a fresh challenge abroad has transformed into a context-heavy story of a rugged renaissance man, with a slightly uncomfortable “messiah saving a foreign land” subplot. The shift represents a significant swing from a domestic reality, where little meaningful context is applied to coaching, to a new one, where context (BOB DOING BIG THINGS IN CRAZY EGYPT! IT’S CRAZY!) is almost the entire story.
We generally assess coaches under the standards set forth in the Convention for the Treatment of Active Coaches (CTAC).
The gist is, we methodically count wins and losses, home wins and losses, away wins and losses, losses compared to previous coaches, losses with new call-ups/signings, and loss of self-esteem (which we quantify in overall losses), until the #CoachOut momentum picks up and we start banging pots and screaming for #AnyoneElseIn. Then there’s a firing, a recycled club/federation statement and, at some point, the press conference, where someone in a suit inevitably gives us boilerplate about appreciation, mutual respect, and moving in a new direction. And then everyone on Twitter LOLs because, aside from directly related parties, no one really cares about extenuating circumstances.
But under the new Bradley paradigm, things are different.
The game is incidental.
Context is king.
Stateside Bradley conversations, that were once exclusively about Xs and Os and whether to play four, seven or twelve holding midfielders, have broadened, and now account for non-soccer-related realities, like politics, protest and struggle; we now wonder about Bradley’s psychological well-being (albeit not as much as we did right after the events in Port Said) and say thoughtful, measured things like, “If he loses, don’t worry, he’s in a difficult situation. This job is bigger than results; it’s more meaningful.” From a storytelling perspective, the added layers of context are a refreshing change of pace from our standard, formulaic characterizations of coaches. Suddenly, everyone’s reactions are more holistic, reasonable, and considered.
This new context-friendly paradigm, however, wouldn’t be possible without America’s decision to treat Bradley like a retiree.
In America (and this is true elsewhere), context, outside of a death, a TMZ-related episode, or a national tragedy, is something we generally only offer coaches at the end of a career. And ever since Bradley stood in front of that massive advertising board on September 24, 2011 in Cairo, we have showered him in context and treated him with respect and understanding, as a Coach Emeritus of sorts. This shift to de facto retirement (coaching out of shouting distance) at least partially explains why he’s getting the benefit of context.
But something else about Bradley’s transition from USMNT coach to Egypt’s coach allowed him to regain his humanity in the eyes of storytellers and fans. The calculus isn’t very complicated: He’s in a country that’s received wide, mainstream coverage due to social and political instability; he’s an American in North Africa during a volatile time when Americans are viewed with more suspicion than normal; and the team he is managing is one of Africa’s traditional powerhouses on the cusp of World Cup qualification for the first time in 24 years. Every aspect of his experience has a powerful, human interest angle. All things considered, it’s hardly context one could ignore without coming off as an incompetent storyteller.
However, the disparity in our treatment of pre-Egypt Bradley vs. Egypt Bradley raises two obvious, context-related questions: What is the threshold beyond which we find context relevant to active coaches? And what context is relevant to a narrative?
The issue becomes clearer when you start fiddling with the dials.
Start by imagining giving the same contextual latitude now afforded to Bradley to an active USMNT coach. If the USMNT under Klinsmann had a nice run but was in Mexico’s place and ultimately failed to qualify for Brazil, would you reach into your bag of context? I imagine most people would probably throw their bag of context in front of an oncoming bus and then sink into a deep depression while friends and family whisper behind your back about your anger issues. That’s because, at home, results always trump context. Our tolerance for shortcomings has never been very high, which is a reality we often see after losses, or even a series of not winning or drawing games well enough.
And then turn the dial up a bit.
Few were going to ask Bradley what he thought of the financial meltdown (or write about it) when he was in charge of the USMNT during economic armageddon. No one was saying, “Bob, how are leagues and your players and their families coping with the economic collapse?” probably because the question has nothing to do with serious issues that impact CTAC provisions, like game analysis, injury updates, the opposition, the schedule, formations, or incoming players.
And therein lies the dilemma: between the various degrees of drama that can surround a coach and a team, deciding where to draw the context line can be a challenge.
We already know that both extremes on the context spectrum raise concerns. On one end, the danger is the compelling story of a national team coach-messiah reducing a nation and its recent hardships into props to accent a bold, personal, American narrative. Over-focusing on Bradley can run the risk of marginalizing Egypt’s already rich soccer culture and wealth of fascinating characters, effectively making them extras in their own movie.
The other end of the context spectrum also has its pitfalls. Coaches existing in minimal context can be reduced to a series of memorable quotes, results, statistics, and personality quirks. Their humanity and surroundings can be easily ignored or discarded. And, ultimately, it’s hard to find reserves of empathy for quotes, names, numbers, the odd personality trait, and invisible communities and circumstances. The perfect example of this end of the spectrum is Bob Bradley, before he became Egypt’s new coach.
The irony is that the man who may have all the right answers to the context dilemma is the same man who has experienced both extremes of the spectrum. Bob Bradley has been telling us the answers all along, in almost every interview he has given since taking the Egypt job.
While he will answer questions about his life abroad, Bradley always turns the conversation back to his team and his new country. He side-swipes personal questions, as he’s always done, to talk about the strength and resilience of the Egyptian people, the passion of Egyptian fans, and how he’s been overwhelmingly welcomed in a new country that has a complicated relationship with his home nation. “It’s not about me! It’s not about me!” It’s the same approach he took as USMNT coach, as an MLS coach, and it’s how I remember him from his days at Princeton. His coaching currency has always been pegged to decency, respect, and his work speaking for itself, rather than co-opting community storylines to become a hero.
Bradley really hasn’t drastically changed his approach; we’re the ones who changed how we approach him.
We seem to want more Bradley than we ever used to want; we want to know more about the context and to paint glowing pictures of a decent man who, by all accounts, was just as decent before September 24, 2011. We seem to be fawning over his decency even though, back when Bradley was just a local, his decency never commanded any significant amount of print, nor was it a catalyst to seek greater depth or perspective. We only cared about dissecting his team’s methodical, yet often result-producing, style of play, and wondered whether he was the man to take the national team to the “next level,” which I presume is short-hand for the Spanish national team.
This contextual shift is interesting in its own right, but the tale of two Bradleys provides worthwhile insights beyond our changing relationship with Bob Bradley. When you look at the Bradley 2.0 narrative and then glance at the framing of coaches back in the United States, where the presentation of soccer is expertly apolitical, it’s easy to conclude that domestic coaches don’t have extenuating circumstances or context worth considering. And if the measure is the climate in Egypt over the last two years, they probably don’t. But the U.S. does not lack political or social context or discourse; it’s just that the mainstream doesn’t give active coaches the room to be political or anything more than purveyors of stat generation and results. In fact, coaches are often shielded from such matters, or they themselves brush such topics away, labeling them “distractions.”
And so the game and analysis become an escape from politics, an escape from social phenomena, an escape from context until our sporting figures move far enough away from the line of fire that we can award them with humanity and perspective. Then sport can become all about context.
But I get it; the intrigue around Bradley is easy to grasp.
People are interested in stories about their own, especially stories with gravitas. There’s nothing illogical, sinister, or complex to understand about that. The bolder questions start revealing themselves when you start peeling back the layers and start accounting for personal and communal realities, identity politics and socio-economics, geography, fan base demographics, and a host of other political, social, and economic realities. At what point do we look at other coaches and account for the environment they have to work under? At what point do we ignore their “It’s about the game!” refrains and probe into the backstories because we know there’s often a story to be told? When should one’s human surroundings become part of the story?
Bradley’s story really isn’t the issue here. There’s no denying the substance of his story, even if the narrative has the potential to be slightly rough around the edges. But his story can be a conduit to get us to a series of more interesting questions about the framing of coaches and, by extension, players. Bob Bradley didn’t become interesting and dynamic overnight; we just became more receptive. His story broadened and gave us an opening to ask obvious questions that we couldn’t ignore. But maybe we don’t have to get to that extreme in order to find context.
It makes you wonder what sporting narratives might look like if we accounted for humanity more often.