Thursday, November 26, 2015

PBS to debut 'American Pharaoh' documentary on Bob Bradley's time coaching Egypt

On Monday, most American soccer fains will be focused on the U.S. national team's big World Cup game against Ghana. After that game ends, there's another TV broadcast you might want to check out.

PBS to debut 'American Pharaoh' documentary on Bob Bradley's time coaching Egypt

Bob Bradley poses for a photo in front of one of the Great Pyramids. (Photo courtesy of PBS)
Bob Bradley poses for a photo in front of one of the Great Pyramids. (Photo courtesy of PBS)

On Monday, most American soccer fans will be focused on the U.S. national team's big World Cup game against Ghana.

After that game ends, there's another TV broadcast you might want to check out.

PBS will debut "American Pharaoh," a behind-the-scenes documentary on Bob Bradley's time in charge of Egypt's national team, Monday night at 10 p.m. ET. It is a behind the scenes look back at Bradley's historic journey through soccer in the Middle East and Africa, as he tried to help Egypt reach the World Cup for the first time since 1990.

As you might imagine, the story is about much more than soccer. Bradley and his wife Lindsay lived through an extraordinary period of political turmoil in Egypt. They saw two presidents get overthrown, and saw Egypt's entire soccer culture come crashing down after the infamous Port Said stadium riot in February of 2012.

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Yet the Bradleys stuck it out in Cairo. Bob persevered at his job, guiding Egypt to the African World Cup qualifying playoffs. Though the nation's dreams of reaching soccer's biggest stage were crushed by Ghana, Bradley won fans' enduring respect with a deep embrace of his role in public life.

There's a trailer from the documentary in the video player above.

I recently got a one-on-one interview with the man who made the film, Hossam Aboul-Magd. He's an Egyptian-American who splits his time between Cairo and Washington, D.C., which gives him a unique perspective on the events of Bradley's tenure. 

What inspired you to want to make the documentary?

I'm Egyptian and I am a crazy football fan. The second I read about Bob taking over, being based here in D.C., I thought this was a very interesting story. An American being in the middle of the Egyptian revolution, and a country where Americans are not very welcome. He takes the highest, most prestigious sports job in the country.

So I thought let's give it a shot, to see how an American will be able to cope with the political situation and make it to the World Cup.

Had you met Bob Bradley before you decided to start the project?

I knew of him [but] I had never met him in my life before. In the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa, I had been following the Egyptian team, and after Egypt beat Italy, 1-0, all we needed from the U.S. game [at the end of the group stage] was a draw, or even a 2-0 loss. I thought, "We're definitely going to make it, it's the American team, we're a lot better."

But then, when Egypt was beaten by 3-0, I thought that this must be a great coach. I knew Michael Kammarman, the U.S. team media [relations] guy, and I had him put me in touch with Bob. It took a couple of months before Bob got back to me, and at Christmas of 2011 we finally spoke over the phone. He was in New Jersey. I told him what I was looking for and he then agreed.

Bradley is known for being really smart and a good coach, but he isn't the most charismatic person. What did it take to get him to open up and give you the kind of access you got?

Yeah, obviously he is not known to be a very media-friendly guy. But in reality, as a person, the guy is extremely emotional, extremely welcoming, and very, very friendly.

Of course, the first year filming with him wasn't as easy as we would have loved it to be, but I think then he realized that we were trying to tell the story in a different way. And he started opening up a lot.

As a person I got to know him as a dear friend now, as a very sincere person when it comes to problems Egyptians face every day. [He was ] extremely into reading about the country, about the political situation, about the different groups.

It wasn't just one thing that he heard from one guy, he wanted to hear it from several people. Many times, we argued about the political situation, especially after June 30 [2013, when mass protests broke out on the one-year anniversary of Mohammed Morsi's election as president].

I was for the June 30 revolution, he was not. But it was always this nice conversation we had regarding so many different things, even personal things.

I got to spend some good time with him and [his wife] Lindsay, and honestly, what we brought on camera was maybe one percent of how these guys acted in reality. Extremely emotional people, like I said very, very sincere - what you see is what you get. So I became very biased toward the Bradleys.

Given how much turmoil there was in Egypt, many Americans marveled from afar at Bradley's desire to get out on the streets and be a part of the country's everyday life. He never seemed afraid of it and it definitely seemed to help his popularity with the Egyptian public. What was it like as you watched him in those interactions?

The first time I went out on the streets with him was January of 2013, and I was amazed by how people welcomed him. You have to understand that the Egyptian national soccer team is the most prestigious sports team in the country, and Lindsay put it in an extremely direct way, when she said, "I guess as the coach of the Egyptian team, I guess we get a pass [for] being Americans."

Egyptians absolutely loved the Bradleys. Wherever we went - with cameras, without cameras - he was welcomed like a king. Not just because of the football side, not just because of his job, but what Bob was doing every day. Egyptians really appreciated him being part of the Egyptian society, not just a foreign coach who's coming to stay at a nice hotel and not interact with them.

Like you'll see in the documentary, he was all over the place. He went to small villages to pay condolences. There was a very famous incident which happened when a children's school bus was hit by a train [in November of 2012]. 51 kids were killed. Bob went to that village and he went to the house of every single child that was killed in that terrible accident.

He didn't need to do that. There were no cameras there. Stuff like that made him very Egyptian. I remember in one of the interviews we did, the guy said, "I wish Egyptians would love Egypt in the same way Bob Bradley loves Egypt."

And when I went with him to Tahrir [Square in Cairo], that was incredible. All I had was a still camera, and I just wanted to grab some publicity stills of him. He was stormed by enormous numbers of people who just wanted to say "Hi." And that was even after the loss to Ghana [in the African qualifying playoff].

So it wasn't that he still had the chance to make it to the World Cup, it was him saying goodbye to the country and the people. And again, the number of people who came running to him - you saw the soldiers go to him, you saw normal people, people from McDonald's who came and  in the middle of the street offered him some coffee. They ended up bringing it out into the middle of the street in Tahrir.

It was just unreal - but it was very expected, after two years of being so Egyptian and so involved in their society, that was the least he was going to get from the locals.

What did it take for Bradley to win the trust of the national team's players? Even from just a soccer perspective, Bradley was the first American to ever coach a major foreign national team, so some people might have thought he didn't come in with much of a pedigree. Then you add in the political situation and it could be even more difficult.

Being very straightforward, when I spoke to many of the players, they said, "You trust the guy. You know that he is telling the truth. You know that he means what he says. You know that he's working very hard." They see him during lunch, working all the time.

There is no gray area when it comes to Bob with the team and the players. It is either black or white. I think they really respected that, seeing how dedicated he was to the job, to the goal, to the World Cup, to defending his players.

I remember in the very first conversation before we even started filming, he told me, "I will let you do whatever you ask to do, but you have to get my permission when it comes to the players. I don't want anyone feeling that he is obliged to do something because we're making the documentary. The team comes first, the players come first." I really respected that.

Throughout the two years we were in production, I always asked for his permission whenever it came to his players. And I believe that he, again, being very close to his players, and talking to them about their personal lives - that scene where the team was celebrating the birth of the first son of one of the players, that was one of the nicest moments I encountered over the two years.

Because, again, he didn't need to do that. It wasn't really his job. But I saw him planning the whole thing away from the camera. He was doing it before even the players knew what was going on, which was very nice. I think it was a nice moment that made him very close to his players.

Where were you when the Port Said stadium riot broke out in February of 2012? That was such a seminal moment in Bradley's time in Egypt, and I'm sure it was in the film as well.

I had landed in Cairo a half-hour before the game. That was the first day of production, February 1. I landed at 4:30, the game was at 5. I went to a friend's house and watched the game just like everyone else, and we saw it all happening in front of our eyes. I honestly thought I was going to turn around and leave.

It was scary, because it wasn't just football fans being killed, there were Egyptians killing Egyptians. That was just unheard of. It was a huge shock to everyone. I remember the whole country was in depression for at least a month. No one wanted to believe what had happened.

It was just a football game. Yes, these two teams [El Masry and Cairo-based Al Ahly] always fought - the fans never liked each other. It was normal that they ended up fighting, but 74 kids being killed for watching a football game? That was just brutal and unacceptable.

And no matter who says what, this was definitely a deliberate massacre. Someone, somewhere, somehow knew what he was doing, and they were going after these kids for political reasons. So for me to be in the middle of all of this happening right in front of me was a precarious moment.

Those of us who watched the riots from afar only got what we saw reflected through media coverage. What was the reaction like among the Egyptian public from your perspective? Was it something that had popular backing, or was it condemned? Did people feel like it was something they were a part of or did they feel the people who committed the acts did not represent them?

Oh no. Even the people of Port Said - my family is actually from Port Said, where it all happened. They immediately called and said, "These cannot be my people" and "Who did this?" The whole country was in total shock of what had just happened, because there is no way this was football.

Like I said, all my life - I'm 42 years old - you watch Al Ahly and El Masry playing and you know there will be trouble. It's very simple. It happens all the time, all the time. But to kill 74 people? Never, ever.

Yeah, they would end up fighting - outside the stadium. Throwing stones at each other and beating up each other. Just what "normal" football fans would do. Look at England, look at Latin America. It happens in these crazy football countries.

But to end up with 74 being killed, no, that was unheard of. No one in the country thought, "Oh, well, there's a reason." This was agreed that something - a sort of conspiracy - was behind it all.

After the World Cup qualifying playoff loss to Ghana, Bradley stepped down from the national team job and left Egypt. For those who have not been paying as close attention since Bradley's departure, what has happened in the country since then?

The team immediately hired an Egyptian coach [Shawky Garib], and for so many different reasons, but mainly because, I would say, the economy cannot afford paying someone in U.S. dollars. So they decided to go with a cheaper option, someone who knows the team quite well and was not going to take a long time to understand the Egyptian mentality.

And then on the political level, a lot has changed. There's a new president. But on the other hand, people are not into politics anymore as much as they were during Bob's time, simply because there is no trust anymore as to what is going on in the country.

When you go through two revolutions and nothing changes, I think people have decided to stop thinking about politics and think more about economics. Let things rest for a while, and then decide if there will be a third revolution, or if the new president [Abdel Fattah el-Sisi] is moving forward with his promises and what the revolutions asked for.

To close, I'd like to ask about the production process. Why did you settle on PBS specifically as the television network to broadcast the documentary? Was there interest from other channels, and in particular sports-specific channels?

We went in and started filming for 10 months before we approached PBS. We were the ones who approached PBS. We tried shopping it around. ESPN, NBC Sports, al-Jazeera, many others. No one showed much interest. But deep inside we believed that this was a great story, and we were determined to go ahead with the story whether we had the funding or not. So basically, we funded it.

The first time we talked to PBS was in September of 2012. We met with Bill Gardner, the vice president of programming, and it took Bill half an hour to say he wanted it. Which was amazing, because everyone, every network we talked to before PBS, had the same question: How will this end?

ESPN thought it was a great story, but they wanted to know the ending, and I said, "I don't know how it will end. Either they make it to the World Cup or they don't, either he makes it to the end of his contract or he doesn't. I have no idea."

No one but PBS believed in this story. In January of 2013, they gave us money for development, and then it took them eight months - it was only in September of 2013 that we signed the contract. We never did before the [draw for the final qualifying] playoffs.

From the very beginning, we wanted this on PBS. After we put the pilot together, we sent it to many networks. al-Jazeera's English [network] offered us twice what PBS could afford, but we always wanted this on PBS. We wanted this story to be on an American network, and not any network but specifically PBS.

At the end, Bill Gardner made the decision, we signed a contract and we went ahead with the rest of the production.

I'm also curious about how much editorial control PBS wanted in the production - and what they wanted relative to other networks. In particular, you mentioned al-Jazeera, which I find interesting given their influence in the Middle East.

We couldn't have found a better network than PBS. I'm definitely not saying that because PBS got the film, but it's exactly what you're saying. PBS let us make the film the way we wanted to make it. PBS was extremely supportive from the very beginning with the storyline. We never got into "Do this, don't do that, talk about this, talk not about that."

We absolutely loved that there was one person at PBS we were talking to, which was Bill Gardner. And again, someone who knew the story very well, someone who understood the political situation in the country. So editorially, we had 100 percent control over the story, and we came to editing it with minimum comments from PBS as to how the story was going to be told. We really appreciate that effort.
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