LOS ANGELES: It is five years since Omar Gaber last appeared on a teamsheet picked by Bob Bradley, yet the bond of mutual respect between player and manager is undimmed.
“I’m so excited to work with him again, he’s a great coach and a great person as well,” Egyptian international Gaber told Arab News in a Los Angeles hotel, just days after landing in California for his new footballing venture.
Gaber was a fringe figure at FC Basel when Bradley came calling in November. He had made just 17 appearances for the Swiss outfit in the previous 18 months after moving from boyhood club Zamalek.
Former Egyptian national team manager Bradley sensed an opportunity, as he began constructing a team from scratch for new Major League Soccer club Los Angeles FC — a franchise co-owned by a host of Hollywood and sporting glitterati including Will Ferrell and ‘Magic’ Johnson.
Bradley wanted familiar faces to etch onto his blank sheet of paper and a deal was struck for Gaber to join on a season-long loan, with the 25-year-old arriving in southern California last week to begin pre-season training.
But it is not just the opportunity of a fresh start in MLS which prompts Gaber to refer to Bradley in such reverential terms. Neither is it the memory of the international caps earned under the American during Egypt’s 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, when so much hope and promise culminated in the heartbreaking play-off defeat to Ghana.
It is Bradley’s contribution toward Egypt ending their 28-year wait for successful World Cup qualification, which leads Gaber to regard his manager in such glowing terms.
Bradley’s spell in charge of Egypt coincided with the bloody violence of the revolution, the Port Said stadium disaster and the suspension of the Egyptian Premier League.
But despite such harrowing off-the-field strife, Gaber believes Bradley was instrumental in laying the foundations for the Pharaohs’ current success under African Coach of the Year Hector Cuper.
He was able to put a more successful structure in place for the national side and actively incorporated those playing European football, such as Mohamed Salah, Ahmed Elmohamady and Mohamed Elneny.
Five years on, Egypt are reaping the rewards of those foundations.
Gaber said: “It was a very bad situation in Egypt at that time and the league was not playing regularly.
“It was so difficult to qualify at that time (in 2014). We didn’t make it, but Bob built a new team for the national side. We were only one step away from qualifying too.
“He also helped players to go and play in Europe. That’s why the people in Egypt still remember him and love him so much.
“Of course, when Bob Bradley spoke with me, I had to come here.”
Bradley was evidently the key factor in Gaber moving to MLS, as he bids to secure a spot in Cuper’s squad for next summer’s World Cup.
But the midfielder almost made the switch to the US three years ago, when Columbus Crew held talks with Zamalek, before negotiations ground to a halt.
“We couldn’t agree anything,” Gaber explains succinctly.
Politically, of course, the US is now a very different place, with President Donald Trump’s proposed travel ban on predominantly Muslim countries due be ruled upon by the Supreme Court later this year, although Egypt remains exempt from the possible legislation.
But the growing social, religious and racial tensions in the country did not dissuade Gaber from joining LAFC.
“No, I had no doubts,” said Gaber.
“As a footballer, you only have to focus on the field. It’s my job. I have to work hard on the field. That’s it.
“All I can say is I’m looking forward to mixing with the big Egyptian community in Los Angeles.”
Neither was there any fear of the unknown in joining a club with no history, no recent results and a threadbare squad that in November would have struggled to fulfill the duties of a five-a-side team.
“It’s a risk, but because we have quality players now and the people working for the club want success, I’m sure we’ll achieve good things together,” he said.
“When they started to speak with me, I felt they were so professional and had big ambitions.
“The MLS is improving so much. It’s a new experience, a new adventure for me.
“At FC Basel, many of the players spoke about how they’d like to go to the MLS. The league is strong now and the life here is so beautiful.”
Ahead of the new MLS season starting in March, LAFC now have far more recruits on their books, with former Arsenal and Real Sociedad forward Carlos Vela their biggest name so far.
With a new $350 million stadium due to open in the heart of Los Angeles in April, the club have big ambitions to elbow aside David Beckham’s former employers LA Galaxy as the city’s dominant side.
Traditionally, new MLS clubs have struggled in their first seasons, albeit Seattle Sounders and last year Atlanta United, broke that trend. Yet Gaber boasts the undimmed confidence that new signings invariably enjoy when they speak of the season ahead.
“We have to achieve big things in the first year and make history,” he said.