The 2018 summer transfer window was witness
to some major deals. Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus, Riyad Mahrez to Manchester City,
and so on. While the big European league’s usual suspects were in the thick of it, another
team caught the attention of many: Pyramids FC, a brand new club from Egypt, who set a
new expenditure record for an African team, and has one of the most extravagant football
stories of the year. Pyramids FC spent 40 million Euros building
a squad from scratch – signing 23 players – and a staff. But, how did a new Egyptian
team spend more than Porto, Watford and Chinese club Guangzhou Evergrande? Pyramids FC was founded on the structure of
Al Assiouty Sport, a club originally from Beni Souef, that was established in 2008,
played in the 2nd division and in 2014 was promoted for the first time to the Egyptian
Premier League. Al Assiouty was never a serious a power in
Egyptian football; with Al Ahly & Zamalek there or thereabouts, one important club in
Port Said – Al-Masry; and a couple of smaller clubs that mainly cultivate the young local
talents – El-Mokaweloon Al-Arab & Smouha. In the summer of 2018, Al Assiouty was bought
by the Saudi Billionaire Turki al-Sheikh – the Saudi Arabia Sports minister, chairman of
the Islamic Solidarity Sport Federation, and a close friend of Mohamad Bin Salman – the
Saudi crowned prince. All in all, one of the most powerful figures in Asian & Middle Eastern
football. Al Assiouty kept its assets, but has since gone through some drastic changes. They moved to Cairo and found a home at the
‘30th of June’ Stadium – a 30,000 seater ground. The club’s name was changed to Pyramids
FC – with an eye on the global potential of such branding. The logo & the team colours
were also changed, and Pyramids TV, the club’s own TV station, was launched. The location change left the club without
a fanbase, so to get around this initially, fans were hired and paid to support the team
live at the games they were allowed to enter. *[In Egypt fans haven’t been allowed to
enter league games since the 2012 Port Said disaster and the 2014 violent backlashes which
caused multiple casualties]. The launch included a series of videos and
advertisements setting the stage for the club’s remarkable entrance into the Middle Eastern
& African football sphere. With the buzz officially created, Pyramids and Al-Sheikh began to announce
their new signings. Unusually for an Egyptian club, many the Pyramids’
incoming players came from the world’s most popular market – Brazil. Carlos Eduardo from
Goias, Ribamar from Atletico Paranaense and Arthur from Chapecoense all arrived in exchange
for figures of 5.2, 4 & 5.1 million euros respectively. More notable still was the deals made for
Keno, the Palmeiras midfielder that arrived for 8.6 million and Rodriguinho – the Corinthians
attacking midfielder, who even made the shortlist for the Brazil 2018 World Cup squad. No other
African club has ever made comparable moves in the Brazilian market. International-level players from all over
the region have signed, and more locally, rival teams were raided. Pyramids also invested
in a host of promising youngsters from teams all over the league. As for staff, the list is impressive: former
Al-Ahly manager, Hossam Al-Badry was hired as the club’s chairman, Ahmed Hassan signed
as the spokesman and football team supervisor, and Hady Khashaba is the new football director.
Alberto Valentim, one of the most promising coaches in Brazil, was signed as the head
coach. And finally, Ricardo La Volpe, who worked for Boca Juniors, Mexico and others,
was hired as the football director. Badry declared that “the Pyramids enterprise
is focused on improving and encouraging progress in Egyptian football”. But was that really
the reason for all that investment? Perhaps partially, but at the heart of Pyramids FC’s
creation, there’s a story of respect, political revenge and power. It highlights many of the
issues in the Egyptian game, and it focuses on one important man – Turki al-Sheikh. It’s been almost two years since the controversial
young Saudi Turki al-Sheikh, entered the Middle Eastern football world in storm. Since then,
he’s become very active in a variety of fields. He improved and developed the professional
level of the Saudi league; he partially opened stadiums in Saudi Arabia for female supporters
and invested in & planned many of the programs developing football in the whole region. At the same time, al-Sheikh was the architect
of a handful of controversial football stories over the past year. He sent 10 Saudi players to Spanish clubs
in a program that failed to improve the Saudi national team for the World Cup. He was in
charge of the controversial signing of his associate, the Bolivian coach Julio Baldivieso,
for the Palestinian national team, despite the fact they were in their best ever era
under a promising local gaffer. And he somehow convinced FIFA to hold an impromptu Gulf Cup
in Kuwait, despite the fact that the country was still on probation after a ban for governmental
intervention in local football. In some cases, his work has been seen as refreshing
and positive, and in others, negative and worthy of suspicion. But what led to his current
involvement in Egyptian football? Last season, Al-Ahly – Egypt & Africa’s
most famous and decorated football club – was drowning in debt. Having faced similar situations
before during the club’s 111-year history, the club’s board, democratically elected,
had usually handled every crisis in-house. This time, allegedly, the debts and tensions
were so deep & complicated, that an external solution was required. And, according to club
sources and various Egyptian journalists, the board got in touch with Turki al-Sheikh,
who had expressed his appreciation for the club in the past. The hope was that his financial
support would save the board from losing control on the club. Al-Sheikh agreed, and in return for his donation
asked to become the club’s honorary president. Mahmoud ‘Bibo’ El-Khatib, Al-Ahly chairman,
has approved the move, and immediately began discussing with al-Sheikh the future transfers
that they wanted to complete. Things seemed to go well. Al-Sheikh even persuaded
the famous Argentinean coach Ramon Diaz to take the Al-Ahly manager’s position. The ‘Ahlawys’, Al-Ahly fanatics, were
delighted regarding the news of the incoming coach, but according to reports, Al-Sheikh
then guided Diaz into signing a lucrative contract at a Saudi club instead. This didn’t
go down well. Up to the beginning of this decade, Egypt
was seen as the leader of the Sunni countries in the Arab world. Since the Arab Spring,
the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, the civil war and the recent Egyptian revolution, the
country has lost its status as the most powerful & influential Sunni country in the region
– to Saudi Arabia. Moreover, in recent years Egypt has economically
relied on Saudi Arabia, who have become something of an insurance policy in the current climate
of the region. This fact has fostered a wave of hostility from some in Egypt towards Saudi
gestures & investments in the country. The Diaz story added to these existing frustrations. Al-Ahly fans were furious with al-Sheikh and
some began to protest his activity within the club. The fact that he is a foreigner,
especially from Saudi Arabia, only fanned the ‘flames’. Ultimately, Al-Sheikh decided to leave the
club, saying he didn’t want to stay in a place in which he didn’t feel wanted. He
also claimed that he’d spent around 13 million Euros financially supporting the club. Two
weeks later, he bought Al-Assiouty Sport and began its revolution at the club. In addition, he then filed a lawsuit against
Al-Ahly, requesting that the club return his. “I was keen on making Al Ahly and their
fans my top priorities and I followed their worries and ambitions with much interest,”
al-Sheikh wrote on his Facebook page. “But I am disappointed by the disrespectful way
people have treated me here, despite my efforts to help”. Everything was set for a battle on & off the
pitch between al-Sheikh and Al-Ahly. Though, a week prior to the League’s opening matchday,
he surprisingly decided to revoke the lawsuit. “Everyone has been forgiven. I have been
attacked by some of the masses and media, but I confirm my appreciation and respect
to all Al-Ahly fans,” he said to local media. But al-Sheikh’s controversies continued:
He sacked Pyramids’ coach after 9 games (of which they had lost just one). And he
revealed his desire to renew the Saudi-Egyptian Super Cup, a regional club competition which
was in a 15-year hiatus. He planned to get the Saudi champions, Al-Hilal, to host Al-Ahly
in a prestigious event in Riyadh. During a game soon after, Al-Ahly fans, in
response, chanted from the stands about Al-Sheikh. They downplayed the importance of the Super
Cup, saying the African Cup was more important. They also insulted al-Sheikh’s mother using
abusive language. For Al-Sheikh, this was the final straw. He
quickly decided to leave all of his businesses in Egypt. The news broke on Pyramids TV, the
football club’s in-house channel, stating that the Saudi had decided to “withdraw
permanently” from his new enterprise. Despite his decision, Al-Sheikh promised to respect
all contracts of the team’s players, staff, as well as the channel’s crew. At the moment, Al-Sheikh is still technically
the owner of Pyramids FC, but has declared that he will not invest any further in the
aspiring project, or in Egypt. But Pyramids FC is indeed an aspiring project, and the
story behind it sheds a light on the way that things are currently running in Egyptian & Middle
Eastern football.