Saudi money talks in Africa, especially in Egypt. But a cash-fuelled challenge to the continent’s most successful football club, Al Ahly, has gone spectacularly awry. From Cairo David Wood reports
Soldiers, with little to do, question the rare drivers who approach Cairo’s 30 June Stadium, the home of Africa’s newest footballing heavyweight, Pyramids FC. Security personnel comfortably outnumber civilians at the gate, just 20 minutes before kick-off against Ittihad Alexandria. A guard laughed away the idea that a crowd might turn up.
A smattering of applause heralded the arrival on pitch of Pyramids FC, with a squad reportedly assembled for over $30m million – an African transfer window record. Rumours abound that the club has also purchased ‘fans,’ but not one is in attendance that night. The match plays out before a paltry group of reserve team players, club officials and chain-smoking soldiers.
Such is the match-day experience offered up by Pyramids FC, the brainchild of Turki Al Sheikh, chairman of Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority and a close associate of de factor Saudi ruler, Mohammed Bin Salman.
Last June, Turki Al Sheikh bought Egyptian Premier League team Al Assiouty, rebranded it as Pyramids FC, and splurged ou on high-profile local and foreign recruits. The upstart team tasted immediate success and remained unbeaten for the league’s first two months.
All the while, Al Sheikh repeatedly enraged fans of Al Ahly, the Cairo-based club beloved by most Egyptians. Many believe that Al Sheikh is using Pyramids FC to undermine Ahly, which has won the CAF Champions League an unmatched eight times. Al Sheikh has defended his project with gusto, publicly alleging referee bias and demanding prosecution of his critics.
The mounting tension broke in September, when Ahly supporters made derogatory chants about Al Sheikh’s mother during a widely televised game. Furious, Al Sheikh dramatically tweeted that he could stop investing in Pyramids FC and Egyptian football altogether.
From hero to zero
These days, the mere mention of Al Sheikh’s name provokes a feisty reaction from many Ahly fans. “He is foolish and nouveau riche!” snapped one Cairene office worker, before adding several less palatable insults.
Yet Ahly supporters have not always felt such enmity for the controversial Saudi mogul. “Al Sheikh was the ‘Santa Claus of Ahly’ for a time,” chuckled Mohamed Qoutb, a sports journalist.
Al Sheikh burst onto Egypt’s football scene in December 2017, becoming Ahly’s honorary president and financial benefactor. According to Qoutb, at first Ahly’s masses celebrated Al Sheikh as a hero, spreading memes about his swaggering confidence and profligate spending. In one famous interview, Al Sheikh claimed that he would buy four new players for Ahly, adding: “I only know high-profile players.”
The budding romance soon ran out of steam. Ahly supporters grew worried that their patron was demanding greater influence over footballing decisions, and Al Sheikh fell out with the club’s board of directors. The Saudi suddenly quit Ahly in May 2018, just five months into his tenure.
He confounded virtually everyone the following month by setting up Pyramids FC. Within weeks, he had signed expensive Brazilian imports, talented domestic players and renowned Argentine coach Ricardo La Volpe. A marketing campaign provocatively exhorted Egyptians to “change [their] principles” and support the new team.
Pyramids FC reached its apotheosis with the now-defunct Pyramids TV, which churned out hours of content peppered with footballing luminaries. Suddenly Ronaldinho, Roberto Carlos and Robbie Keane were commenting on the hitherto internationally obscure Egyptian Premier League.
“We were not angry about Pyramids TV; everyone was just baffled,” said Hesham Esmail, a prominent Ahly supporter and sports journalist.
Pyramids FC got results on the pitch while Al Sheikh courted controversy off it. In June, he told reporters that he hoped Liverpool star Mohamed Salah would not play Egypt’s World Cup game against Saudi Arabia. In Salah’s homeland, angels – not to mention Saudi sheikhs – should fear to tread on such sensitive ground.
The atmosphere grew more toxic in September when Al Sheikh demanded that non-Egyptian referees officiate Pyramids FC matches. The Egyptian FA acceded to his request, sparking widespread outrage at the seemingly irresistible power of Al Sheikh’s deep pockets.
“We have been slapped [in our faces] for a while now in Egypt,” football manager Alaa Nabeel fumed to local media. “We are Egyptians and we have dignity. What is happening?”
Ahly fans drove away Al Sheikh with their obscene comments that same month, but not without suffering collateral damage. Egyptian police rounded up the chants’ supposed ringleaders, while Ahly lost a major Saudi sponsor. “Al Sheikh is a big guy in Saudi Arabia; you cannot curse him like this,” said Esmail.
Al Sheikh’s plans for Pyramids FC remain unclear, but Esmail warns that he will need a thicker skin if he decides to carry on. “In Egyptian football culture, no-one is protected – you can mock anyone at the stadium,” he said.
The good of the game?
Pyramids FC has succeeded in shaking up Egyptian football, long dominated by Ahly and its bitter crosstown rival, Zamalek. Some Egyptians welcome a less predictable league, especially those outside Ahly’s enormous fan base.
“I like Pyramids, 100 percent!” said Saad, a taxi driver and Zamalek supporter. “These days, we (Zamalek) are footballing peasants and the competition is weak.”
The journalist Qoutb, who follows Zamalek, admits his guilty pleasure in seeing Al Sheikh affront Ahly’s smug, perennially victorious fans. Such Machiavellian calculations are typical of the Ahly-Zamalek rivalry, where the enemy’s enemy is a nailed-on friend.
Qoutb agrees that Al Sheikh has likely funded Pyramids FC to strike back at Ahly. As evidence, he points to the recruitment of ex-Ahly manager Hossam Al Badry as Pyramids FC’s chairman. “I think he chose Al Badry just to mess with Ahly,” Qoutb said. “He could have found a chairman anywhere in the world.”
For Esmail, Pyramids FC has tried to emulate other suddenly wealthy superclubs like Manchester City and Paris St Germain. But those two teams already had fans; by contrast, most Egyptians have passionately supported either Ahly or Zamalek for decades.
The two journalists agree that a foreign investor would ideally buy an established club from outside Cairo, like Ismaily, Ittihad Alexandria or Port Said’s Al Masry. “You would have that city behind you and attract new fans,” Esmail said. “Now these people cheer for the Cairo clubs because they have no alternative.”
Projecting Saudi influence
Some Egyptians suspect an even more insidious raison d’être for Pyramids FC – the exercise of Saudi soft power. “Al Sheikh is trying to sell this vision of how Saudi Arabia is running everything now in the Middle East,” said Esmail.
In Egypt, football would make a logical target for expanding Saudi cultural reach. “Nothing is as big as football here, and Ahly would be the [best] place to go,” said Qoutb.
Back at 30 June Stadium, Pyramids FC cruised to a 3-0 win over Ittihad Alexandria. $10 million Brazilian winger Keno ran the show, fashioning an assist from nowhere and scoring a deft chip himself. Yet precious little jubilation greeted the final whistle. Pyramids FC staff quietly filed out, while a lone Ittihad Alexandria fan screamed a vitriolic performance review at the referee.
The general apathy was hardly surprising. My two months’ worth of enquiries failed to turn up a single Pyramids FC fan – paid or otherwise.