Pyramids FC: Meet Cairo's new mega-club
The club has spent 33 million euros ($38m) - an all-time African record for spending in one transfer period - but in that time it has built an entire squad from scratch, signing 23 new players. The audacious spending has rocked Egyptian football - but as usual in Egypt, there is more to the deal than just football.
A Pyramid built on Al Assiouty's remains
Pyramids FC are a new club built on the foundations of Al Assiouty Sport, a club established in Beni Souef in 2008 which played in Egypt's second division before being promoted in 2014 to the Egyptian Premier League.
Al Assiouty was never a serious power in Egyptian football, a scene dominated by the two Cairo-based mega-clubs, Al Ahly and Zamalek, as well as one important club in Port Said, Al-Masry. A few smaller clubs such as El-Mokaweloon Al-Arab and Smouha mainly grow local talent for the bigger clubs to exploit.
After the club was bought by Saudi billionaire Turki al-Sheikh - the head of Saudi football and one of the most powerful figures in Asian and Middle Eastern football - Al-Assiouty kept its assets, but went through massive changes.
The club moved to Cairo, and set-up their home at the 30,000-seater June 30 stadium. In addition, the club's name was changed to Pyramids FC - a name with much more global branding potential. The logo and team colours was changed in an attempt to give the club a more prestigious profile.
The launch included a series of videos and viral advertising, setting the stage for The Pyramids to burst onto the Middle Eastern and African football scene. The buzz was built, and then they started to announce their new signings.
No fewer than 23 players have signed up, but unlike normal transfers in Egyptian football, a major number of the Pyramids' purchases are coming from the world's most popular market - Brazil.
Carlos Eduardo from Goias, Ribamar from Atletico Paranaense and Arthur from Chapecoense all arrived in transfers worth 2.2-5.2 million euros ($2.5-6m) - but the two notable signings were Keno, the Palmeiras midfielder who came to Egypt at a price of 8.6 million euros ($10m)and Rodriguinho, Corinthians' attacking midfielder, who was on the shortlist for the Brazil 2018 World Cup squad.
No other Egyptian club have ever made such moves in the Brazilian market.
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In addition, the Egyptian national team's full-back Omar Gaber joined from Los Angeles Galaxy, the German-Ukranian-Palestinian forward Danny Schahin signed from Dutch side Roda and the Syrian national team's promising defender, Omar al-Medani, signed from Nadi Hatta in the UAE.
But Al-Sheikh did not stop at Brazil. The Saudi supremo went on a domestic raid, grabbing everything he could from the local leagues, most notably Zamalek's Ahmed Tawfiq and Ali Gabr, as well as promising names from all over the league - Mohamed Farouk from El-Mokaweloon, Abdoullah Bakry from Smouha, Mohamed Magdy Kafsha from ENPPI, as well as other players from Petrojet, El-Dakhleia, El-Marrikh, Tanta, Ismaily and Al-Masry.
Signing new players is important, but building sustainable managerial, administrative and development structures of a club is the most important element of professional football. But al-Sheikh did not compromise here either.
Hossam Al-Badry, the former Al-Ahly manager, was hired as the club's chairman and overall head honcho. He's joined by Ahmed Hassan, the former Al-Ahly, Zamalek and Anderlecht player - Egypt's most capped international - who will be the club's spokesman and football team supervisor.
Hady Khashaba, the former Al-Ahly defender, was hired as director of football. And to gather all these new faces from Egypt and Brazil into a proper footballing team unit, Alberto Valentim, the former Botafogo coach and one of the most promising football coaches in Brazil, has taken charge as head coach.
Ricardo La Volpe, the veteran Argentinean coach, has been brought in to advise and counsel the entire back-room staff.
"Pyramids is a professional football club and venue that will set new standards in Egypt," Hossam al-Badry said at the club's press launch.
"The idea is to use the wealth and talent in Egypt through our marvellous young people. The investors in the project are looking to use Egypt's resources for Egypt's benefit and creating a professional football stage at international levels," he added.
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Is this massive investment genuinely to improve Egyptian football? That may be part of the motivation, but surely not all of it. At the heart of the project, there is a story of respect and political revenge that highlights many of the problems in the Egyptian game, and at the centre of it all is one important man - Turki al-Sheikh himself.
Turki against the world
It's been almost two years since Turki al-Sheikh stormed into the Middle Eastern football world. Since then, he has changed much. He improved the professional level of the Saudi league, opened Saudi stadiums for women (for some games) and invested in and planned several programmes for developing football across the whole region.
At the same time, al-Sheikh was the architect behind the year's most controversial stories in Middle East football. It was he who sent 10 Saudi players to Spanish clubs in a programme that failed to improve the Saudi national team for the World Cup; he was the guy that pushed Bolivian coach Julio Baldivieso to the Palestinian national team - and it was al-Shiekh who somehow convinced FIFA to hold an out-of-the-blue Gulf Cup in Kuwait, despite the country still being on the global body's naughty list for government intervention in football.
All in all, al-Sheikh is definitely a young and innovative figure on the regional football scene around whom changes and reforms are spinning. He has his own independent ideas and agenda in world football, and in many cases this can be refreshing and positive.
That said, his trigger to start this latest project in Egypt may not have been motivated completely by altruism.
"Last year, Al-Ahly, Egypt's most famous and decorated football club was drowning in debts," explains one of Al-Ahly's most active fans, who asked to remain anonymous for this article.
"Al-Ahly, as a 111-year-old institution has already coped with such situations in the past. The club board, elected every four years, usually handled every crisis within the clubhouse walls. This time, the corruption was so deep and complicated that they had to look for a external solution."
According to club sources and several Egyptian journalists, the board got in touch with Turki al-Sheikh, who had previously expressed his admiration for the club, seeking a financial bail-out to save the board from losing control.
Al-Sheikh reportedly agreed, and in exchange for his donation asked to become the club's honorary president.
Mahmoud El-Khatib, Al-Ahly's chairman approved, and immediately began to discuss future transfers with al-Sheikh. All appeared positive, with al-Sheikh persuading Argentinean coach Ramon Diaz to join the team - though eventually arranged him a contract with Ittihad Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.
Al-Ahly fans were furious, and began to protest against al-Sheikh's involvement with the club. The fact of him being a Saudi - a foreigner - only poured oil on the flames of anger.
The protests got bigger and al-Sheikh decided to leave - he apparently "didn't want to stay in a place he is not wanted".
Al-Sheikh claimed that he supported Al-Ahly and El-Khatib with more than 260 million EGP (around 13 million Euros) during his brief time with the club.
Two weeks later, he bought Al-Assiouty Sport, bought and began its ultra-modern revolution. He also filed a lawsuit against Al-Ahly, demanding the return of his investment.
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"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."
Al-Ahly fans were sure billionaire al-Sheikh would rest only when the club was driven to ruin on the pitch and in the courthouse. But a week before the league kicked off, he withdrew his 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," al-Sheikh told the Al-Kora fi Baladna TV show.
The race has begun
The 2018/19 season in Egypt kicked off last weekend with a new dawn.
After 93 irritating minutes of stalemated football in a match against ENPPI, the Pyramids' Magdy Kafsha - who signed this season from ENPPI - sent in a perfectly curled free kick to win Pyramids their first victory, in what is tipped to be a fascinating season.
|The Pyramids is an aspiring project and the story behind it sheds light on the way things are running in Egyptian football. Respect, regional politics, soft power and money are part of the scene|
Zamalek's decline under president Mortada Mansour in recent years has meanwhile created a huge vacuum in the top echelons of Egyptian football - a hole that is about to be filled by Pyramids with its exciting signings and technical staff.
The Pyramids is an aspirational project, and the story behind the club sheds light on the way things are run in Egyptian football. "Respect", ego, regional politics, soft power and huge amounts of money are all part of the scene, building even more tension into everyday football matches.
Egyptian fans will try to get used to the idea of a completely "artificial" club - bought and paid for by foreign money and parachuted into their highly traditional league - and Turki al-Sheikh, whether he admits it or not, will be looking for his silent (or not-so silent) revenge against everyone and anyone who underestimated him. At least now the saga will be played on the field.