Zamalek win Egypt Cup but don’t count Pyramids out

Zamalek's Shikabala and teammates celebrate with the trophy after the Egypt Cup final match. (Reuters)
Updated 10 September 2019

Zamalek win Egypt Cup but don’t count Pyramids out

  • Pyramids are a revolutionary undertaking in Egyptian football, the only Egyptian soccer club owned by a non-Egyptian since the league was founded in 1948

CAIRO: Almost everybody has heard about the Pyramids, those triangular rock edifices jutting out of the desert sands in Egypt and which are thousands of years old. The Pyramids are one of the original Seven Wonders of the World and as such, one of the world’s most spectacular man-made structures.

But there is another kind of Pyramids that even though does not enjoy the same worldwide fame, has nevertheless carved a niche for itself and in record time. This latest wonder would be Pyramids FC, the Egyptian football club which in only their first year of existence reached the final of a major competition, in this case the Egypt Cup.

The joy did not last long for Pyramids who were thrashed 3-0 on Sunday night by Zamalek, the defending champions who have now won six of the last seven cups.

Zamalek’s victory was so comprehensive that one would be hard pressed to justify to their 20,000 supporters who were in Borg Al-Arab Stadium to watch the demolition that Pyramids are the team of the future.

BACKGROUND

Pyramids are a revolutionary undertaking in Egyptian football, the only Egyptian soccer club owned by a non-Egyptian since the league was founded in 1948.

Pyramids came out of this season empty-handed. Zamalek won the Egypt Cup and the African Confederation Cup in May while the other established Egyptian powerhouse Ahly retained the league crown.

So where do Pyramids stand in between these two Egyptian giants?

Following Sunday’s drubbing, Pyramids do not evince much confidence in their ability to win crowns but this is a team that can go places and should not be written off.

Pyramids are a revolutionary undertaking in Egyptian football, the only Egyptian soccer club owned by a non-Egyptian since the league was founded in 1948.

This radical approach has ramifications not just for Egyptian football but for the entire African continent.

The intriguing story of Pyramids FC began in 2008. They were then known as Al-Assiouty Sport, a team in the ancient town of Assiut on the banks of the Nile some 400 kilometers south of Cairo. In 2014 the club, owned by businessman Mahmoud Al-Assiouty, was promoted to the Egyptian Premier League for the first time in its history. Then came 2018 when Al-Assiouty morphed beyond recognition. That summer the then chairman of Saudi Arabia's General Sports Authority Turki Al-Sheikh bought the club. It hasn’t looked back since.

The team's name was changed from Al-Assiouty Sport to Pyramids FC. Al-Sheikh installed former coach of league champions Ahly, Hossam El-Badry, as chairman of the club. Ahmed Hassan, the most capped international footballer in history, became spokesman and football team supervisor while former Ahly midfield star Hady Khashaba was named football director. 

Former Botafogo coach Alberto Valentim, a former right-back who played for Udinese and Siena in Italy, was picked the new manager.

Al-Sheikh signed four players from Brazil for $20 million, most notably winger Keno from Palmeiras. He also brought in local lights, including Egypt internationals Abdullah Said, Ali Gabr and Omar Gaber, all of whom previously played for the country’s two traditional powerhouses Ahly and Zamalek. Smart move by Al-Sheikh if his goal was to break the monopoly Ahly and Zamalek have over the Egyptian league and cup. The two teams have such a hammerlock on Egyptian football that the last club to win the Egyptian league not named Ahly or Zamalek was Ismaili in 2002.

Altogether, Al-Sheikh roped in 18 new players in what was a complete overhaul of the squad. The results are there for all to see. Pyramids finished a very respectable third place this season, with 70 points, 10 points behind eventual winners Ahly and just two less than second-place Zamalek. To put it in context, Masri, who finished in fourth place, garnered just 52 points, a whopping 18 less than Pyramids. Pyramids lost only twice. In a 34-game season and a league of 18 teams, it was a remarkable achievement. 

They also scored 61 goals, five more than champions Ahly.

In fact, in one fell swoop Pyramids beat Ahly three times this season, twice in the league and knocking them out of the cup in the relative early round of 16.

Granted, the Egyptian league is not the Premier League or La Liga or Serie A but it is nonetheless considered in the African and Arab world decent enough.

In July 2019, the Emirati businessman Salem Al-Shamsi, who was previously Pyramid’s vice president, took over from Al-Sheikh, acquiring full ownership of the club. Al-Shamsi quickly rolled up his sleeves to corral French coach Sebastien Desabre whose impact was felt immediately. Desabre, who guided lowly Uganda to the round of 16 at this summer’s Africa Cup of Nations, took Pyramids to the final of the Egypt Cup. Under his helm, Pyramids also destroyed Etoile du Congo 5-1 aggregate in the first round of the African Confederation Cup. And Al-Shamsi roped in the ever dangerous Burkinabe winger Eric Traore.

Because the owners of Pyramids FC past and present have pockets deeper than any other club in Egypt, the squad is already a force to reckon with. Their spending sprees have allowed them to challenge Cairo giants Ahly and Zamalek. And who knows? Unhesitant owners with cash to splash around could take Pyramids FC to the top of Egyptian and African football in the not too distant future.

To be sure, no team can seriously challenge for major titles when it goes through five coaches in one season, as Pyramids have. There can be no sense of stability on a team that changes coaches as fast as people change their socks. The soccer schools that these coaches come from — Brazil, Argentina, Egypt and France — are also so diverse as to cause confusion among the players.

The pasting inflicted by Zamalek on Pyramids was severe but writing a Pyramids obituary would be premature. In such a short time, Pyramids have come such a long way. The sale of modest Al-Assiouty Sport has reshaped an Egyptian team in a way never seen before.

It is not quite clear why Al-Sheikh and Al-Shamsi are so interested in Egyptian football but there is no doubt that we are witnessing the birth of a new Egyptian super club that has shaken up the established order.

Pyramids might have lost the Egypt Cup but they have won the respect of football fans who know a good thing when they see it. The club made history by reaching the final of the cup on their very first try. The belief is that there is plenty more where that came from.


Barcelona look for a Hollywood ending from Messi in Champions League showdown

Updated 13 August 2020

Barcelona look for a Hollywood ending from Messi in Champions League showdown

  • While it is hard to imagine that Barcelona will not improve next season, it’s harder to imagine they will improve sufficiently to win the Champions League next year

DUBAI: The faded film star was taken aback by the suggestion she was past her best, that she “used” to be big.

“I am big, it’s the pictures that got small,” Norma Desmond, the character played by Gloria Swanson, famously responded in Billy Wilder’s 1950s Hollywood classic “Sunset Boulevard.”

There’s no suggestion that Lionel Messi is in any way not still a big, indeed the biggest, star in the world of football. But it is tempting to imagine a similar thought must occasionally drift through his mind: I’m still big, it’s the Barcelona team that just got small.

Where he once played the leading role in a superlative cast that included Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Carles Puyol, Luis Suarez and one of Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o, David Villa and Neymar, he is now very much a one-man show.

Barcelona’s football, not long ago the envy of the football world, isn’t what it used to be, their tactics often little more than an echo of Argentina’s over the last decade or so: Give the ball to Messi and hope for the best.

It’s been a bad season for Barcelona Football Club.

In a campaign that saw coach Ernesto Valverde replaced by Quique Setien in January, and then disrupted by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, Barca’s La Liga title was eventually lost with a whimper to an equally dysfunctional Real Madrid side.

Barcelona’s saving grace as ever, and increasingly in the last few years, has been the Argentine genius. And this Champions League run, for now.

Last week, Messi scored a quite stunning goal as Barcelona beat Napoli 3-0 at the Not Camp, and 4-1 on aggregate, in the round of 16. It had all the hallmarks of his greatness, a reminder that at 33 he remains a peerless footballer. Positioning, control, skill, speed, refusal to be taken down, and a stunning finish. A microcosm of Messi’s career.

The win earned Barcelona a quarter-final against Bayern Munich on Friday night, a one-off tie in Lisbon that not many people seem to think the Catalan giants will negotiate successfully. But where there is Messi, there is hope.

One of Cristiano Ronaldo’s last genuine shots at winning the Champions League may have disappeared with Juventus’s exit last week, but Messi could yet pull a rabbit out of hat in this most narrative-bending season. If he does lead Barcelona to a sixth Champions League title, it could go down as his greatest trick yet. And possibly his last great act.

While it is hard to imagine that Barcelona will not improve next season, it’s harder to imagine they will improve sufficiently to win the Champions League in around nine months from now.

For Messi, time is running out. It’s a case of now or never.

Barcelona fans quite rightly rage that, over the last nine years, the greatest footballer of all time between the ages of 24 and 33 has managed only one Champions League win, to add to the two collected as part of Pep Guardiola’s incomparable team in 2009 and 2011. And they are not wrong.

Messi, and the fans, deserve better. The club, however, has been a case study of bad management and recruitment. It’s not that there have been no good players at the club or that money has not been spent. It’s that the money has been spent mindlessly, and the players have not been integrated into a coherent system under the managers that have followed Luis Enrique, who left the club two years after achieving the treble of La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League in 2014-15.

That season, with the dream frontline of Messi, Neymar and Suarez conquering all before them, goes down as the club’s last truly great campaign.

Enrique's final season, 2016-17, saw the club’s greatest-ever European comeback, the scarcely believable 6-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain, which overturned a 4-0 first-leg loss in the round of 16. But the fabled “remontada” proved a mirage, Barcelona losing to Juventus in the quarter-final 3-0 on aggregate.

Valverde did manage two La Liga titles, but it was the Champions League that Barcelona fans, and above all Messi, really craved, and watching Real Madrid claim three titles since their own last win has been excruciating.

The Champions League collapses against Roma, in 2017-18, and Liverpool the following season, will stand out as Barcelona’s greatest failures on the pitch, but the decline and mismanagement had already set in off it after Luis Enrique’s departure.

The big money signings of Ousmane Dembele at €105 ($124) and Philippe Coutinho at €120 have been, respectively, disappointing and disastrous. Other incoming players, like Paulinho, Kevin-Prince Boateng, Arturo Vidal and Yerry Mina, have not been of the required standard. And those who have, like Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie de Jong, joined the party just as the drinks had run out.

Barcelona will certainly need some sort of overhaul in the brief close season before the start of the 2020-21 La Liga season, in terms of playing staff and, in all likelihood, on the management side too.

But long-term planning will have to wait. 

For now, it’s all about Friday’s shootout against an excellent Bayern Munich side and the desperate attempt to salvage this season.

Should Barcelona overcome the German champions, they will most likely face club legend Guardiola’s formidable Manchester City team in the semi-final, and after that potentially Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid or Paris Saint-Germain and Neymar in the final.

This story could yet have an unexpected happy ending. But it’s going to need an Oscar-winning performance from you know who.