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.


Mayor of town in north Japan bemoans lack of Olympic funds

Updated 15 September 2019

Mayor of town in north Japan bemoans lack of Olympic funds

  • Tokyo is reportedly spending about $20 billion to prepare the city to host the games
  • Tokyo organizers have faced a series of hurdles as they prepare to host the games

TOKYO: The mayor of a town in northeastern Japan that will host Olympic soccer games says his city has received no funding from the central government that has promised to use the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to help in the reconstruction of the region.

The Japanese government and Tokyo 2020 organizers are hoping to use the Olympics to showcase Japan’s recovery from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Several Olympic events, including soccer and baseball, will be held in northeastern Japan.

But with less than a year to go before the opening ceremony, Yutaka Kumagai, the mayor of Rifu in Miyagi Prefecture, says his city has seen no funding from the central government.

“There is no help from the government, we don’t have any budget from them, none,” Kumagai said on Saturday. “Tokyo 2020 is said to be a symbol of the reconstruction but when it comes to the budget, we don’t have any budget from the Olympic games here in Rifu.”

Kumagai made the comments during a media tour of Miyagi Stadium, a 49,000-seat facility in Rifu that will host men’s and women’s football at the 2020 Olympics.

About 50,000 people are still displaced in the Tohoku region as of August, according to the Reconstruction Agency. Yoshiaki Suda, the mayor of Onagawa in Miyagi Prefecture, concurred with Kumagai. Like Rifu, Onagawa is a coastal city that sustained heavy destruction.

“We haven’t received any subsidy, even one yen, from the central government,” Suda said. “Whatever we do for the venues, for the hospitality for the Olympics, we have to do ourselves.”

Some media reports have made the claim that the Olympics have hampered the reconstruction efforts, taking workers away from the region to help with construction in Tokyo.

Japan is one of the most earthquake- and tsunami-prone areas in the world. On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 quake offshore caused a tsunami that triggered meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. The quake and tsunami heavily damaged coastal neighborhoods in northeastern Japan and took more than 18,000 lives.

Tokyo, which projected total costs of about $7.5 billion in its winning bid for the games in 2013, is reportedly spending about $20 billion to prepare the city to host the games.

A group of anti-Olympic activists, many from outside Japan, have held small protests and other events this summer under the Japanese title “Han-gorin no Kai” — which translates roughly to No Olympics. They oppose Olympic spending, which they say cuts into budgets for housing and environmental issues.

They also call for more money to rebuild Fukushima prefecture located northeast of Tokyo. Organizers say Fukushima is a main focus of the Olympics, staging baseball, softball and soccer games there to persuade the world the area is safe.

Tokyo organizers have faced a series of hurdles as they prepare to host the games. In August, Tokyo’s summer heat forced an Olympic women’s triathlon qualifying event to be shortened because of high temperatures that are likely to impact next year’s games.

Tsunekazu Takeda, the head of the Japanese Olympic Committee, was forced to quit earlier this year when he was implicated in a vote-buying scheme to land the games. He has denied wrongdoing, but acknowledged he signed off on about $2 million that French investigators allege went to buy votes.