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 beaten by Valencia in early blow for Setien

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi in action against Valencia’s Francis Coquelin during their La Liga match in Valencia on Saturday. (Reuters)
Updated 26 January 2020

Barcelona beaten by Valencia in early blow for Setien

  • Uruguayan striker Maxi Gomez misses a penalty, hits the crossbar in the first half

VALENCIA: Quique Setien’s honeymoon period lasted less than a fortnight as he tasted his first Barcelona defeat on Saturday in his second La Liga game in charge after a 2-0 loss to Valencia.

Maxi Gomez’s strike and a Jordi Alba own goal at Mestalla handed Barca their fourth league defeat of the campaign, giving Real Madrid the chance to move three points clear of the champions at the top of the table when they visit Real Valladolid on Sunday.
Barcelona had most of the ball but their opponents had the best chances as Gomez missed a penalty and also hit the crossbar in the first half. Gabriel Paulista saw a third goal ruled out late on.
While performances under previous coach Ernesto Valverde were stodgy, he left a team that sat top of the table.
Setien promised a new style but despite dominating possession, Barcelona went nowhere with it and as Valencia grew in confidence, they ceded control.
“It should not take us long,” Setien had said on Friday, when asked how quickly his players could adapt to his methods.
Valencia climb to fifth and continue to improve under Albert Celades. This success came without their captain Dani Parejo and, largely, without star striker Rodrigo Moreno, who has been linked with a January move to Barcelona.
The hosts hardly touched the ball for the first six minutes, their fans whistling as they urged a more aggressive approach.
But the plan was to sit and absorb and it worked, with Barcelona unable to cut through or create a single clear chance.
And when Valencia did intervene, they were more dangerous too. With their first attack they won a penalty as Jose Gaya slipped past Gerard Pique and would surely have scored from eight yards before being brought down.
Pique was booked and, with Parejo absent, Gomez stepped up, only for his driven shot to be well saved by Marc-Andre ter Stegen, albeit with the help of half a yard’s headstart off his line.
Barca were riding their luck. Sergi Roberto’s header cannoned off Pique but fell just close enough for Ter Stegen, who parried a Gomez shot onto the crossbar and almost spilled another to Kevin Gameiro.
Referee Gil Manzano put his hands together as if to apologize after failing to play advantage when Ferran Torres was clear but the frustration of Valencia’s fans turned to ecstasy shortly after half time.
Pique’s flicked header landed at the feet of Gomez, whose driven effort took a cruel deflection off Alba and flew in.
Setien traded the patience of Arthur Melo for the physicality of Arturo Vidal and Rodrigo came on to a rousing reception.
Barcelona exerted some pressure and Lionel Messi led the way, hauled to the ground by Francis Coquelin and then denied by a brilliant Gabriel tackle. He fired past the post, headed wide and saw a curling free kick saved.
Yet just as a Barcelona equalizer began to feel inevitable, Valencia struck again. A quick throw caught Alba out of position and Torres did well to cut inside and switch to Gomez. He took a touch and curled into the corner.
Gabriel thought he had a third after volleying in from a corner but VAR persuaded Manzano there had been a push. When Messi ballooned a late free kick into the stands, Valencia knew their win was secure.