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.


Revamped Barcelona start new season with spotlight on Messi

Updated 24 September 2020

Revamped Barcelona start new season with spotlight on Messi

MADRID: Lionel Messi will be there when Barcelona start their season on Sunday, just as he has been for the last two decades.

His every move, however, will be scrutinized like never before.

After all, never before had Messi told the club that he wanted to leave, and never before had Messi been forced to stay.

Will Messi still give his best? Will he still be motivated? Will the transfer saga affect him?

Some of those questions may start being answered on Sunday when Barcelona open their Spanish league season against Villarreal at the Camp Nou. It will be the club’s league debut after the first two matches were postponed because of their  participation in the Champions League late last season.

The team’s last official match was the embarrassing 8-2 loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarterfinals in August, one of the worst defeats in the club’s history and in Messi’s career. The result thrust Barcelona into one of their worst crises ever, and led Messi to make public his desire to leave.

The Argentina great eventually backtracked after Barcelona denied his request to leave for free. He said he didn’t want to get into a legal dispute with the “club of his life.” But Messi made it more than clear that he would have rather left, and openly criticized club president Josep Bartomeu for not keeping his promise to let him go.

Still, Messi said he would give his best despite having wanted to leave, and there were no signs of any letdown in the preparation matches in which he played ahead of what should be his final season with the club.

“For a moment I thought he wouldn’t stay with us,” Barcelona teammate Sergi Roberto said. “He’s our captain, the best player this club has ever had and the best player in the history of soccer. I couldn’t imagine Barça without Leo. It’s normal that he may have wanted a different experience, but he has given it all for this club throughout the years. He has been motivated since he came to the first team. He is very professional.”

Messi stayed but Barcelona will have a new coach as part of the profound changes announced by the club following the loss to Bayern. Ronald Koeman arrived to replace Quique Setien, and it didn’t take long before the Dutch coach said he wanted to revamp the squad. Barcelona will start the season without some of their key players from recent years, including Ivan Rakitic, who rejoined Sevilla, and Luis Suarez, who joined rival Atletico Madrid.

Also new for Barcelona is the fact that they will be coming off a trophy-less season for the first time since 2007-08. The team finished five points behind Real Madrid in the league last season despite having the lead when the competition was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic with 11 matches remaining.

 

Madrid vs. Pellegrini

Defending champion Real Madrid have a difficult second match on Saturday against Real Betis, which have won two in a row to start the season under veteran Chilean coach Manuel Pellegrini, a former Madrid coach.

Madrid struggled in attack in its opening 0-0 draw at Real Sociedad last Sunday, when Eden Hazard still wasn’t available. It remains unlikely that Hazard will be fit to face Betis at the Benito Villamarín Stadium.

 

Suarez’s Atletico

Atletico will make their Spanish league debut on Sunday against Granada at the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium, but it’s unclear if Suarez will be ready to play after joining from Barcelona.

Diego Costa was set to be in the attack after Alvaro Morata joined Juventus to open space for Suarez.

Like Atletico and Barcelona, Sevilla also had their first two matches postponed because of European competition after winning the Europa League in August. And their  opener on Sunday at promoted Cadiz will come only three days after they play  Bayern Munich in the the Super Cup.