/ 17 March 2019

Afcon host Egypt bogged down in domestic football drama

Al Ahly fans before a match. Their club is currently engaged in a bitter war of words with Saudi-backed Pyramids FC.
Al Ahly fans before a match. Their club is currently engaged in a bitter war of words with Saudi-backed Pyramids FC. (Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

Little more than three months before it hosts the Africa Cup of Nations, Egyptian football has been plunged into its latest crisis with major clubs squabbling, games regularly called off and security services intervening amid ongoing safety concerns.

“This is the hardest season in the history of Egyptian football,” Amer Hussein, chairman of the domestic league’s competition committee which schedules matches, said.

With leading top-flight clubs also involved in African and pan-Arab competitions, the knock-on effect on the domestic calendar has this year thrown the Egyptian league into disarray.

It does not augur well for June and July, when Egypt will host the Cup of Nations for the fifth time, with 24 teams participating for the first time in an expanded format.

Egypt was chosen ahead of South Africa after Cameroon was stripped of its hosting duties by the Confederation of African Football. The tournament is due to take place during the searing Egyptian summer, from June 21 to July 19.

READ MORE: The bizarre rise of Pyramids FC – and the Saudi billionaire bent on revenge

The domestic league is set to run on well beyond the end of the Cup of Nations, with the possibility of extended runs in international competitions for Cairo giants Al Ahly and Zamalek potentially making things even more complicated.

The hasty preparations for the Cup of Nations have compounded the league’s woes at a time when Ahly and Zamalek have been hitting out at organisers along with their new, Saudi-funded rival Pyramids FC.

“Tensions running high”

In February, Pyramids FC publicly accused the federation of favouring their rivals. The club called the scheduling of fixtures an “injustice” to them and threatened to complain to FIFA.

Turki Al Sheikh, an influential Saudi businessman and a close political adviser to Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, has bankrolled the club after buying it last summer.

He has completely rebranded it with an aggressive marketing campaign and gone on a signing spree, bringing in foreign players from the likes of Brazil and Syria.

Al-Ahly, Egypt’s and Africa’s most successful club, have even refused to comply with the packed domestic schedule. They implicitly hit out at Pyramids FC, saying they would not bow to “pressure from a certain party”.

“Tensions are running high and that frightens football officials in Egypt with the Africa Cup of Nations around the corner,” said Amir Abdel Halim of popular Egyptian football website Fil Goal.

He said football authorities were trying to contain the “anger of Ahly supporters”, while also encouraging new “investments in Egyptian football embodied in Pyramids FC”.

“No football without security”

In the face of this wave of postponements and growing fan impatience, Egypt’s powerful security services have stepped in, in a country where football and politics have made for a lethal mix.

The country is still scarred by the deadly clashes which caused nearly 100 deaths on the sidelines of matches involving Ahly and Zamalek in 2012 and 2015 respectively.

“Ninety-five percent of postponements are because of the security services” Hussein explained. “There is no football without security.”

In the politically turbulent period after the 2011 uprising that toppled long-time ruler Hosni Mubarak, some fan groups attached to the two powerhouse clubs were instrumental in mobilising demonstrations and rallying supporters to political causes.

Last month, after weeks of media mudslinging between Ahly and Pyramids, the EFA announced that the match between both teams would be postponed “on orders from security services”.

“The EFA should have stuck to its original schedule” instead of “wanting to please everyone,” said Marwan Ahmed from influential website King Fut.

“The president of each club wants to show that he is the strongest,” he said.

The match is scheduled to be played next month, but behind closed doors.

“What matters most to football fans is watching their team, not fights outside grounds,” he added.

Egyptian football fans were allowed to attend domestic games regularly for the first time in three years only last year, but they must provide their details to security services in order to gain entry.