Egypt’s close relations with Saudi Arabia are being tested by an uproar over alleged soccer meddling by the kingdom’s Sports Minister.
Turki al-Sheikh’s attempts over the last year to exert control over Al-Ahly, Egypt’s biggest team, have enraged fans and officials alike. The acrimonious fallout led al-Sheikh to purchase a rival club in a bid to challenge Al-Ahly’s supremacy, but as anger mounted he recently withdrew his investment, leaving the future of the top-tier team in doubt.
The two governments have yet to publicly comment on al-Sheikh’s intrusion into Egyptian soccer. Saudi Arabia is one of Egypt’s chief economic backers and both nations are taking part in a boycott against 2022 World Cup host nation Qatar. Al-Sheikh is a close confidant of Saudi Arabia’s assertive young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
“Officials in the two countries must quickly contain the crisis,” political analyst Hassan Nafaa said. “If it’s not dealt with, it has the potential to spill over and rekindle differences over regional issues.”
The ongoing upheaval is destabilizing soccer in Egypt as it tries to shake off memories of the national team’s group-stage exit at the World Cup in June.
The dispute with Al-Ahly dates back to al-Sheikh’s appointment in December as an honorary president of Africa’s most successful team. With deep pockets and global soccer connections, he wasted no time to take his largely ceremonial position beyond its scope. Al-Ahly players who were surplus to requirements or unhappy secured moves to Saudi clubs, he bankrolled the new contracts for key players and announced plans to fund a new stadium.
His attempt to wield influence over Al-Ahly drew a sharp reaction from its chairman, Mahmoud el-Khateib, the former African player of the year who is beloved by fans for delivering success on the field in the 1970s and 80s.
“No one, no one at all — with all due respect to Turki or no Turki … will be allowed to interfere in the club’s affairs,” el-Khateib said earlier this year. He has not spoken publicly about the matter since then.
Al-Sheikh made more enemies in Egypt during the World Cup with an inappropriate comment about hoping forward Mohamed Salah would not recover from a shoulder injury in time to face Saudi Arabia in the group stage.
At the same time, al-Sheikh was also plotting his next move in Egypt. After falling out with Al-Ahly’s leadership, al-Sheikh moved on to buy El-Assiuti FC and renaming it Pyramids FC and recruiting South American players, some of the best local talent available and an Argentine coach. He also launched a club-affiliated TV channel on which former England and Chelsea captain John Terry appeared as a pundit.
Eight games into the Egyptian Premier League season, Pyramids remains unbeaten and rivals are not happy, with the club widely seen as getting favorable treatment by soccer authorities, angering rival coaches.
Alaa Nabil of Arab Contractors decried what he alleged was undue influence being wielded by al-Sheikh over the league. In response, Nabil was fined $1,100 and suspended for two matches by soccer authorities.
Al-Ahly has also been punished, with expletives-laden chants against al-Sheikh leading to fans being banned from attending the club’s African Champions League game against Algeria’s Entente Setif in Cairo last week. Several fans were arrested for membership of an outlawed group, the Ultras, and incitement against the state.
In a show of solidarity with the fans, several Al-Ahly players and members of the club’s junior teams have defiantly posted photos of themselves with arms crossed as if handcuffed.
Al-Sheikh was expecting a far smoother experience, but his criticism of Egyptian sports officials and constant threats to expose them as corrupt or hypocritical are adding to his unwelcome reception.
Complaining recently on Facebook that “everyday a new problem emerges,” al-Sheikh has threatened to withdraw his investment in Pyramids. The club’s affiliated TV channel stopped broadcasting last week, and a major Saudi company, Sela, pulled out from a lucrative sponsorship deal with Al-Ahly.
Al-Sheikh has been embroiled in social media rows with leading international soccer officials in the past, including a FIFA vice president over a Saudi network’s pirating of Qatari-owned Middle East television rights to matches.
“Fans had no problem with al-Sheikh when he first came to Egypt, but they now do and we have his attitude to blame,” TV sports presenter Kareem Ramz said. “His tactics seem to be something like ‘I will give you money and in return I want you to kneel down and say I am the best thing in the world’.”
One of al-Sheikh’s main allies in his tussle with Al-Ahly is another club official embroiled in misconduct cases that are playing out on front pages and dominating sports talk shows in Egypt.
Murtada Mansour, chairman of Al-Ahly’s archrival Zamalek, has gained notoriety with vulgar outbursts over the years and has been sanctioned by the Confederation of African Football and the Egyptian Olympic Committee. In response, Mansour threatened to burn down CAF’s Cairo headquarters and challenged anyone to prevent him from running Zamalek or stop the team playing home fixtures, as the sanctions stipulate.
“I am a member of parliament and my immunity stays with me wherever I go,” Mansour said Monday before being banned by Egypt’s media regulator from making media appearances for three months.