Saudi money talks in Africa, especially in Egypt. But a cash-fuelled challenge to the continent's most successful football club, Al Ahly, has gone spectacularly awry. Report from Cairo by David Wood.
Soldiers, with little to do, question the rare drivers who approach Cairo's 30 June Stadium, the home of Africa's newest footballing heavyweight, Pyramids FC.
Security personnel comfortably outnumber civilians at the gate, just 20 minutes before kick-off against Ittihad Alexandria. A guard laughed away the idea that a crowd might turn up.
A smattering of applause heralded the arrival on pitch of Pyramids FC, with a squad reportedly assembled for over $30m --an African transfer window record. Rumours abound that the club has also purchased 'fans', but not one is in attendance tonight. The match plays out before a paltry group of reserve team players, club officials and chain-smoking soldiers.
Such is the match-day experience offered up by Pyramids FC, the brainchild of Turki Al-Sheikh, chairman of Saudi Arabia's General Sports Authority and a close associate of de facto Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
In June, Turki Al-Sheikh bought Egyptian Premier League team Al Assiouty, rebranded it as Pyramids FC, and splurged out on high-profile local and foreign recruits. The upstart team tasted immediate success and remained unbeaten for the league's first two months.
All the while, Al-Sheikh repeatedly enraged fans of Al Ahly, the Cairo-based club beloved by most Egyptians. Many believe that Al-Sheikh is using Pyramids FC to undermine Ahly, which has won the CAF Champions League an unmatched eight times. Al-Sheikh has defended his project with gusto, publicly alleging referee bias and demanding his critics' prosecution.
The mounting tension broke in September, when Ahly supporters made derogatory chants about Al-Sheikh's mother during a widely televised game. Furious, Al-Sheikh dramatically tweeted that he would stop investing in Pyramids FC and Egyptian football altogether.
From hero to zero
These days, the mere mention of Al-Sheikh's name provokes a feisty reaction from many Ahly fans. "He is foolish and nouveau richel" snapped one Cairene office worker, before adding several less palatable insults.
Yet Ahly supporters have not always felt such enmity for the controversial Saudi mogul. "Al-Sheikh was the 'Santa Claus of Ahly' for a time," chuckled Mohamed Qoutb, a sports journalist.
Al-Sheikh burst onto Egypt's football scene in...