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Egyptian MPs open Pandora's box on popular soccer team's finances

An exchange of accusations between Saudi soccer boss Turki al-Sheikh and Al-Ahly's board opens Pandora's box on the Egyptian soccer team's donations.

An angry exchange of words involving Argentine soccer coach Ramon Diaz between two heavyweights of Egyptian soccer — Saudi Arabian sports boss Turki al-Sheikh and Mahmoud Al-Khatib, the head of the Al-Ahly soccer team — has opened a Pandora’s box of parliamentary inquiries and legal procedures about the finances of Egypt’s popular soccer team.

The crisis escalated sharply June 3 when Sheikh announced his intention to file a complaint with the Egyptian attorney general accusing Khatib and the Al-Ahly board of misusing his donations, some 260 million Egyptian pounds ($14.5 million), which had been earmarked for the club’s development.

The controversy, still lively on social media, began May 23 when Saudi soccer team Al-Ittihad of Jeddah signed Diaz as its head coach, although Diaz had initially been in talks with Al-Ahly. The deal raised Al-Ahly fans’ anger toward Sheikh, chairman of Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority and then-honorary president of Al-Ahly. In social media messages and statements, they accused the Saudi sports boss of putting the interests of a Saudi team before the interests of Al-Ahly and “swaying Diaz away from Al-Ahly to Ittihad Jeddah.”

Faced with criticism both from the fans and even some members of the board, Sheikh announced his resignation from the post of honorary president. However, his parting remarks inflamed the controversy even further. He launched a counterattack on the soccer team’s board and its chairman, Khatib, a former Al-Ahly player, accusing them of backpedaling on the deal with Diaz and stressing that he only recommended Diaz to Ittihad Jeddah after the Al-Ahly board’s reluctance. Sheikh also criticized Al-Ahly of mishandling its contractual dealings with players and head coaches, which led to the club “wasting” contributions of 260 million Egyptian pounds.

Following Sheikh's reference to this hefty donation, some members of the House of Representatives on May 28 launched a campaign against Al-Ahly’s board of directors, also headed by Khatib. An investigation was requested by the Ministry of Youth and Sports in relation to alleged corruption in the Al-Ahly board elections, which took place Dec. 1. The deputies want to look deeper in the donations made in the elections, including their source and their use.

Mohammed Abu Hamed, a member of the Social Solidarity Committee and who also heads the campaign against the board of directors, told Al-Monitor that the foreign funding law gives all institutions, including clubs, the right to receive foreign funding after obtaining approval from the Ministry of Social Solidarity or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “But it does not grant the right to any candidate for club leadership to receive funding for his campaign from non-Egyptians, because that constitutes foreign intervention in the [board] elections. This disqualifies Khatib from obtaining funding from Sheikh for his election campaign for Al-Ahly,” Abu Hamed said.

After several attempts, Al-Monitor was able to make contact with Sherif Fouad, the official Al-Ahly Club spokesman who said in a succinct statement, “The accusation of violating election rules by obtaining donations for Khatib’s candidacy is an official question, not one for the media. So the proper place for responding to them is the public prosecution.”

Parliament member Gamal Sharif, a member of the Legislative Committee of the House of Representatives, told Al-Monitor that the Al-Ahly board violated law No. 71 of the Sports Act 2017, specifically in relation to receiving and organizing donations to clubs. “Donations may only be accepted after branches or directorates from the Ministry of Youth and Sports in the governorate affiliated with the club are notified. The Ministry of Youth and Sports said in a statement May 29 that the Directorate of Youth and Sports in Cairo was not notified by Al-Ahly about donations from Sheikh,” Sharif said.

Mohamed Sweilem, director of the Directorate of Youth and Sports in Cairo, told Al-Monitor that the directorate had sent an official letter to the Al-Ahly board of directors in January when it learned that Sheikh had donated the costs of the club’s contract with star striker Salah Mohsen, and that the letter noted the requirement that the Al-Ahly board should have informed the directorate of all donations received from Sheikh or others in accordance with law No. 71.

Following Sheikh’s posts, the directorate formed a committee to review all of Sheikh’s donations to the Al-Ahly Club to identify and control all aspects of spending, Sweilem said.

Mahmoud Kebeish, former dean of the Faculty of Law at Cairo University, told Al-Monitor that the law had been enacted to ensure that no foreign party or individual can use Egyptian clubs as a means of illegally smuggling funds into Egypt. “Money goes into club accounts as donations and then goes from club accounts to personal accounts in Egypt or perhaps abroad. This reflects a kind of activity akin to smuggling or money laundering,” he said.

This is hardly the first such inquiry into Egypt’s soccer scene. Al-Ahly's most famous rival, Zamalek, also was accused of money laundering in September 2017, and some of its board members — most notably Hany Zada — are under investigation by the attorney general; the club's bank accounts are also under investigation by the Accountability State Authority.

Al-Ahly spokesman Fouad denied to Al-Monitor the occurrence of any illegal actions with donations, saying that all donations enter the club’s account with plans to invest them and are not spent the moment the club receives them.

Anwar Salama, a sports critic, celebrity, trainer and a former member of the Al-Ahly Football Committee, told Al Monitor that Al-Ahly’s huge donations and budget resulted in the contracting of a large number of players, without any real need for them in recent years. He said the sheer abundance of highly paid players in Al-Ahly has “virtually emptied other teams of distinguished players” because most of them moved to Al-Ahly.

He considered Al-Ahly's policy a direct cause of the absence of real competition in the Egyptian league and called for a law that protects competition between clubs in Egypt, setting a maximum limit for annual contracts and transfers.

Fouad denied that Al-Ahly had a monopoly on top players, saying the club's repeated defeats in the Egyptian Cup from 2012 to 2018 prove the invalidity of this accusation.

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