CAIRO: Egypt’s dominance in global squash puts it in a league of its own. The top four men’s players in the world are from Egypt; six of the top 10 are from Egypt. The women’s game is only slightly behind — the world’s top four are Egyptian, and five Egyptians make up the world’s top 10.
In 2019, Egypt won the Men’s World Team Squash Championship, the first time that one country monopolized all world titles — for men, women, juniors and teams — in one year.
So how did Egypt become such a squash superpower? It began with Abdel-Fattah Amr winning the British Open men’s title six consecutive times between 1933 and 1938.
Fast forward to 1983 when Gamal Awad made a name for Egypt when he and former No. 1 Jahangir Khan set a world record for the longest squash match, two hours and 46 minutes, before going down to the great Pakistani 9-10, 9-5, 9-7, 9-2.
Former President Hosni Mubarak was Egypt’s most famous nonprofessional squash player. Mubarak was a keen competitor and admirer of the sport who helped to promote it with government funding.
Amir Wagih, Egypt’s national team coach from 1994 to 2012, said: “He followed our achievements and showed great support for the players and the sport itself,” Wagih said.
Ahmed Barada is credited with attracting world attention to Egypt’s talent for the sport. Barada was the country’s first squash superstar. As well as being an excellent player, he had movie-star good looks — and was a film actor and pop singer.
While he never made it to world No. 1, he did reach No. 2, and his aggressive approach to the game might have pushed him to the top had he not been forced to retire early following a knife attack in 2000.
Barada’s success encouraged junior players to emulate him. “Everyone wanted to be like me,” Barada once said. “Those tournaments were on television, so people who’d never heard of squash were suddenly watching it. And there were 5,000 people in the stands.”
In 2003, Amr Shabana became Egypt’s squash world champion. The left-handed Shabana had the speed and the shots that would earn him the title three more times.
Since 2003, an Egyptian has won the men’s world championship 10 times. The girls’ junior national team have won the world championship seven years running. When Egypt’s men’s team crushed England 2-0 in December to win their fifth world title in Washington, DC, they equaled England’s record. Now Egypt is just three short of Australia, which has lifted the title eight times, followed by Pakistan with six titles.
Egypt has about 2,000 players aged five to 10, a deep reservoir of talent.
“We give all the players in all the age group categories the same attention,” president of the Egyptian Squash Association Assem Khalifa said. “It’s like a relay, in which each age group hands on to the following one, so we are never lacking in players. This way we can guarantee preserving the top spots in the world ranking.”
Squash is also a passport to a good education abroad, something many Egyptian parents aspire to for their children. There are, for example, four Egyptian players studying at Harvard.
Almost all the players come from Egypt’s two biggest cities, Cairo and Alexandria. Their proximity means they can play against each other easily.
And tie the knot. Two pairs of top-five players are married. Tarek Mo’men, crowned the 2019 Professional Squash Association men’s world champion, made history when he and Raneem El-Welily became the first married couple in squash history to be world champions.
There is also the Egyptian attacking style. Squash champions used to defeat their opponents by wearing them down in lengthy rallies. Egypt’s squash hegemony is impressive considering that the sport, which requires rackets, sneakers and courts, is expensive, beyond the means of most Egyptians.
Squash is also not where the money is, at least by the standards of other professional sports. The average professional squash player earns about $100,000 a year, and the top player earned about $280,000 in 2018, roughly what tennis players earned for reaching round 16 at the US Open last year.
And Egypt’s squash players are not in it for the fame. Forget Liverpool’s Egyptian ace Mohamed Salah. A third-rate footballer would be more recognizable on an Egyptian street than world No. 1 Ali Farag.