Everyone knows of Egypt’s incredible, global dominance in the game of squash. The country has been producing squash players that take home sport’s biggest trophies worldwide, year after year. So, what is behind this country’s ability to consistently produce players of excellence for over half of a century?
It all lies in Geography and Politics.
From World Open titles to U.S. Intercollegiate Individual Championships, Egypt’s professional squash players, both men and women, have been consistently dominating the world’s stage for some time now. Similar to the U.S.’s domination of Basketball, squash players like Ramy Ashour and Mohamed El Shorbagy of today’s circuits were cultivated much in the same way as Egyption players from decades ago.
It all started to the earliest days of squash in the 1800s, when the sport began to spread through Britain (where it was invented in a prep school in 1830), the entire U.K., and throughout Europe. The popularity of the sport grew and the British began building clubs for colonial officers in Alexandria and Cairo, Egypt. Remember, this was the days of mass British colonizing.
This is where it all began.
Egyptian staff and ball boys were introduced to the sport as they assisted the British in their gameplay, and during off-hours, they had the squash court to themselves. An Egyptian diplomat, F.D. Amr Bey, was squash’s first great international champion, and he learned to play while he was in England. He won British Open championships left and right, which inspired those in Egypt, working as ball boys and staff at British squash clubs, to become great players in their own rights.
One such player was Mahmoud El Karim, who began as a ball boy and went on to rack up four of his own British Open championships in the 1940s, only a decade after F.D. Amr Bey.
While the decades between the 1950s and 1990s were lacking in international championships due to constant waring, domestic turmoil, and other political factors, the seed had been planted in Egypt for modern day excellence to return.
One of the consequences of playing squash in a country that was essentially on lockdown during political problems and conflicts, Egyptians had a saving grace they did not even know they had: Geography.
During the decades of essential lockdown, the top Egyptian players headed to Europe, where competing in the game of squash was a lot more open to them and allowed them to play freely around the world. This is when the drop in Egyptian squash occurred. However, this ended up being a silver lining for children and players who were left behind.
What happens when your top players leave and there are only a certain number of competitors left? A Masterclass in Squash.
Amr Shabana, four-time squash world champion, was 10 years old in the late 1980s, and along with Ahmed Barada, age 12 at the time, used this foundation to become squash greats. Together, they began playing at Cairo’s Maadi Club.
Due to Egypt’s remaining squash talents being unable to tour and compete, this meant that these players stayed and competed right in Cairo — where kids and new squash players like Barada and Shabana could practice with advanced players. While they may not have been “world class,” these players were still great and to new players and young children, practicing with such talent is a recipe for success.
Silver Linings in Cairo
The geography of Cairo also aided in the ability of Egyptians to play more squash with great players during Egypt’s lockdown. The squash clubs in the city were essentially within a half hour of each other, which meant that squash thrived and grew in number of players. Shabana said himself, “This is the main reason why squash thrived…Everybody pushed each other. This was I think quite unique.”
Think about the U.S. The major hubs for squash are scattered between vast areas like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Cairo’s tight knit squash community were able to make each other better players with a lot of diverse competition, learning from other great players, and constant availability to clubs.
Advantages of Egyptian Tournament Rules
For young players like Barada and Shabana, the rules of Egyptian tournaments were in their favor as well, allowing them to cultivate their squash skills more frequently in competition than players from other countries.
If you were 10 years old, for example, you could compete simultaneously in multiple brackets, unlike in England or the U.S. You could compete in five times the amount of matches as European and American players could on tournament. A 10 year old could compete in: Under 12, Under 14, Under 16, Under 19, and men’s tournaments! This honed the skills of young players in a way that was not possible for European or American squash players.
A New Age of Squash
With the help of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, squash was now being promoted on the national level due to the prestigious talent of this new generation of Egyptian players. In 1996, President Mubarak managed to bring a major international tournament to Egypt and even had a glass squash court built in front of the Pyramids of Giza.
Barada was 19 by then and reached the finals. He would later reach second place in the World Rankings. Shabana, his childhood friend and fellow player, would reach Barada’s ranking seven years later, and he became the first Egyptian to win the World Open, in 2003.
The Rest is History
After this resurgence to the world’s stage, Egypt became more open to the world after decades of political problems and war, and Egyptian players could now stay in their country and compete to win world tournaments as opposed to having to move to Europe.
However, squash’s popularity increased but was still accessible to the upper class and those lucky enough to be a ball boy or work in a squash club. The fees drive some out of the ability to afford playing the game, and so it is still revered but not widely played in Egypt. Of 82 million residents, only a few thousand have the privilege of playing in this country.
Just think of the untapped talent out there.
Despite this, Squash is Egypt’s second most popular sport after Football (Soccer).
Because of geography and politics, the availability of squash was stunted in Egypt throughout the 20 century, leading to a surprising silver lining of talented young people to take advantage of practicing and competition on an enormous scale, with great players. This foundation to world excellence still remains today.
However, with more top Egyptian players once again living in Europe, America, and Canada due to lack of government support for the game of squash, Egyptian dominance within the country may be affected in the future. If the best current players do not live in the country, then how will the next generation train like Barada and Shabana, and become the next great international players? Only time will tell.