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Fanatical about football, superstars at squash

Egyptians hold three of the top-four spots on the men’s professional squash circuit. Who knew?

Egyptians attend the FIFA U-20 World Cup quarter-finals soccer match between Brazil and Germany in Cairo, Oct. 10, 2009. While overtly soccer-mad, Egypt has quietly taken over as the world’s top squash-playing nation. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)

SHOROUK, Egypt — Mohamed Abou El Ghar roared triumphantly as his opponent slid across the court, missing the match point shot.

Abou El Ghar was on to the finals.

The Cairo Zone squash tournament, one of the country’s premier junior matchups, was being played in Shorouk, a dusty town on the Saharan plane, about 20 miles east of Cairo.

Just before El Ghar’s match, two 12-year-old girls had squared off in a semifinal, each player looking to the stands after each point, their body language begging for their parents' approval.

And few know better how demanding squash families can be than Egyptian referees.

“Do you want to move closer?” one of the mothers asked the referee, her voice brimming with sarcasm. “You probably can’t see from up there.”

When the match was over, the winner, a little wisp of a girl, fell exhausted into a chair and promptly put on the headphones from her iPod. The loser sobbed, as sympathetic onlookers comforted her.

By age 16, though, breakthrough players like El Ghar have shed any youthful insecurities. They have to be mentally tough if they’re going to join the elite ranks of what is the world’s top squash-playing nation.

Today, on the men’s professional squash circuit, Egyptians hold three of the top-four spots. They hold another nine positions in the top 100. Egyptian women occupy nine of the top 100 spots.

At the men’s U.S. Open in September, it was an all Egypt final.

Egypt’s dominance of the game has developed over the past decade, during which time it has surpassed countries like Britain and Pakistan to rule the sport.

One clue as to how Egypt, a low-income country, has come to dominate one of the world’s most elite sports lies in the early age at which players start and the dedication to the game demanded of them by their parents and coaches.

El Ghar, ranked No. 2 in Egypt’s under-17 circuit, started playing when he was just seven years old. These days, he trains six hours a day. His father, Ashraf, a constant presence at the Cairo club where his son practices, has let him forgo a formal education and squeeze in his studies when he can.

“If he goes [to school fulltime], he will have a good school and a good university,” said Cherine Adel, El Ghar’s former coach and still his mentor. “But he’s going to stop squash.”

Some of the world’s top players have shown that starting play from a young age pays off.