Mohamed El Shorbagy, the former world No 1 squash champion, has divided opinion in his homeland of Egypt after switching allegiance to play for England.
“I’m really excited to be representing England. I have lived in England more than half my life and I’ve trained under British coaches since the age of 15,” El Shorbagy, 31, said in a video interview with England Squash, the country's national governing body for the game.
The Bristol-based, world No 3 player, who became a British citizen earlier this year, said he felt he owed it to England “to try and win titles for them playing under the English flag, for everything they have done for me”.
But the decision, announced on Monday, did not sit well with the Egyptian Squash Federation. It responded to criticism that Egypt did not do enough to support El Shorbagy with a strongly worded letter explaining and defending its role.
On social media, some Egyptians congratulated El Shorbagy on the move, saying it was the right choice for his career, while others called him a traitor.
Egyptian squash players, both male and female, have dominated the sport globally over the past two decades. Six Egyptian men are currently in the top 10 Professional Squash Association world tour rankings, including No 1 Ali Farag. Five Egyptian women are in the top 10, led by No 1, Nouran Gohar.
England, where the sport originated in the early 19th century, now has the No 3 men’s spot in the shape of El Shorbagy, while the next English player is Patrick Rooney at No 21.
El Shorbagy spent 50 months as the world’s best player between 2014 and 2021. He has 44 professional titles to his name, placing him joint sixth on the all-time men’s winners list.
The Alexandria-born star trained in his hometown and then with the Heliopolis Sports Club in Cairo, which ended his contract after the announcement.
At age 15, he moved to the UK, where he attended Millfield School in Somerset, England, and was coached by six-time British Open champion Jonah Barrington. He studied at the University of the West of England in Bristol and has stayed ever since.
The decision to play for England was not an easy one and took three to four months, El Shorbagy told BBC Arabic.
“My mind was telling me to do something and my heart was telling me to do something completely different,” he said.
As much as he loves Egypt, he said he did not get enough support from his home country, in contrast to getting “all the support I need” from England. He also criticised the fact that he never got any Egyptian sponsors.
Former squash player Amr Mansi, who used to coach El Shorbagy and founded El Gouna’s International Squash Open in 2010, said he does not judge or fault him.
“It’s a very professional decision. He decided that it’s his last three, four years of his career. He wants to do the best for himself,” Mansi told The National.
“He has done a lot for Egypt. We can analyse and see why this happened — I agree with that 100 per cent. But I don’t like that people are attacking him,” he added.
The Egyptian Squash Federation and the Egyptian Ministry of Youth and Sports are “trying their best”, but “maybe they need to do more not to lose other players”, Mansi said.
A letter posted by the Egyptian Squash Federation explained its view in six points. Firstly, it said it respected the “player’s free will and his preference to benefit another country”.
Secondly, it noted that El Shorbagy learnt and played squash in Egypt until he became one of the best players in the world and then went to the UK to study. The last time he represented the Egyptian national team was in 2011.
Thirdly, he earned awards and money from the ministry while playing for the Egyptian national team and was honoured by President Abdel Fattah El Sisi with the Sports Medal of the First Class in January, 2018.
Fourthly, the federation and the ministry “provided support for the player within the limits of the state’s capabilities” and he is like all other players representing Egypt who “are still raising the Egyptian flag over the world”. However, because El Shorbagy lived abroad from a young age, it affected their ability to assist and communicate with him.
Fifthly, it speculated that his British citizenship is the main reason for his departure from the national team and his permanent residence in the UK.
It concluded that “raising the flag of Egypt is priceless” and “Egypt has a track record of champions”.
Board member Amna El Tarabolsy said the federation usually supports juniors up until the age of 19 more than professionals “except for the world championships when they’re representing Egypt as an individual or on a team”.
“[El Shorbagy] went to England from a young age, so there was not the chance for us to get him sponsors like we did for the other players,” she told The National.
A Commercial International Bank campaign at Cairo airport celebrates the Egyptian squash players it sponsors. These do not include El Shorbagy but do include his younger brother, world No 9 Marwan El Shorbagy.
Although El Shorbagy's choice to play for England is a “personal decision”, Ms El Tarabolsy said many Egyptians were “shocked”.
“Mohamed was playing a few days ago in Gouna, and everyone was cheering for him,” she said. “But for us, we were waiting for that, because he has been living in the UK for 16 years now. Whenever we asked Mohamed to represent Egypt in any of the world championships, he always refused.”
El Shorbagy is playing in his first tournament representing England at the Mauritius Open, a PSA World Tour event taking place through to Saturday.
He did not respond to a request for comment from The National, but his brother, Marwan, said they both wanted to focus on the tournament.
El Shorbagy will participate in the British Squash Championship in Manchester between June 14 to 18, for which England Squash is already promoting him as the “Beast of Bristol”.