An Egyptian squash player caused a stir last week when he celebrated a victory by ripping off his shirt and tossing it to the home crowd assembled around the glass court at the foot of the Pyramids of Giza.
Mostafa Asal started celebrating while the referees were still deliberating a call regarding the last point, and before he even got the chance to shake opponent Paul Coll’s hand.
“What is Asal doing ripping his shirt off as if he’s Cristiano Ronaldo?” mused one of the commentators on the website SquashTV.
The official no-let decision came moments later and the crowd erupted for a second time as 19-year-old Asal placed his hands on his ears in tribute to Al Ahly footballer Momen Zakaria, who is battling nervous system disease ALS and has received similar gestures of support from the likes of Mohamed Salah and others who have mimicked Zakaria’s signature celebration.
If you’re wondering why someone ripping his shirt off after completing a huge upset in front of his home fans at a prestigious tournament staged in front of the majestic pyramids is such a big deal, I don’t blame you.
Such celebrations are a common sight in many sports, but not in squash.
The world junior champion was met with lots of criticism following that match against Coll, with his “antics” deemed controversial by many.
“I don't like it at all. Way over the top. Disrespectful. Be excited – of course. But pulling the shirt off and tossing it into the crowd? Nope,” posted one Twitter user. Scores of people echoed these sentiments.
Saudi Arabian squash professional Nada Abo Alnaja came to Asal’s defence, tweeting: “He’s 19 years old, and it was a spontaneous way for him to express happiness. When he’s more mature he would probably change his behaviour for sure.”
The video of Asal’s wild celebration has more than 32,000 views on Twitter and created a debate that raged on for several days. More people talked about it than about the Egyptian Squash Open itself, a spectacular tournament held at a historic location.
Amanda Sobhy, the highest ranked American in PSA history, posted a poll on her Instagram asking whether people thought a character like Asal was good for squash and 70 per cent voted against the Egyptian teenager’s behaviour.
Sobhy posed a similar question on Twitter and the response was more varied.
“If you compare to other sports and how players react, we seem like robots!” tweeted Sobhy, the world No 7.
“We need more characters who express themselves and show emotion and passion. Squash needs to end the stigma of being a cookie cutter sport in my opinion. Every sport has its players who are over the top whether good or bad. Any publicity for the sport is good publicity in my opinion. Look at the views on this video compared to all the others.”
Sobhy is not wrong and it seems several top players agree with her, since they can see first-hand how niche of a discipline squash is perceived to be, and how little attention it gets in comparison to other sports. Long-time world No 1 Mohamed Elshorbagy responded to Sobhy on social media with a GIF of a shirtless Novak Djokovic celebrating a victory at the Australian Open.
The legendary Nicol David – one of the greatest squash players in history – sent a text message of support to Asal that read: “Hey Mostafa! That was an amazing win! So happy for you. Just keep playing with your heart the way you do and that’s all that matters. Go for it and keep up the great energy out there!”
It’s great to see that the pros are welcoming this kind of passion and emotion but many followers of the sport are resisting it. Why is it that so many of these traditional sports are terrified by anything remotely different or new?
You can disagree on whether you like someone’s celebration or not, but branding someone “bad for the sport” because he steered away from the typical handshake (or racquet tap in these Covid times) is not doing squash any favours – in fact, it’s holding it back.
The reaction to Asal from many squash fans reminded me of the response Nick Kyrgios has been getting over the past several years in tennis. The uber-talented Australian rubs some people up the wrong way essentially because he is different to what they are accustomed to. But Kyrgios has single-handedly brought countless new fans to the sport and he’s done it by simply being himself. That’s what Asal did. He was just being himself.
“It was so emotional for me to win that match,” Asal told SquashTV after his win over Coll earned him a place in his first-PSA World Tour Platinum semi-final.
“Some people will say it was good, Mostafa, express your feelings and get it from the heart. But I know some people will disagree with this.
“Maybe I’m sorry for them, but I couldn’t express my feeling when I beat someone like Paul Coll, a great name in the game.
“If anyone is inside this situation and inside this crowd and inside this venue and is playing with maybe the best player in the world and he won this match, it’s a very difficult situation.
“I had the fear inside that I’m worried about my people, I didn’t want to lose in a bad way in front of them or I didn’t play my game. All the people came to cheer me and they were going to go back home sad.
“I know that squash is quiet but we need our sport to get more life into it and I hope that sport is going up and up and up. People will say it’s good for the sport, and people will say it’s not good for our sport as a classy sport, and for squash. But when I saw people before, like Djokovic when he won a Grand Slam in 2013, he ripped off his T-shirt; everybody will celebrate in their own way.”
Squash, and other sports, should embrace the uniqueness and individuality of its protagonists. Instead of policing a player’s emotions – which is what resonates with viewers the most – maybe we should ask ourselves why we feel so threatened or shaken by anyone who challenges the so-called “norms”.