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Controversial teenager Mostafa Asal tells Rod Gilmour he has no regrets following his infamous Egyptian Open clash with Paul Coll

 “We are not robots. This is what the sport needs,” Mostafa Asal says of the standout moment in squash’s pandemic-ridden year, which not only divided fans but transcended the sport’s fraternity. “You must express your feelings and I don’t care if anyone talks with negative vibes. I’m still 19 and I want to enjoy these moments.”

In case you were hibernating in October, controversy erupted at the end of Asal’s drama-fuelled quarter-final clash against Paul Coll at the CIB Egyptian Open. On match point in the fifth game, Coll dropped into the tin. The Kiwi turned and looked at the referee to claim obstruction, but Asal was already pulling off his shirt and throwing it towards the raucous, partisan crowd in front of the Great Pyramid of Giza, his arms flailing wildly in celebration.

It is safe to say that squash had rarely seen the like of it. Had Coll’s appeal been upheld, there would have been mayhem in the crowd and Asal would’ve needed to retrieve his shirt rather urgently.

As it was, the decision was ‘no let’ and thus began one of the most talked about incidents in many a year. “It was very emotional for me,” the Cairo-born student says of reaching his maiden PSA World Tour semi-final in his first tournament after a seven-month hiatus.

“My motivation in the last few months was to train hard, study well and then at the end of the week I could eat a cheat meal. “On a squash court, in front of fans and friends, I wanted to feel as relaxed as possible.”

I played some tough matches, beating Simon Rosner 3/0 and then former world no.1 James Willstrop 3/0, and then playing Paul.”

The Egyptian plays his squash at Al Ahly Sporting Club, known as ‘club of the century’ with its football team hailed as the most successful African side. Ahead of the match Asal had messages from friends and football fans alike asking for tickets.
“The crowd was fired up and it was something sensational for me to play in front of them,” adds Asal.

One hundred and three minutes later, and coming from 2/1 down, Asal had set the squash world alight.

“I remember Novak Djokovic when he won the Australian Open in 2013 and ripped off his shirt,” he says. “For me, it’s good for squash but what I did was not to make sure people talked about me but it was inside my heart. To beat Paul in front of Egypt after a really intense match, it was like winning a football match after extra-time.

“I like to watch all the sports, to see the celebrations of sportspeople and you see in tennis and other sports there are so many celebrations.

“There is no one in the top 10 firing up squash. I love to watch Greg Gaultier’s celebrations. Some say it’s negative, others say it’s positive. I just love to see him for the way he acts and celebrates from the heart. Ramy Ashour was the same when he won the world title in 2012.”

Asal insists his shirt didn’t reach the crowd and believes there was nothing wrong with his celebration, which followed a trend set by several Egyptian sports stars of placing their palms on the side of their head in tribute to popular footballer Moamen Zakariya, who has been diagnosed with Motor Neurone’s Disease.

“The match had 100 per cent ended as Paul had played his shot,” Asal continues. “I didn’t think it was going to be a review as the ball went into the tin. We need the sport to grow and I’m happy with all the reactions around the celebrations.”

The aftermath saw thousands of online views of the final point and comments galore on social media. Many claimed Asal’s celebrations were unsportsmanlike, immature and disrespectful at the end of a match which included blocking and claims of double bounces. Others believed his theatrics to be just the shot in the arm squash needed.
Friends told Asal not to look at social media. “The most important thing is for your family and coaches to say if it is right or wrong,” he reveals.

Coll also had his say. “It’s not the way I was brought up to play sport,” he told New Zealand media. “I’m happy to battle it out, but I’m all for fair play.”

“The match was full squash, fully intense,” said Asal. “For the balls that were down, I looked to the coaches, as it was difficult to know if the ball was good or not. The review will always tell you if it’s down or not.”

Whether you regard Asal’s behaviour as a long-overdue injection of zest and character to the game, or disreputable histrionics, there can be no denying what lies beneath it – passion.

“When you win you can’t describe it,” he says. “When you play 103 minutes in the toughest sport in the world against one of the toughest opponents, with a football crowd behind you, this hadn’t happened since Ahmed Barada [Egypt’s star in the 1990s].
“When I get older I’m sure I won’t do these kinds of celebrations. But any player in any sport can celebrate how he or she wants, to scream out, and I want to feel that again.” 

Playing up to four matches in one day at Egyptian national junior events helped Mostafa Asal adapt to the rigours of life on the PSA World Tour.

Asal’s coach, his uncle Ibrahim (a former pro), once entered him for the under-17 and under-19 events in the same tournament. As a then 16-year-old he was ranked national no.1 in both and recalled the prospect of playing matches at 1 and 2pm, before further back-to-back matches at 7 and 8 pm.

“I played in both finals, winning 3/0 in the under-17 and 30 minutes later I won the under-19 title,” Asal said. “I went to my coach and told him how tough it was, especially with how my body was feeling.

“I was exhausted but these events helped me a lot in my mental game”
A highly successful junior career yielded one British Junior Open and two world junior titles at under-19 level and the nickname ‘Raging Bull’ due to his goggles steaming up on court.

Stepping up to the seniors was never going to be an easy ride and he admitted to feeling immediate pressure to make the grade.

“At the Al Ahly club they are always no.1 in every sport,” he admits. “Being no.2 is like being no.30, so it was tough to start from the bottom as a pro, having been at the top as a junior.”

Before turning pro, Asal played over 20 events in each of the last two seasons, competing at both junior and senior level. “I was thinking about it every time, not to lose in the early PSA rounds and lose the winning feeling. It was hard to balance.”
Yet he has adapted remarkably well. From a ranking of 501 in February 2018, he is now inside the world’s top 16 and balancing his squash with second year studies in business informatics at the Academy of Egypt. Off court, he is ever-present on Fifa 21 Ultimate Team on the PlayStation, playing top-level leagues online. “It’s a competition there as well!” he jokes.