Egyptian squash player Mohamed el-Shorbagy was branded a traitor and sold out when he announced this month that he had joined the England national team.
Still, the athlete is not the first Egyptian to compete under a foreign flag, with experts saying the choice illustrates a pervasive problem of athletes feeling underpaid and under-equipped.
“There is only football and a few team sports” that are garnering support, former wrestler and coach of Egypt’s national team Hossam Hamed told AFP.
Other athletes, especially those in individual sports, have to deal with “outdated regulations” and “minimal remuneration, even after medals and international victories”.
He says Egyptian athletes who join other national teams are “rebelling against a painful reality”.
Explaining his choice, el-Shorbagy said “England gave me all the support I needed”, unlike his home country, where “no one paid attention to him” for years.
Currently world number 3, the Alexandria native is one of Egypt’s most decorated squash players, spending 50 months as world number one in a country that consistently dominates the sport globally. Five of the top 10 male athletes in the world are Egyptian, in addition to el-Shorbagy, as well as the top three female athletes.
But the champion is far from the first to swap the Egyptian flag, with a history of athletes in weightlifting, wrestling, horse riding, boxing and handball doing the same.
In 2018, after facing the Egyptian Wrestling Federation, wrestler Mahmoud Fawzy joined the United States team after several Arab and African gold medals.
At the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Fares Hassouna won one of Qatar’s first gold medals in weightlifting. After the social media backlash in Egypt, her father set the record straight.
Ibrahim Hassouna, himself an Egyptian weightlifting champion and former coach of the national team, explained that he was the one who left the country after his own clash with the federation, and had trained his son in Qatar since he was a child.
In both sports, explains Fathi Zariq, former treasurer of the Weightlifting Federation, “the athletes generally come from poor families”.
In a country where two-thirds of the population live below or just above the poverty line, sport can be a way out.
Weightlifters and wrestlers who start training at naked youth centers in disadvantaged neighborhoods, Zariq explained, “look to foreign nationalities in search of money and better social status.”
“How can the reward for an Olympic gold medal be a million pounds ($54,000), after all the years of training and preparation that went into it?”
In Egypt, where football reigns supreme and Mohamed Salah wears the crown, other athletes are green with envy. “In football, some players earn up to a million dollars a year, without even having to win a competition,” laughed Zariq.
Handball has seen a rare turnaround, according to Yasser Labib, former captain of the national team and head of the handball team at Al-Ahly Club, which along with rival Zamalek dominates the African Champions League.
In the 1990s, he explained, it was about hemorrhaging players, with Egyptian athletes playing all over the world except in Egypt.
“That is no longer the case,” he told AFP. “Salaries have increased, contracts have become more professional, and players no longer want another nationality, but only to play in the European championships”, while remaining in the Egyptian national team.
The key, he told AFP, is to put an end to parochial squabbles within the federations, and to increase funds dedicated to athletes.
This is a tall order for the Egyptian government, currently caught between double-digit inflation and crippling devaluation.
In 2019-2020, only $21.3 million was allocated by the government to all sports federations in a country of 103 million people, according to official figures. On the other hand, the budget of a country like France is around one billion dollars.
But experts say the solution may come from sponsors, although support must be sustained. Too often, says Hamed, sponsors see a player as “just a commodity they can cash in on for revenue or publicity, but as soon as he’s injured, it’s all over.”
Amir Wagih, a former squash champion and national team coach, believes support should continue after athletes retire, including through “job offers”.
Squash players, unlike weightlifters and wrestlers, typically come from high-income communities, trained at elite neighborhood sports clubs and leveraged their wins to earn scholarships to US and European universities. leading.
Wagih says it’s not money these athletes are looking for in their overseas careers, but opportunities for “a better future after retirement” they wouldn’t have in their home countries.