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James Green

Jun 5th 2024

Why I Loved The Mostafa Asal Documentary

Mostafa Asal Doc Image

"Despite knowing the motivation behind the documentary, I was moved by it..."

I don’t know if you’ve seen Raging Bull, yet, the Professional Squash Association-produced documentary about Mostafa Asal, who briefly rose to World Number One when Ali Farag was injured last year. If not, I couldn’t recommend it more highly. And it’s free on YouTube.

It’s worth noting that I knew before watching the documentary, it’s designed to rehabilitate Mr. Asal’s checkered reputation. Much of his on-court behavior is difficult to forgive.

And yet, I was moved by the documentary, and I think you will be too. Here’s why.

The first thing that leapt out to me is how you really get to know a person when you play squash with them. You could see how Marwan ElShorbagy, whom Asal injured at the Houston Open last year, wouldn’t participate in the documentary. Because he’s gotten to know Mr. Asal and he’s had enough of him, evidently. But Mr. Asal’s character really came across in the documentary and you could see that he’s a complex person with a variety of sides to him. You can’t reduce him to a cartoon villain. He’s a human being.

On the other hand, I believe in life that people really can change, if they want to. Whether it’s from addiction or bad behavior on a squash court. People can change. I began my life as a musician, now I run a startup in the Bronx. I changed. And I believe that such changes can manifest in any field. In Mr. Asal’s journey, he decided to lose weight as a junior, and got a lot quicker on the court. Then recently he’s been working with James Willstrop on his sportsmanship. He’s worked with Lee Drew, the squash referee, on his movement. He’s had multiple bans, but I do believe he’s trying to change.

The third thing that came across in the film is the idea of momentum in life. It’s very hard to change that momentum. So, let’s say you’re an aggressive person. If things are going well, people tend to say “oh, it’s because he’s aggressive.” But if things are going badly, they tend to say, “oh, it’s because he’s aggressive.” People read the same behavior in different ways. So, when he wins, Mr. Asal tends to celebrate by putting his hands to his ears and sticking his tongue out. People say it’s because he has no respect for the game, but he’s copying a celebration done by Moamen Zakaria, a former Egyptian professional footballer who was struck down by motor neurone disease in 2020. So, another person can read the celebration as a mark of respect for a fellow countryman with a disability. It’s a question of how one sees his momentum. I think we can all be a little more forgiving and open to people moving in new directions. After Mr. Asal beat Ali Farag to win the Black Ball Open, recently, Ali told the crowd it had been a pleasure playing him, and that he was a consummate gentleman on court. When you hear the World Number One saying that about a player with a bad reputation, it causes you to stop and think. This is a person whose momentum could be going in a different direction.

Mr. Asal’s story is yet to conclude, and it could go in any direction from here. I also liked the way the documentary probed the idea of unwritten rules about sportsmanship. Occasionally I’ve benefitted, for example, when a referee has awarded a stroke against my opponent when I thought it was a let. There are grey areas in the game that test our characters. I loved hearing from Mohamed ElShorbagy about how he had been trained to block other players as a junior, and how those techniques are available to any squash player, and are used by everyone on the pro tour. It was remarkably honest and insightful, and it puts pressure on the PSA and referees to be stricter.

I also loved hearing about the number of young people playing squash in Egypt in such a ferocious and competitive atmosphere, as juniors. One can only imagine how Mr. Asal emerged from such a fiercely competitive melting pot, and it was also amazing to hear about how he joined a club as a teenager that had been established in the 1920s because British clubs discriminated against Egyptians. There are complex layers of nuance and history there.

Mr. Asal has already claimed his place in squash history by being the third youngest man in the history of the sport to reach world number one after the Pakistani legends the Khan brothers. Mohamed ElShorbagy compared Mr. Asal to Ramy Ashour and to himself, which places him in rare company indeed. I’m looking forward to seeing how his remarkable talent continues to push the game into new directions and broaden interest in squash around the world. But most of all, I love squash and all the inspirations it gives me.