This week the attention of the squash world turns to the Red Sea resort of El Gouna, Egypt which plays host to the Orascom Development Women's World Championships and El Gouna International in what will be a festival of squash in the idyllic coastal resort.
And the man behind bringing squash to the region was former PSA World Tour player Amr Mansi, who after a troublesome start back in 2010 has made El Gouna synonymous with squash.
And Squash Player magazine recently sat down with the Egyptian visionary to find out more about the man making it all happen…
Amr El Mansi outlines his vision for squash in Egypt
Amr El Mansi, the founder of the El Gouna Open, a ground-breaking, peace-making tournament offering a model for a safer Egyptian future, remembers how he was once the butt of people’s jokes.
Amr’s playing career carried him just into the top 50 and no further, leaving him with no money and no qualifications, but plenty of ambition. It was a combination which made some people laugh.
Actually, his vision had value far beyond the realms of squash. It sought new opportunities for Egypt’s players to succeed on home shores, but was also an antidote to the economic damage wreaked by terrorism on tourism.
However, it left Amr open to satire. Seeking the financial backing to make it happen required a degree of openness, which presented an easy target for sharp tongues.
“I remember when I thought of this dream,” he told Squash Player. “The whole squash community used to make fun of me. The important thing I learned is that nothing is impossible.”
He did that by recognising the immense potential of a connection between three things – an oasis paradise created from a desert at El Gouna, the secure self-containment in this Red Sea resort and the increasingly global reputation of Egypt’s sublime squash players.
Linking them brought frightening obstacles which forged new qualities in him, but it was a painful process. “I had the worst time of my life before the 2010 tournament,” Amr admits. “I was so nervous, I had no sleep. It was a very big thing for me. I had no credentials, nothing.”
Eventually, he received limited but life-changing support from Samih Sawiris, the chairman of Orascom, a conglomerate valued at many tens of billions of dollars. It also owned the heavenly El Gouna and a squash tournament there, Amr knew, would portray Egypt in a dazzling, reassuring light.
“I wasn’t given full backing,” he told the Egypt Daily News. “I had to fight for funding, because I was young and people didn’t see me as serious enough to run a tournament.”
But he spoke positively of the conditional trust given by the Sawiris family. “They were the first to believe in this dream and gave me an opportunity to make it happen,” he acknowledged.
It was only a partial success at first. The inaugural El Gouna Open in 2010 was well received, but a financial failure. Amr was 300,000 Egyptian pounds (about £20,000) worse off, but soon realised the gains outweighed the losses.
“To say that I did this was a huge achievement,” he told Squash Player. “The important thing was that the tournament happened.” At the age of only 27, he had created a platform. Next time it would be different.
Indeed it was, but not as expected. Protesters gathered at Tahrir Square in Cairo, calling for an uprising against poverty and corruption, and it ended the rule of President Mubarak. It also destroyed the plans for a 2011 El Gouna Open.
But the following year Samih’s backing increased and Amr took another big plunge. “We took risks; the political situation wasn’t great,” he reportedly commented. “But even in the worst days it was safe, because we were far away (from Cairo).”
This time the El Gouna Open had $115,000 prize money, which made it not only one of the 10 richest sports events in Egypt, but also the country’s first international sporting tournament since the revolution.
Politics again brought disruption when the Muslim Brotherhood was overthrown by the military, preventing a 2013 tournament, and for a while there were doubts about 2014.
“It required a lot of trust and dedication finally to revive it,” Amr emphasises. But helped by the introduction of Naguib Sawiris, the elder brother, who gave $25,000 extra to the men’s winner, it grew further.
Looking back, it seems extraordinary to Amr. He became founder of the i-events company, created one of the world’s most beautiful tournaments, made possible new Egyptian successes and uplifted a nation’s image. “It’s all been surreal,” he said.
Now Naguib is supporting the next step forward, a $165,000 women’s World Championship staged alongside the men’s El Gouna Open in April and broadcast on more than 30 television channels.
This may produce the first Egyptian woman to become world champion on home soil. And however incredulous the man whom people laughed at may be, it will all be quite real.