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Interview | Meet Omar Assar: The man single-handedly putting Egypt on world map of table tennis

Omar Assar

(Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images for Falcon)

Still just 26, Egypt’s champion has already written his name into the history books by setting new African records and putting Egypt on the international table tennis map.

The Egyptian champion, who represented Egypt in the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games, plied his trade in the Swedish and French leagues before joining Werder Bremen in the star-studded German Bundesliga in 2017. Assar, however, refuses to settle for being good enough and always strives to be excellent. So after just one season with Bremen, he signed with Borussia Düsseldorf – arguably one of the best teams in the world – on a two-year contract, where he’ll play alongside World No.1 Timo Boll.

The 2017/18 season proved something of a watershed for Assar. He completed a move to SV Werder Bremen in July 2017, became the highest-ranking African in history in October, joined Borussia Düsseldorf in February 2018 and won the 2018 ITTF-Africa Top 16 Cup title in March. He also qualified to the 2018 Men’s World Cup and single-handedly led Egypt to the Top 20 in the team rankings.

Currently ranked as the World No.16, Assar spoke to KingFut’s Salma Abdallah about his journey from the small city of Desouk in northern Egypt to table tennis glory. He explained how a combination of hard work, talent and determination were key factors to his success as he shared with us his ambitions for African table tennis, his goals with his new team and how he refused to let obstacles hold him back.

What were the reasons behind choosing to join Borussia Düsseldorf? How do you think this move could affect your performance and career in general?

Borussia Düsseldorf is the best team in the world in table tennis. They won 24 league titles in the past 30 years and the German league is the strongest league in the world, followed by the French, Swedish and Danish leagues. It’s even stronger than the Chinese league from my point of view, because in China they play in the summer for two or three weeks only. There are no home and away games.

I chose to join Borussia Düsseldorf because I’m hoping to win an Olympic medal, so every decision I make I ask myself whether it’ll get me closer to my dream. It was a very easy decision for me. I couldn’t believe that I’d join Borussia Düsseldorf just one year after completing my move to the German league.

Having played in Europe for most of your career, what would you say is the difference between playing abroad and playing in Egypt?

To be honest, I was so lucky in Egypt. I was born in Desouk in Kafr El-Sheikh, where table tennis is very popular. I then joined Al Ahly, who a have a good system, facilities, and goals which helped me to have bigger goals for myself. When I was 14, I got a scholarship from the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) to join a camp in Sweden. I was impressed by what I saw there, the techniques, the rate of improvement, everything there was impressive. Since then, I played for Falkenberg in Sweden, Marseille-based Istres in France and Bremen in Germany.

I’d say our biggest problem in Egypt is that our target is to be the No.1 in the Arab world and compete for the African title, where we are already the leaders. We’re satisfied by what we already have and we don’t try to explore new things or look for new challenges.

In your opinion, why don’t we have more Egyptian table tennis players abroad?

For me, table tennis has been my full time job since the age of 14. But table tennis in Egypt isn’t a full time job for most players. One of the reasons behind this issue is that the society doesn’t consider playing sports on a professional level as a respected profession. So the players decide to do something else besides practicing the sport, which consequently have a negative effect on them and their performances because they’re not putting enough effort into the sport.

Omar Assar

(Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

How supportive has the Egyptian Table tennis Federation been?

I learned not to wait or expect anything from anyone. My manager Mohie Fouda is the one who’s responsible for all the administrative paperwork. I decided that I’m not going to get into any negotiations with anyone because things take so much time in Egypt.

If we’re taking about the financial support, we’ll find that any player in any country is allocated a certain budget. The federation on their side set certain targets that are expected to be met by the players. However, what happens in Egypt is that we don’t know about the allocated budget, the plan, and the tournaments we’re taking part in. Our problem is that we don’t have a plan.

What kind of obstacles do you face?

I played 15 World Tours representing Egypt since the 2016 Rio Olympics. These tournaments helped me improve my ranking. I organised and paid for all of these tournaments and trips. I re-invest more than 80 per cent of my salary in table tennis to pay for a private coach, a fitness coach, supplements, and flights. Meanwhile, the players in Egypt, since they’re not full time, have other commitments so it’s even harder to take part in these tournaments.

In Egypt, we have all what it takes to become one of the big countries in the table tennis scene, but we’re not investing enough time to plan how to improve the sport in Egypt. We instead focus on insignificant details.

What are your best career moments so far?

Winning the China Open in 2010 was the biggest moment of my career. I never forget it. I was playing in China, the leaders of table tennis, and I wasn’t even favourite for the title. This was my biggest personal moment.

My biggest moment with the national team was in the 2013 Mediterranean Games. There were a lot of problems before the tournament and they decided one week before the kick off that table tennis won’t represent Egypt in the tournament, because the Olympic committee wanted the table tennis federation to sign a paper that they’ll win a medal. After a lot of effort from then head of federation Alaa Meshref, we went. It was a last-minute decision. Table tennis was Egypt’s last sport and we were level with Spain in the number of gold medals and contending for third place. I was the No.7 seed and I won gold. It’s a memorable moment because Egypt ended up finishing in third place, one gold medal ahead of Spain. It was my medal that sealed the third spot for Egypt and I felt that I managed to make a difference.

Who are your models on and off the field?

I really like Roger Federer. I try to have a similar attitude because he’s very stable. No matter what the situation is, he is self controlled and stable. I have a problem with controlling my emotions and body language and I get highly affected by the results. I hope I can find the balance to be better.

On the field, I’d say Timo Boll, who will be my teammate at Borussia Düsseldorf. Actually, the racquet I’ve been playing with since I was young is named after him. So it’s huge that I’ll be playing with him.

Already the highest-ranked African table tennis player ever, what are your goals on personal and national team level?

I hope I can reach the Top 10 in 2018. I also hope to win Player of the Year award at any point of my career. My biggest dream would be winning a medal in the 2020 Olympic games.

Since you hold a degree in business administration, do you have any plans to work in the business field after retirement?

I hope I can mix between sports and business. I want to open a table tennis school in Cairo and then open other branches in Desouk and Alexandria. I wish its impact would reach the Arab and African worlds afterwards. It’d help the player be better and stronger on the technical, physical and mental levels, creating a well-rounded person.

KingFut would like to thank Omar for his time and wishes him the best in his future endeavours.

Editor-in-Chief at Pursuing a master's degree in sport policy, management and international development at the University of Edinburgh.

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