Forget how hard Iran’s Hossein Vafaei had to battle to knock out reigning and four-time world champion Mark Selby at the UK Championship this week. The 27-year-old’s path from his home city of Abadan to mixing it with the very best has been strewn with significant obstacles at every turn.
With a less challenging environment in his teenage years, including better diplomatic relations between the UK and Iran which have led to massive visa issues for the player throughout his career, it is tempting to idly speculate where Vafaei’s raw talent and competitive instincts might have taken him by now.
As it is, getting to a ranking high of No31 (currently 63, though set to rise after his run in York) and getting to three ranking semi-finals is already not bad. But very few players have had to withdraw from more tournaments than the Iranian, mainly due to the events following each other in quick succession, and there being insufficient time to process the minefield of red tape.
A decade ago Vafaei started to receive wildcard spots, and then won the World Amateur Championship at just 17. That earned him main tour card for 2012-14 but he was barely able to use it, dogged by the visa issues so badly hampering his development. Those started to ease in 2015, though they have not completely disappeared. Getting to actually play snooker has just been just harder for Vafaei, even before he gets to the table.
Vafaei said after beating Selby: “Everyone knows that nothing has come easy for me, and how tough it was for me to even get here and to a stage where I am playing on TV against the top players. If I write a book people will cry, people will laugh – there has been a lot of drama in my life. I have learned a lot from my own mistakes, no one was there to teach me anything in snooker.
“And that meant I lost a lot of time. I don’t want to get involved with the politics, I was forced to and I don’t really like to talk about it. It has been a great journey – sad, happy, this is life, always up and down. I am always up for matches because I want to make my people in Iran proud of me, I want to make snooker bigger than it is in my country and I am doing that. Thanks to God, I don’t know what kind of power he has given me.
“Snooker is very popular in Iran and getting bigger. I know from my social media how many people follow the game and my matches. They put a lot of pressure on me, but I like that. They are sad with me when I lose, and happy with me when I win. It’s a nice feeling. Against Mark it was a great match for me and a big achievement. I have huge respect for Mark, he is one of our great ambassadors.”
It is a shame that someone, somewhere since Vafaei joined the professional ranks has told him not to speak directly in detail too much about his younger life growing up in Iran and his entire snooker journey. There may well be certain pressures and obligations from the country’s federation and government.
But that doesn’t appear to be the reason, as Vafaei talks about “damaging his brand value” by speaking even more openly, and already talking about wanting to save everything for a book. That book, if it ever comes out, will I’m sure be a fascinating read about an incredible journey from one of snooker’s more exotic heartlands, with the game huge and growing in the Middle Eastern nation.
However it would be a shame not to open the window into his full journey a little more, as there is little doubt that what appears an inspirational story could only enhance his own marketability, and help the growth of the sport in the Middle East.
Vafaei did admit four years ago: “Not being able to play in a lot of the events meant that I lost my confidence. I’ve now said to myself this is your time, you have to take your chance. There are still problems with visas, mainly now about the time they take with events coming thick and fast.
“Snooker is very popular in Iran. We have more than 1,400 snooker clubs and it is very big over there. Success for me will make the profile of the sport will become even bigger, I can guarantee thousands of people in Iran will be looking for my score. I want to improve the game in my home country. It could be like China, if I can do well we could see more Iranians coming over here.
“My father introduced me to snooker by taking me to one of the local clubs. I saw the table and immediately asked what it was. He took my hand and started teaching me how to play. After a few months I couldn’t leave it alone.”