PORTUGAL IS THE 11th country to stage a European Tour event and, in many ways, the most unlikely.
I was there in 2009 for the grand finals of the World Series in Portimao. At the time there was no national association and very few full-sized tables. Indeed, there were none at all in Lisbon, where event 5 of the European Tour got underway today.
Five years ago, pool was the pre-eminent cue sport in Portugal but snooker was gaining a growing foothold through Eurosport’s extensive coverage of main tour events. A journalist and enthusiast, Antonio Barroso, put it well. “Snooker,” he said, “is like a disease and it has spread.”
It wasn’t exactly contagious on the opening day in Portimao. The first match attracted just five spectators. But word of mouth and TV coverage swelled the ranks to 350 by the final, not a bad haul by any means considering the complete lack of snooker heritage in Portugal.
In the UK, snooker has always been accessible and relatively cheap to play in contrast to some sports. But in Porto in 2009 there was just one table and it cost €12 an hour. There was clearly work to do to take a sport popular on television and ingrain it in the culture.
Nevertheless, thanks to passionate enthusiasts, a national championship was held that year and the numbers of tournaments has grown since.
So five years on, what can we expect? There is certainly now better infrastructure but snooker is still in its infancy. It will be interesting to see how many people come to watch.
A number of the game’s top stars have stayed away, as is their right. But it’s good to see Judd Trump is still playing after a long and ultimately disappointing UK Championship. The likes of Shaun Murphy, Barry Hawkins, Mark Williams, Marco Fu, Graeme Dott, Ricky Walden, Stuart Bingham, Stephen Maguire and John Higgins are among the other better known names competing.
For the rankings and qualification for the Players Championship finals it’s an important few days, the chance for some pre-Christmas cheer. But more significant is that another country has been ticked off the wish list of destinations which can support a professional tournament.
In 2009 I met a couple of Portugese teenagers, Joao Silva and Luis Alves, who had travelled a considerable distance to watch the World Series. Today they both played in the Lisbon Open. They each lost 4-0 but that’s hardly the point. It’s a proud day for them and hopefully participation levels will continue to rise.
Barroso told me in Portimao: “At first I thought it was a strange game. Then I got addicted.”
That’s a familiar refrain in many far off places around the globe. All snooker enthusiasts want is the opportunity to play and the opportunity to watch. This week, Portugese players and fans have the chance to do both. I wish them nothing but success.
Photograph by Monique Limbos.