Phil Haigh spoke to Soheil Vahedi, ahead of the 2020 World Chmpionship qualifiers. This is sports journalism at its best.
From Tehran to Darlington via the Iranian army, Soheil Vahedi wants the Crucible to be the next stop on his unique snooker journey
Snooker has taken Soheil Vahedi from growing up in Tehran to a new life in Darlington, with his unique journey including an 18-month stint in the Iranian army along the way.
The 31-year-old has battled the odds to make it onto the professional tour and now he is set-up in his new home, he is ready to put all the adversity he has experienced in his career to good use.
Certainly not the most glamorous of destinations, but Darlington has managed to attract not only the man from Tehran, but also the only Brazilian on tour, Igor Figueiredo, making the County Durham town an unlikely cosmopolitan hub, at least in snooker terms.
Vahedi explains that for players ranked outside the top 100, Darlington makes a lot of sense, even if it doesn’t mean a lot of fun.
‘I spent all of lockdown here in Darlington, I’ve been here full-time about four or five months.’ Vahedi told Metro.co.uk.
‘I didn’t play for two months, but now I’m practicing eight hours a day. ‘Most of the time me and Igor are here. It’s because Darlington is a bit cheaper than London or Sheffield, the cost of living is less which is good for us lower-ranked players and the academy is good.
‘I still pay about £1000 a month in all expenses and rent, so it’s still expensive, but cheaper than other places.
‘But there’s nothing in Darlington to have fun, it’s not a great town to live in. I haven’t seen much of it really, but I haven’t heard from local boys that there’s so much going off here.
‘I was told by a few players that Q House Academy is a nice place to practice. When I came here we had a full house – Thepchaiya, Xhao Guodong and Zhou Yuelong – but since COVID 19 came out of nowhere, they all went.
‘Some of them may come back here, but maybe not, they may go to Ding’s academy in Sheffield, only time will tell. I’m sure they will be replaced by other players, hopefully, because the owner here has put a lot of money into the club to improve the academy.
’ Soheil’s winding journey has also taken him through Glasgow, where he practiced with Anthony McGill and developed huge respect for four-time world champion John Higgins.
‘I was in Glasgow previously,’ he explained. ‘I didn’t have many players to practice with. For a while I was practicing with Anthony [McGill] but then he got that unit with Stevie [Maguire] and John Higgins and since then he’s been with them.
‘John Higgins was nice to me a few times to practice with me and I enjoyed his company, he’s a lovely man and I enjoyed practicing with him.
‘Some times he took me down to Barnsley for matches, and one time we drew each other, he gave me a lift down, bashed me up and then he bought me a train ticket home [Higgins beat Vahedi 5-0 in the 2019 German Masters qualifiers].
‘He’s an absolutely brilliant guy, people who don’t know him as close as I did wouldn’t know he’s as nice as he is.’
Now in the UK full-time and settled here with his wife, Vahedi expects to make more inroads on the world rankings and improve on his current position of 103.
The stress of travelling between Iran and the UK has been removed, but he still feels overseas players are at a disadvantage, with the British focus of the tour suiting local players.
‘I’ve been in the UK about seven months now, full-time,’ Soheil explained. ‘But last season I was here for six or seven months without going back to Iran. Then I went over for our wedding, with the engagement and everything, I had to go over and with all the rush and hassle before a wedding I had to come to the UK twice, so it was pretty tough, but now I’ve got my wife here it’s making it a bit easier.
‘There are so many players in so many academies that haven’t got their families or their better halves with them and not having a nice time in the UK. They don’t know what they’re eating, they’re up late at night, they’re all over the place. That’s one of the reasons some of the lower ranked players are struggling because they’re not living properly, or how they’re used to in their own home.
‘People are absolutely clueless about it. They just watch snooker and think, “why is he not performing?” But they don’t know what’s happening in our lives. Because they don’t know, they tend to judge us, but since my wife came here and I started a new life, I have improved.
‘Some people know it, some people don’t, but it’s easy to sit in front of the tele and judge technique, your head’s not right, this and that, he’s not going to make it…but they don’t know what’s happening. We’re trying our hardest to hit our peak but it’s very, very difficult.
‘For somebody like me coming from Iran, it makes it 10 times harder to play snooker, compared to a British player. They’ve got their family, their own food, they know the rules of the country. Some wont even have rent because they stay with their parents, they’ve got somebody beside them all the time. I didn’t have that, so for us, it’s three or four times more difficult to play snooker than 80% of the tour.’
It is not just life on tour that is trickier for overseas players, but their grounding in the game is very different to those growing up in the UK, as Vahedi explains.
‘When I was growing up. 20 years ago, I was practising in this club on this table. It was an Iranian table, so the condition was bad. ‘Say the middle bags, if you wanted to stun a red in, it would come out because the pockets were so bad. But if you wanted to play it slow you had to have played golf before snooker because you had to aim maybe five inches from the pocket to curve into it.
‘That’s how I grew up. Some players from the UK start on a Star table, with a coach, a proper cue. I was playing with a club cue for five years. They don’t realise how blessed they are.
‘We’ve done it the hard way. Maybe that kept us going, doing it the hard way, because when it’s easy you get lazy. I’m proud of doing it the hard way and I’m giving it my best to play as well as I can. Hopefully good things will happen in the future.
’ It has taken years of dedication for Vahedi just to have his professional status, and the hard work stems from a deep love of the game which came about almost entirely by chance, when a young Soheil first discovered snooker.
‘I was playing football in a park for eight or 10 hours a day,’ he explained.
‘We lost a match and had to sit and wait for a turn. A friend said there’s a billiards club round the corner. I asked him what billiards was because I hadn’t even heard the word before. We went and I saw the table with balls and pockets and as soon as I saw it I felt there was something about it.
‘Within a week I’d stopped playing football and I was in the club watching for 12 hours a day. Because I didn’t have support I had to watch until I got my pocket money which maybe bought me two hours in a month on the table.
‘Some of the older players could see I loved the game and then showed some talent so I would partner them in doubles snooker. When I partnered them they would tell me what shot to play and, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, because I didn’t really know the rules.
‘It was loser pays for the lights and winner stays on, and I wanted to practice so much. Maybe 10 groups of two were waiting for the table one day and we were on for about eight hours and didn’t lose. There was the best player in the club and he chose me as a partner, he told me what to do and I would just do it. I think I was 13 then.’
Vahedi started to show some serious promise, reaching the final of the World Amateur Under-21 Championship in 2009 in his home country, but his progress was slowed in 2012 when he had to fulfil his national service in the Iranian army, A character-building experience, Vahedi felt it was harming his snooker career at the time, but has taken the positives from the steep learning curve he found himself on.
‘It was eight years ago for 18 months,’ Soheil said. ‘You go to educational part of it, the first two or three months. You learn how to work with guns, putting it together, learning to shoot, how to march, life in difficult situations in the desert.
‘It was so cold, sleeping in a tent. During a war you might have to spend a few nights in a desert because you’re running from the enemy. It was a very difficult 18 months, it taught me a lot of things but it also wasted my life as well. As a snooker player, I’m doing that to serve my country, performing for Iran as a flag bearer.
‘That wasn’t the case for us. Before I went there I had three semi-finals, one in the World Games, IBSF, Under-21 World Championship. With all that, I still had to serve, everyone serves the same way. You learn to be humble like that. You learn to be the same with everyone.
‘In your home, everything is done by your mama. You don’t do anything. You can’t even unscrew a screw with a screwdriver because you don’t know. But in the army, the first day you get there there’s a load of iron, screws and screwdrivers and they say “that’s your bed” and if you want to sleep in it you have to make it. They leave you and say “good luck”. I had to think how to put the thing together. Then you think about what you’ve done in your life. Your parents have been so kind to you that you never have to do anything like that.
‘I think it did help with snooker because when you’re in there it’s a tough life. You cherish every second of being on the table, winning matches and getting pleasure out of it, You realise how blessed you are to be a snooker player, have the talent, go to different countries, travel the world. You realise you’re very lucky, you value your life more after being in there.
‘In the middle of the desert, in a tent, -15 degrees and you haven’t got a blanket. You can light a candle for 10 minutes or so. You sleep like that, I remember turning over and being frozen, because it’s so cold you have to stay still for eight hours or whatever.
‘On tour I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen players complain about a bed not being big enough. I’m like “what are you talking about? Put your head down and stop talking.” They haven’t seen difficult times in life, that’s why they start moaning.’
Vahedi has, so far, only shown flashes of his talents in the pro game, with a run to the fourth round of the Welsh Open this year one of the highlights as he knocked out Thepchaiya un-Nooh and Jack Lisowski before losing to Ronnie O’Sullivan.
His next task is to become the first Iranian to qualify for the World Championship at the Crucible, something he is battling the other Iranian pro, Hossein Vafaei, to achieve.
The results have not come yet, but with his settled life in the North East and hours of practice behind him, he is confident they will arrive in Sheffield this month.
‘In a way it’s a new journey now, but I’ve got experience, that’s the difference,’ he said. ‘I’ve got the game and the experience, I just need a click, that moment that changes everything and I’m working very hard for that moment. Hopefully it happens one day.
‘I’m very confident. I practice for eight hours a day. 9.30am-6pm, with an hour for lunch. Sometimes solo, sometimes match practice. I’m very, very confident, I know it’ll be difficult, but I’ve got a chance. Play well in the first two qualifiers and you’re sharp and ready for the third and fourth.
‘It’s going to be difficult in quarantine, in the hotels, not allowed to go out, but having the snooker back is good enough for me.’
I’m wishing Soheil the best in Sheffield next week. He won’t have it easy. His first opponent will be Alan Taylor, a former pro. Alan has played on the Challenge Tour this season and has qualified for the play-offs. This means that he will have at least one competitive match at the EIS under his belt before facing Soheil. It certainly puts Alan at an advantage.
Soheil is absolutely right about the British players being helped by the current structure of the tour, a structure that practically forces players to be UK based. Living as an expat is never easy, especially if you’re not well-off and, in this piece, Soheil explains exactly why.