Yesterday Phil Haigh published this interview with Soheil Vahedi and it’s certainly food for thoughts.
Soheil Vahedi on scrapping for snooker survival on foreign soil: ‘There’s nothing enjoyable for us here’
Mark Selby lifted the World Championship title earlier this month, pocketing £500,000 for his efforts at the Crucible, but while there are a handful of snooker superstars, there are far more who are kicking hard just to stay afloat in the game.
Soheil Vahedi is one of those players. The 32-year-old from Tehran finished last season ranked number 99 in the world, losing his place as a professional as a result of finishing outside the top 64.
He will be heading to Q School this month in a bid to regain his WST tour card and continue his journey in snooker that has taken him from his native Iran to a new home in Darlington.
With him in the North East are his wife and, as of last week, his son Radine, and while Soheil describes himself as ‘born again’ with the birth of his first child, he admits that life in Darlington is tough.
‘No,’ he said when asked by Metro.co.uk if he enjoys life there. ‘There’s nothing enjoyable for us here, nothing, absolutely nothing.
‘Snooker players just think about themselves, it all ends in the snooker hall, it all starts and ends in a greeting and a goodbye. On the table, play and go.
‘That’s what it is. There’s no life here for us really, it’s just snooker and snooker.
‘My wife is doing well not to moan at me eight hours a day because she has the right to do so. She had a family life, such a good life in Iran, but left all that behind to come here and help me achieve my goal, so I’m very thankful.
‘With the baby coming, she didn’t want to catch coronavirus, she probably went out of the house nine times in 10 months, just for a walk.
‘When I leave the house my wife is alone. I couldn’t focus on the table because anything could happen to my wife, I haven’t got family here to help, we’ve got nobody here.’
Vahedi paints a bleak picture of chasing a snooker dream thousands of miles away from home, but says he still enjoys the game, even if he has to force himself to do so sometimes.
‘It is very hard but at the same time, 60-70 per cent I still enjoy snooker,’ he said. ‘Not fully, because of the lifestyle, what’s been happening and matches I’ve lost, but you have to keep the enjoyment, because if you don’t I don’t see a way to improve or win.’
Vahedi travelled to Sheffield for the World Championship qualifiers in April hoping to become the first Iranian to appear at the Crucible and with some form behind him after a fine run at the Gibraltar Open in March which saw him beat Mark Williams en route to the last 16.
Things started well as he went 5-2 ahead of Belgian amateur Julien Leclercq in round one, but then disaster struck as he lost the last four frames and fell to a 6-5 defeat.
Soheil admits complacency crept in and it cost him, dearly, as the defeat confirmed that he would drop off the professional tour.
‘I was really gutted,’ he said. ‘This past season I lost maybe four or five matches from being in front or very close matches. Every time I got to that stage of being near the finishing line I was nervous, lost my focus.
‘I was excited I was going to win, get a little bit of money, all of that helps. I got excited before the game was finished, that was the problem, I needed to stay focused.
‘That’s experience, not ability, as soon as I start winning a few matches that feeling goes away. I couldn’t believe my eyes, I couldn’t believe it.’
After the devastating loss Vahedi sat in his chair for some time rather than leave the arena, seemingly struggling to come to terms with the defeat, but he explains that he was actually talking himself round to a positive mindset.
‘I was thinking, “What happened there? Why did I lose? I can’t keep losing these kind of matches. Now two months off with no earnings, it’s going to be a difficult two months.”
‘But I told myself that I need to be ready, just carry on clawing away, stay focused, don’t give up. If I didn’t do that I might have given up but I told myself I’ve come so far, done everything right, practiced so much, it just didn’t end well.
‘So I’ve got to carry on punching until everyone else is down. I’m thinking positive, unlike what people might have thought, I was telling myself good stuff, but people thought I was down on myself.
‘I’ve seen some people run away from the table as soon as they lose, feeling so bad they don’t want to stay there, but I didn’t want to run away from anything and made sure I left the arena with happiness and not anger and all those negative things.’
Other than serving his national service in the Iranian army in 2012, Vahedi has been set firm on a path to a career in snooker for years and is not ready to deviate from that goal.
He has been on tour since 2017 and does not expect the journey to end here.
‘I dedicated nearly 20 years of my life to this game,’ he said. ‘I’ve never done anything besides snooker so if I leave snooker I don’t know what I’m going to do to earn a living. I’m better at sticking with this and just carry on. Some top players have dropped off tour before and come back.
‘I’ve done okay, if I’d won the matches I should have won I would have done well, but I didn’t. I haven’t played so bad, I wasn’t terrible, I can win. I’ve beaten so many good players in these four years. Some players don’t win a match in two years, never beat top players, but I have. There is nothing to be upset about, I just need to gather my thoughts, pull myself together and keep working harder.
‘I thought I was going to win a few matches at the World Championship but the game doesn’t care what you think, it happens, it doesn’t listen to me. But I try my best, never give up.’
With just £25,000 earned in prize money over the last season and the disappointment of no earnings from the World Championship, it is not easy to support a young family with no family in the country to help out.
Vahedi explains that he would be taking another job outside snooker, but visa restrictions stop him from doing so.
‘We can’t work, that’s the problem,’ Soheil explained. ‘Overseas players get visas and come over here, not allowed to work and have no sponsors but have played the game for so long and want to carry on as a professional and being here.
‘But they cannot work, so that’s not right. They need to find a way so snooker players who come to the UK are allowed to work, for certain hours, in any job.
‘That’s one of the things World Snooker doesn’t care about. They need to sit and talk about this. They need to find a way to support people so they don’t end up with no money at all. That’s what my request is and I don’t think there’s anybody out there who would disagree with that.
‘They can definitely find a way because we pay a lot of tax here. If they let us work or find a job for us, we’ll end up playing better, earning more money and paying more tax! We can live a better life and fulfil our potential.
‘If we drop off the tour and never play snooker again that’s not good for the game. There would be less people wanting to play snooker or come to the UK because they will know how difficult it is.
‘But if we had support we would say: “Come over here, don’t worry about money too much, if you run out there is support.”
‘You would see more players coming up, but like this, the way it is it’s always the same names in the finals, semi-finals, it’s never going to change.’
WPBSA chairman Jason Ferguson has rejected this criticism and says that help and support is there if needed, and has indeed been provided in the past.
Statement from WPBSA chairman Jason Ferguson
A statement from Ferguson read: ‘In conjunction with the WPBSA, WST goes to significant lengths to help players from overseas to come to the UK to play snooker and to settle here.
‘Soheil has been a professional since 2017 and various levels of support have been available to him throughout the past five years. For example, during the first lockdown, the WPBSA made available financial support to all WST players, which Soheil took advantage of.
‘Soheil has been assisted in gaining a Level 2 qualification as an official WPBSA coach.
‘He currently has a visa as an elite sportsman which is appropriate to allow him to compete on the World Snooker Tour. If he wants to work in a different sector, he would need to apply for the relevant visa. WST and the WPBSA are always willing to give support, advice and encouragement to all players, as the growth of snooker around the world is our greatest ambition.
‘We do not accept the criticism that we don’t do enough for them.’
Vahedi will be hoping to put his snooker struggles behind him at Q School, which starts later this month, as he bids to return to the tour and continue his long and winding journey in the sport.
He has come through the arduous tournament before, winning his card back in 2019 at the first time of asking and expects to again, hoping to once more feel the thrill of success.
‘Yeah of course I’m confident,’ he said. ‘I try not to let negativity creep in, but I’m very confident. I want to get straight back on, this is what I want, I want to enjoy my life.
‘It wasn’t easy last time, I had a few tough, close matches, but I came through quickly. I was absolutely thrilled afterwards.’
I can understand Jason Ferguson’s frustration as, under his helm, WPBSA has certainly done more than ever to support their players. But that doesn;t change anything to the lower ranked players everyday’s reality, especially those who had to expat to do their job.
This article triggered this reaction by Steve Feeney (Sightright) on Facebook:
#MentalHealthAwarenessWeek2021 – is it now time for Professional Snooker to provide lower ranked players with greater financial security to head off mental health issues associated with zero (1st Round losers) / low income?
The Covid pandemic has highlighted how fragile things can be at times and maybe now is the time for our wonderful Sport to show it fully understands the financial stress many lower ranked Professionals are experiencing, the impact this is having on their mental health and take action which is in their power to alleviate this?
As someone with a considerable background in HR issues, once your job is confirmed, you expect a minimum level of pay, even in an Apprenticeship.
A Sport which supports mental health must surely consider the impact low or zero income has on a player who has followed the correct path to become a Professional on the Main Tour.
Pro Footballers get paid when they lose a match or get relegated and this in my opinion should be the same in professional snooker.
When our incredible Sport offers pay at the lowest Professional level it will be far more attractive for young people to consider this career path.
Instead we have many lower ranked players – those recognised as Professionals by the Sport – going broke and that, I feel, can be avoided with relatively small changes #hardfacts #mentalhealthawareness
This is no different to what I have been saying here many times. By playing, they bring value to the tour, to the sponsors, to the venues’ managements, to the broadcasters. They deserve something for it. At the very minimum, playing shouldn’t cost them. Paying them a minimal wage, covering their basic costs when at a tournament would only be right. If it doesn’t count towards ranking, it will not help players who aren’t good enough to stay on tour. This would not be “rewarding mediocrity”, it would be paying them for a work done. No matter how well both player play, and how hard they both try, one of them will lose and that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve anything for their efforts.
Now that Barry Hearn has retired, and not underestimating at all how much good he has done for the game which is immense, I hope that such change will be considered and implemented because the current situation is not right. It would not cost much. It can even be done at no cost by making the prize money structure just a bit less top-heavy. It would not make a huge difference for the top players but it would be massive for the lower-ranked ones and the young.
Just as an example, based on the 2020 prize money distribution for the UK Championship:
Winner: ￡180000 instead of ￡200000 >> ￡20000
Runner-up: ￡75000 instead of ￡80000 >> ￡5000
Losing Semi-finalists ￡35000 instead of ￡40000 >> ￡10000
Highest break: ￡10000 instead of ￡15000 >> ￡5000
Would be enough to give all first round losers ￡625, without additional cost for WST/WPBSA.