An ‘Iranian Revolution’ would usually conjure up images of the Shah and Ayatollah Khomeini. These days, however, you might even hear it used about snooker in the country, thanks to the fiercely determined efforts of Hossein Vafaei.
Vafaei has had to fight every inch of the way in his short, 23-year-old life merely for the right to play the game he loves. A huge talent – confirmed when he won the World Amateur title six years ago –has been suppressed at every turn, mainly through a visa impasse when diplomatic ties between the UK and Iran were cut following the attack on the British Embassy in Tehran in 2011.
But that does not begin to tell the whole story of the boy who grew up in the oil-rich city of Abadan, and who is known to his family as the ‘Miracle Kid’ after his father recovered from a coma having been initially pronounced dead years before he was born.
Snooker was brought to Iran in the days of the Shah mainly by British BP workers, but the clubs then all fell into a state of total disrepair after the sport was banned for over 20 years by the Islamist government for its gambling associations. That was overturned in 2000.
Abadan, on the border with Iraq and close to Basra, was badly bombed during the 1980s war between the two countries. And so it was on a dusty table with a ripped cloth using a warped cue on a street still strewn with the detritus of armed conflict that Vafaei first hit a ball at the age of six.
From that moment Vafaei’s natural ability shone through, and it has been solely a burning need to fulfil that talent that has carried him over some towering obstacles, including a home Iran federation that initially wanted him to stay as an amateur for national glory, to trips all round the world – often unsuccessful - to try and secure visas for professional tournaments.
Finally, after losing four years of his early career at a crucial time of development, Vafaei – who can for the most part still only play events in the UK, China and India – started to get a fair crack of the whip in the 2015-16 season as diplomatic tension between the UK and Iran eased. And the results came for a player taken under his wing by Ronnie O’Sullivan, the five-time world champion.
Last season Vafaei reached the quarter-finals of the Northern Ireland Open, before knocking out world No2 Judd Trump and making the semi-finals of the China Open. He looks poised to do some more damage this season and plays Martin Gould in the UK Championship for a place in the last 16 in York.
“Not being able to play in a lot of the events meant that I lost my confidence,” Vafaei said.
“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.
“I was in a bad situation, but if I can win I won’t have problems anymore. Ronnie O’Sullivan and China’s Liang Wenbo are my best friends on tour. Ronnie has been helping me a lot, and given me plenty of advice.
“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.”
Vafaei’s former manager Amir Mazahery is a fellow Iranian but also a professional gambler now based in Ireland.
“There has been a lot of damage done to his career and he has been set back, but he is so talented there is time to repair it and put it all right,” said Mazahery.
“I wish we could have taken that boy who came off a huge amateur win at 15 and run with him without all the obstacles. I honestly believe if he had had a fair run at it like most 16-year-olds he would be in the top four by now.”
And the trials and tribulations have not been lost on Vafaei’s fellow professionals. Australia’s Neil Robertson, the 2010 world champion, has spoken often about the relative difficulties experienced by overseas players but recognises that the Iranian’s path has been far tougher than most.
“Hossein should have been on the tour years ago, but it has been crazy for him,” said Robertson. “It is tough and a real handicap for him, those years are important - but you can get it back and the time he has lost will not be permanent damage if the talent is there and his attitude is spot on from now.”