World Snooker Championship: Saudi shadow looms large over Crucible

<span>Ronnie O'Sullivan, in action at the Tour Championship this month, is the world No 1 but trails Judd Trump on this season’s prize money list.</span><span>Photograph: Tai Chengzhe/VCG/Getty Images</span>
Ronnie O'Sullivan, in action at the Tour Championship this month, is the world No 1 but trails Judd Trump on this season’s prize money list.Photograph: Tai Chengzhe/VCG/Getty Images

For the snooker purists, it was the sight nobody wanted to see just days out from the most prestigious tournament on the sport’s calendar. Debate has raged for years about whether or not the world championship will eventually have to leave its spiritual home of the Crucible and this week, in the buildup to the 2024 edition, there was what felt a significant moment.

The world championship will remain in Sheffield until 2027 at least but the sight of Barry and Eddie Hearn, flanked by the seven-time world champion, Ronnie O’Sullivan, in Saudi Arabia to announce that Riyadh Season, a state-funded sports and entertainment festival, was to become an official partner for the tournament would have sent a shiver through the spines of those who adore the Crucible. O’Sullivan, never one to shy away from offering his opinion, went one step further. “I think Saudi Arabia could get hold of this tournament, grab it by the scruff of the neck and turn it into a Wimbledon or a French Open or US Open, and really make it a super event,” he said.

It feels like the greatest existential threat to the Crucible’s chances of retaining the tournament in the long term. There has always been whispers of potentially moving away but Saudi Arabia muscling in on the scene feels very real, not least given how O’Sullivan triumphed in the inaugural World Masters there last month.

The concerns about the Crucible are, sentiment aside, fairly understandable. The venue has just 980 seats and the world’s top players are often left lamenting the standard of the facilities backstage. Yet when the world championship gets going and the tournament switches to its one-table setup later in the event, there is really nothing quite like it, with the history seeping from the walls.

But while the topic of change is back on the agenda for the tournament, the lineup has a feel of familiarity. There is just one debutant in the 32-player field this year: Joe O’Connor, who came through a late-night, nerve-shredding qualifier against Matthew Selt this week to book his place.

All the participants are inside the world’s top 45, and it is the usual suspects who headline the bill once again, O’Sullivan chief among them. His bid for a record eighth world title begins on Wednesday against Wales’s Jackson Page, and the Rocket is bidding to become only the fourth player in history to win snooker’s triple crown events – the UK Championship, the Masters and the worlds – in the same season.

At 48, he remains at the peak of his powers and is the favourite once again. For the defending champion, though, things look very different. Luca Brecel’s victory in last year’s final drew immediate comparisons to O’Sullivan’s breakthrough in the 1990s but the Belgian has found the going tough in the past 12 months.

He is 37th on the one-year rankings list and has been handed a tough opening draw against the accomplished world No 31, David Gilbert. As is traditional for the world champion, Brecel will open the tournament when play begins on Saturday morning.

Of the other contenders Judd Trump has been one of the two best players in the world this season alongside O’Sullivan, Mark Williams remains a genuine threat over the longer format, while Mark Selby and Shaun Murphy will also hope to win another world title.

As the sport heads en masse to South Yorkshire for the next fortnight, it feels like an appropriate moment to take a step back and enjoy the history and drama the Crucible provides. The threat of relocation halfway around the world has never felt so real; with O’Sullivan in the ascendancy things may remain constant on the baize but wholesale change could soon be on its way off it.