Let’s say you are a 3-cushion enthusiast from Qatar, Uzbekistan, New Zealand or Ghana. You are watching the El Gouna World Cup on Kozoom, and you are impressed by the amazing quality of play coming from Belgium. Not only did that country produce the tournament winner (Merckx), but also the runner-up (Forthomme) and the reigning world number 1, also world champion (Caudron).
Maybe you’re even thinking of starting a national billiards federation in your country, apply for membership of the UMB, popularize the sport, get young players interested? You’re going to copy the Belgian model, of course. They must be doing something right, or they wouldn’t have all those world class players. There’s no doubt in your mind that Belgium has a vibrant, growing, well organized billiards community structured by a professional, transparent federation. Brussels and Antwerp must have dozens of billiard rooms to rival those in Seoul. Hundreds of talents from Gent, Luik, Leuven and Charleroi must be dreaming to become the next Dielis, Ceulemans or Leppens.
We could not blame you, if that is what you thought. But you could not be more wrong. Billiards in Belgium is in decline, it’s in trouble.
Number of players? On the way down. Average age: going up (it’s not much better in neighboring Netherlands).
Billiard rooms? None thrive, some manage to stay open, some close. No new places open up.
Young talents? Half a dozen, maybe. None that will show up in a World Cup main draw any time soon.
An effective, transparent federation? Oh my goodness, no. The KBBB board has been a snake pit for many years now, where in-fighting, backstabbing and personal feuds take precedence over the sport. Capable managers have been pushed out. Last year, a disputed board election got so out of hand that there was talk of abolishing the federation altogether. As for transparency: there isn’t any. Back room deals decide about pretty much everything, votes are usually pre-arranged. It’s a miracle that provincial and local volunteers (who actually do the WORK) have been able to keep the KBBB ship afloat.
Is it all bad then? Absolutely not. Playing billiards in Belgium can be a joy. The audience is almost always knowledgeable and fair, the atmosphere relaxed, quality of play is high. That is hardly surprising, given the place of the country in billiard history. Vingerhoedt, Ceulemans, Wafflard, Schrauwen, Dielis, it does not get much better, and they have had decades to spread a wealth of knowledge across the country.
And it’s not like the big four (Caudron, Merckx, Forthomme, Leppens) is all the Belgians have. There is a strong second echelon, with players like Peter Ceulemans, Jef Philipoom, Peter de Backer, Davy van Havere, Steven van Acker, Wesley de Jaeger and others. That’s just 3-cushion, mind you. There’s plenty of quality in the classic disciplines as well, with balkline-perfectionist Patrick Niessen as the standard-bearer.
Not everybody is a pessimist. Take Kurt Ceulemans, for instance (Peter’s uncle, Raymond’s son). He has an entrepreneurial streak, a can-do mentality, and he put both to work to organize a World Cup in the seaside city of Blankenberge, in 2018. I have a hunch that it will turn out to be a wonderful event, that will do Belgium proud.
So, there you have it: Belgium is an enigma, a mystery. It’s a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde country, when it comes to billiards. Impressive past, uncertain future. Fantastic players, shoddy organization. A mixed bag of professionalism and amateurism, weird handicaps, promotion and demotion rules that defy all logic, a tragically outdated website and some of the best table brands (Gabriels, Verhoeven) in the world. In 2010 and 2011, believe it or not, the Belgians did not have a government for 541 days. Parties were unable to form a coalition, so the country was in a political coma, basically run by civil servants. But trains still ran, trash got picked up, phones worked. The Belgians have a talent for not complaining about things they can’t change. They don’t panic easily, they calmly go about their business, and when they want something, they sink their teeth into it, pitbull-style. Just like their players.