2019/2 – Matches that changed our game (3/3)

To refresh your memory: the first and second column with this name appeared in 2018. They told the stories of the 1978 match between Raymond Ceulemans and Boston Shorty, where deliberate defense was exposed as a losing tactic, and the 2013 semifinal of the European Championship between Caudron and Zanetti, where Fred ran 28 but Marco won. 

So, I still owe you that third match, that had such a major impact on our game. It was played in 1990, and the winner was Dick Jaspers. He had no trouble getting past the Swede Persson: 3-0 in sets, 1.286 for Jaspers and 0.758 for Persson. The location: Norrköping in Sweden, it was the fourth World Cup of the fifth BWA season. 

How on earth can THAT be an important match, you say? Good question. The World Cups started out as invitational tournaments, with 16 players. Twelve of them were professionals under contract with the BWA, four were organization wildcards. Four Belgians in Antwerp, four Japanese players in Tokyo, four Germans in Berlin, etcetera. A major change was made in 1990: Norrköping was the first ever World Cup that was open to everyone, with qualification rounds to decide who advanced to the main draw where they would join the seeded players. The new format was not an instant success: not a single (uninvited) German, French or Belgian player made the trip to Sweden. Two Dutch players did decide to try their luck: Louis Havermans and Dick Jaspers. Louis qualified, but lost in the main draw to Lieberkind. Dick survived the first round against Pilss, then lost to Zanetti.

We take it for granted today: a qualification tournament preceding a World Cup. It doesn’t sound like much, but think about it. Every world championship since the one won by Edmond Soussa in 1928 had been invitation-based. Then came World Cups in 1986, and they were now the pinnacle of what a 3-cushion player could achieve. Again, invitation only. Norrköping 1990 marked the moment when our sport went from elitist to democratic. If you had black pants and shoes, a white shirt, a cue and a truckload of talent, you could now win a World Cup. 

Since 1990, 3-cushion has been blessed with many invitational tournaments. I would not dream of giving those a bad name. The Agipi, the LG+ Cup, the Lausanne Billard Masters, the Crystal Kelly and the McCreery have all enriched our sport and given us unforgettable moments. But the World Cups have remained open since Norrköping, and that’s a good thing. It makes them unique, and it makes a statement: all players have equal chances, and you CAN climb the billiard ladder all the way to the top, if you are good enough. No matter which country you are from. No matter what brand of cue you play with. No matter who your personal sponsor is. Needless to say, we don’t even LOOK at things like race, religion and gender. In my opinion, World Cups should stay that way: open. As a consequence, I think the UMB should be extremely hesitant to suspend players.   

That means a PBA player can have it both ways? Of course not. You can be as talented as Lady Gaga, but if you have a record deal with EMI, you can’t release an album at CBS. You’ve decided to make your money elsewhere, so you are no longer eligible for World Cup prize money, plane tickets and hotel rooms. You can still win a World Cup, but you’re paying your own way from now on. That’s fair, isn’t it? I would much prefer that “solution” to suspensions, since those also affect play on the national level.

The PBA, if it will all happen as predicted, takes us back to the early days of the BWA: contract players competing for cash, but with a financial guarantee upfront, making them half sportsmen, half employees. Naturally, Caudron will command a much higher salary than Tom, Dick & Harry, who also have a PBA contract. And naturally, Tom, Dick & Harry will never win any significant prize money in PBA tournaments. Not with FC in the field. There’s not so much wrong with that situation, the best player should win the most money. But Tom, Dick & Harry, as a consequence, should be extremely hesitant to join that tour. There’s no ladder to climb, there’s no title to win, and the years they lose cannot be brought back or bought back.

Do I know a way out of this quagmire? Sorry, no. It’s complicated. I am the first to sympathize with players who want to make an extra buck. But national federations, Confederations and the UMB (not to mention Kozoom) provide the infrastructure of billiards, as well as a prime source of income for the first echelon. These organizations are well within their rights when they ask of players to prioritize national, confederational and world championships and world cups over commercial events.    

The conflict we are watching here is like tectonic plates colliding. On the one hand, the billiard economy in Korea dwarfs Europe by 4 to 1, and the Americas by 20 to 1 at least. In terms of billiard tables sold, cues sold, billiard rooms opened, the world is a Korean cappuccino with a little Vietnamese milk and some Turkish sugar. Western Europe is close to being insignificant. On the other hand, in terms of titles won and the world ranking, Korea is still playing second fiddle. Jung Han Heo, Jae Ho Cho, Sung Won Choi, Dong Koong Kang, Haeng Jik Kim and Myung Woo Cho are fantastic, but Dani Sánchez, Torbjörn Blomdahl, Frédéric Caudron, Marco Zanetti, Eddy Merckx and Dick Jaspers are better and have more “star power”, more commercial potential. Europe and Korea are like Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in “The Defiant Ones”, two escaped convicts. They are shackled together and only have a chance at freedom if they can agree about the direction to take.

For those who decide to sign for the PBA tour: I wish you good luck, hope you do well. You should realize this is not an idealistic initiative: it’s a business plan and the PBA is not a goal in itself; it’s a marketing instrument. The goal behind it is to sell billiard products in a chain of stores, sell billiard broadcasts to TV and buy up billiard rooms in Korea. You are not there to make money for you, you are there to make money for somebody else. What is the significance of the Jaspers – Persson qualification match from 1990? Here it is: unlike the old BWA, unlike the new PBA and unlike any invitational tournament, World Cups are for everybody, they belong to us all. I still have hope it stays that way.  

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