Iran’s first professional player Hossein Vafaei hopes that his run at the Coral Northern Ireland Open can ignite an already keen interest for the sport in his home country.
The 22-year-old, who has come through four matches to earn a quarter-final berth, is savouring his week in Belfast and believes that his success will have a big impact extending the global reach of the sport.
Vafaei said: “Snooker is very popular in Iran. We have more than 1,400 snooker clubs and it is very big over there. Success for me this week will make the profile of the sport will become even bigger there. I can guarantee that 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 the sport, I couldn’t stop playing.”
The Iranian became the youngest ever World Amateur Champion in 2011 by defeating Lee Walker 10-9 in the final, at the age of just 17. His victory earned him a place on the World Snooker Tour. However, he was unable to compete in the majority of events for the next four years due to visa problems. In 2015 he eventually secured a permit to live in Ireland for a year. That visa has now expired and the potter from Abadan currently bases himself at home and makes the trip over for British events, which he can play in thanks to a UK work permit. After years of struggling to gain the access to break through in the sport, the 22-year-old believes that success in Belfast can bring stability.
“I’m concentrating more on the UK tournaments. Not being able to play in a lot of the events meant that I lost my confidence and couldn’t play my game,” said Vafaei. “I’ve now said to myself this is your time. You have to take your chance now you are in the UK. I have practiced hard and I am getting results. I was in a bad situation and still am, but if I can win this week I won’t have problems anymore.”
Vafaei has been enjoying some time out with Ronnie O’Sullivan and Liang Wenbo this week.
Vafaei is good friends with Ronnie O’Sullivan and recent English Open Champion Liang Wenbo. The trio have enjoyed going out for dinner this week in Belfast.
“They are my best friends on tour. Ronnie has been helping me a lot. I’ve been getting a lot of advice from him. I get everything from him.”
The Iranian takes on world number 35 Mark King later on this evening seeking to clinch a spot in clinch a spot in the Northern Ireland Open semi-finals.