Islamabad: Pakistan's Mohammed Asif returned home to a hero's welcome yesterday after cueing his way to the world amateur snooker title in a campaign which nearly ended before it began.
Pakistan has been desperately short of sporting success stories in recent years and though the amateur championship may not have the glamour and profile of the professional event, politicians, fans and media have lavished praise on the country's only current world champion.
Asif held off England's Gary Wilson 10-8 in Sunday's low-key final in the Bulgarian capital Sofia a far cry from the hallowed baizes of the Crucible where Ronnie O'Sullivan won his fourth professional world title in May but he almost never made it to the tournament.
A shortage of funds meant the Pakistan Billiards and Snooker Federation (PBSF) had practically given up hope of sending players to the championship until a slew of personal donations allowed Asif to board the plane. The 30-year-old from the eastern city of Faisalabad, who had never made it beyond the last 32 of the world championship, repaid the donors' generosity with a fairytale win — Pakistan's first in the tournament since 1994.
Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf congratulated Asif, and TV cameras followed him from the moment he stepped off the plane in Karachi. Before the tournament Asif declared it would be his last as it was becoming difficult to juggle playing tournaments and running his snooker club to support his family. As Pakistan's number one player and reigning national champion, Asif gets a monthly stipend from the PBSF of Rs8,000 ($82), most of which goes on cues and kit.
Cricket is far and away the biggest sport in Pakistan, followed fanatically by tens of millions, with big-money sponsorship deals. Other sports in which Pakistan once excelled, notably hockey and squash, have slumped due to consistent government apathy and underinvestment in facilities, while snooker survives thanks to the efforts of dedicated amateur players and officials.