Cue Kabul: Afghanistan enters frame for Snooker World Cup revival

Amateur pairing prepare to face Scotland as 19 countries compete at return of international event
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The Independent Online

The sense of pride at joining snooker's first World Cup party for 15 years is palpable as Afghanistan's No 1 player Mohammad Saleh Mohammadi considers the task facing him in Thailand this week.

World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn's decision to revive the international event, which starts today, has rewarded genuinely emerging nations with a place at the top table in a 20-team field, together with those, like Afghanistan, with no discernible pedigree at the highest level.

A chasm of difference in experience separates amateurs Saleh Mohammad and partner Mohammad Rais Senzahi from Scotland's quadruple world champion John Higgins and four-time ranking event winner Stephen Maguire, early opponents in the Bangkok group stages.

However, taking on icons of the sport is unlikely to faze a man who has witnessed such a damaging and war-ravaged period in his country's history, one that compelled him to leave and represent Pakistan for 15 years before grabbing an opportunity to return to Afghanistan in 2008.

On his emotional, and – by dint of the change of flag – controversial return, Saleh Mohammad was tasked with building a national team of which the country could be proud, and led several protégés into the prestigious Asian Games in China last November.

In a high-quality Guangzhou tournament where Hong Kong's Marco Fu beat China's Ding Junhui in the final, Saleh Mohammad himself made respectable progress to the quarter-finals before losing to Thailand tour professional Dechawat Poomjaeng.

The 38-year-old Saleh Mohammad, who lives in Kabul, said: "Of course, I am really looking forward to it. Snooker is starting to get popular here, and it's very exciting as it's the first time for Afghanistan we have qualified for the World Cup.

"It is the biggest tournament of my life. Everyone knows the problems that there have been here, and it was hard to play snooker here. I felt I had to go and play in Pakistan. But in 2008 I also knew I had to go back where I belonged, all my family is here and it makes me very proud to play for Afghanistan. With the rebuilding in Kabul that has been done I can now practise in a club with 27 tables.

"I want to give back something to my country and the only way I can do this is through snooker, as that is what I am good at. It was not an easy decision to make as I had been all over the world and suddenly I was going back to my own country without knowing what the reality would be.

"My role is to guide the younger players, and at the same time I need to play and perform in the competition as well. It is like leading from the front. It is far more convincing that way rather than just empty words and talk.

"This World Cup is a chance for us to do something, it is only single frames for singles and doubles, and we can dream of winning the trophy."

Last month's Taliban suicide bombing of a Kabul hotel, resulting in 22 fatalities, showed all too starkly the continuing hazards of life in Afghanistan's capital for the inhabitants.

But Saleh Mohammad insists he is back for good, and even sees a responsibility to try to divert people's attention temporarily away from daily strife. He added: "You try not to think about danger, and get on with your life. Despite the stories people read, you can be normal most of the time in Kabul. It is worse in the north.

"I have something to look forward to, it will be a real privilege to play against the world champion – and there is a lot of honour for our country in taking part.

"Scotland has produced many great players, like Stephen Hendry and Higgins, and I have been there many years ago, to play in Stirling.

"But I think we have a good chance against them, it will be one-frame matches, reverse singles and doubles, any player can win that – and we also play Hong Kong, Poland and Thailand B for a place in the top two and the quarter-finals.

"Maybe Scotland will be too confident and think we will be easy to beat. They could be in for a shock – and I know that people at home will get very excited if we win some matches."