KARACHI: Pakistan's Mohammad Asif returned home to a hero's welcome on Tuesday 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.
“I am blessed,” Asif said amid loud cheers from hundreds of fans who gathered at Karachi airport in the early hours to welcome the country's new hero.
“It's destiny, I could not have been there at all and here I am with the world trophy, it hasn't sunk in yet. I hope my success will inspire youngsters and snooker gets the same attention as cricket and hockey.”
Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf congratulated Asif, and TV cameras followed him from the moment he stepped off the plane in Karachi.
Almost all the major papers – English and Urdu – ran editorials hailing his achievement and urging the government to do more to support cue sports.
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.
“I can't continue like this, because every time I have to ask for money from my family and it's time I either play on my own or quit,” he said.
As Pakistan's number one player and reigning national champion, Asif gets a monthly stipend from the PBSF of 8,000 rupees ($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 and top players appearing in commercials for everything from banking to shampoo.
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.
PBSF chairman Asghar Valika said he hoped Asif's win would raise the sport's profile in Pakistan.
“Asif's triumph is a good news for Pakistan snooker and I am hopeful that the sport will again be boosted and revived in the country,” he said.
PBSF president Alamgir Sheikh deplored the lack of funds available for the sport.
“We didn't get any co-operation from the government and the Pakistan Sports Board and in the end we had to collect funds from personal friends to send our players to Sofia,” Sheikh said.
It turned out to be an effort worth making.
“It was a tough final but I was determined to win,” said Asif, who aims to make his mark in the professional circuit provided he gets the support, and above all money.