“In Belgium, we’re really good at sports, like tennis and football,” says Luca Brecel, who was the runner-up in last year’s UK Championship, one of snooker’s most prestigious tournaments. He doesn’t mention snooker, but that could be about to change. Still only 28 and the youngest player in the top 16, Brecel is known as the Belgian Bullet. And he can already point to two local rising stars who he suggests were “probably” inspired by his success.
The Belgians are coming? The feeling around the game is that Brecel’s time is coming. The UK Championship was his first major ‘triple-crown’ final since turning professional in 2011. In 2012, at just 17 years and 45 days, he beat Stephen Hendry’s record as the youngest player to compete in the World Championship. While setting up the balls for a chat over a game at his home practice table in Maasmechelen, I ask him whether he has found some renewed focus. “Not really, it was always going to take time,” he says. “I’m still improving, but now I’m at my best!”
I break off with a trace of right-hand side. Not bad, but on my next shot I’m snookered. It’s his table. It’s also his house, having just bought his childhood home from his parents, who are moving out in a matter of weeks. It's a good set-up with plenty of natural overhead light for a couple of hours of practice a day.
When told that other players admit to five-to-six-hour daily practice shifts, Brecel insists that two hours are plenty: “It’s very tough to play alone – and you should see how fast I play,” he says, adding that he tends not to work on specific shots and no longer even has a coach. “If there’s a problem, I can figure it out,” he says, noting that some players suffer from overthinking their game.
Brecel caused a stir ahead of this year’s World Championship when he blamed the lack of young players in the top echelons of the sport (three of the four semi-finalists turned pro in 1992) on laziness and social media distractions. He is equally outspoken on the need to modernise the sport, saying that veteran BBC pundits such as Steve Davis and John Parrot should make way for younger voices. He also says that the hates wearing waistcoats, the traditional playing attire, and has called on the governing body to rethink the requirement.
Indeed, seasoned snooker lovers fear for the future of the game after the recent retirement of 46-year-old Ronnie O’Sullivan, the sport’s most-loved personality, who has been the dominant force for more than two decades. Some claim that as the sport has developed professionally, erratic performers who made for great television in snooker’s 1980s golden age – think Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins – would struggle to reach the televised stages of a tournament today.
Brecel insists that there are still great characters on the circuit. But he is also candid about some of the game’s hall of famers, including seven-time world champion Stephen Hendry. “Even if Hendry were playing now, he would be just a normal top 16 player,” he says. I’m so disarmed, I miss my next shot by some distance. “Everyone thinks it, but I say it.”
It is this kind of straight talking that he says has won him many fans in Belgium, though he admits they might not watch his matches. And his self-confident, uncomplicated approach to life off the table also appears to help him on it. He agrees that focusing too much on snooker could be counterproductive. “I’m just chilled. Fearless. It’s a good combination,” he says.
Anyone who’s picked up a cue in earnest will know just how much snooker can be a mental test. “You don’t need to have a perfect technique; it’s really all in the head,” Brecel says. “One of the Belgian guys coming through has the talent, but I’m not sure yet whether he has the mentality. It’s very difficult. You have to be so strong, and you need to be relaxed.”
Brecel’s interest in cue sports began while playing pool on a family holiday as a young boy. His father then took him to the local snooker club in Maasmechelen, where his natural talent caught the eye of a coach. By the time he was 10, he had already made a century break. Two years later he won a tournament in Belgium, outscoring “some really good players”, and it slowly began to dawn that he could have a career in the game.
While Belgium offered some opportunities to compete, he was soon regularly crossing the English Channel to play in the UK, aided by a supportive father, who still occasionally joins him on tour. Brecel firmly announced himself to the game when aged 14 he beat six-time World Championship runner-up Jimmy White in a tournament in Portugal. “I was playing so well that it wasn’t a big surprise,” he says, before adding that he followed it up by beating former world champion Ken Doherty.
On paper, he may seem cocky, but in person, he is anything but. Could he have become a bit of brat? “Some people might have become brattish, but not me,” he says. “I read a lot, I think a lot, I’m so small in this world, why would I not be humble? If I were to win the World Championship 10 times, there are people like Mike Tyson and Michael Jordan. Why would I be special?”
As I gather up my things, including the remains of my sporting dignity, I notice a couple of trophies randomly lying on the floor. No cabinet? Of course not.
Where to play snooker in Brussels
Victory Snooker Bar
Rue Vanderkindere 101, 1180 Bruxelles
Six snooker tables, 3 pool tables and darts
European Snooker Club
Av. Josse Goffin 214, 1080 Bruxelles
Seven snooker tables, 14 pool tables
Snooker The Faculty
Av. Arnaud Fraiteur 28, 1050 Bruxelles
Three snooker tables