World Snooker Championship: The near-silent sport which has become the latest focus of Saudi Arabia’s imagination


No one dares to speak louder than a whisper as nearly 1,000 people respectfully take their seats inside the dimly lit Crucible Theater.

There’s a sense of nervous excitement as those lucky enough to get tickets gather at this historic venue in the heart of Sheffield, a city in the north of England.

But they are not here to watch a theatrical performance. They have come to witness the silent and unnerving atmosphere of the World Snooker Championship.

If you’re not familiar with snooker, it’s a sport that requires immense patience and extreme precision in equal measure. I think chess is played on a green cloth rather than a checkered board. Players score points by potting a series of balls, looking to ruthlessly capitalize on an opponent’s mistake.

Matches can be long The 1985 world final lasted more than 14 hoursThe crowd watches the match in almost complete silence, giving polite applause if a player hits a great shot.

The World Snooker Tour (WST), the organizer of the World Snooker Championship, says the sport is It is watched by half a billion people around the world.

For the past 47 years, the historic Crucible Theater has been home to the annual tournament, a sporting bliss that attracts people from all over the world to its doors.

“It’s like Augusta and golf. Augusta is one of the spiritual locations of golf around the world, and The Crucible is that for us,” former snooker world champion Shaun Murphy told CNN Sport behind the scenes of this year’s tournament.

“Snooker and Sheffield go together like peas and carrots, it’s very special.”

But the stadium’s long association with the tournament appears to be under threat from a source, both literally and figuratively, thousands of miles away.

As you wander the stunning corridors of the theatre, everyone is talking about Saudi Arabia’s growing influence on the game of snooker.

The Kingdom recently signed a lucrative deal with WST which some speculate is a precursor to the event moving to Saudi Arabia once the current contract with the Crucible Theater expires in 2027.

It’s a decision that may make business sense, but one that would tear the sport away from one of its spiritual homes, given snooker’s historical relationship with the Crucible.

Stepping off the train in Sheffield, a city famous for its historic steel production, you might expect to encounter a flurry of neon promotional materials, advertising this year’s tournament.

But while such events in other sports might evoke a festival-like atmosphere in the host city, the reality in Sheffield is somewhat different.

In place of merry fans and raucous excitement, there’s a slow drive up the hill towards a rather nondescript building which blends into the gray sea surrounding it.

While Sheffield locals go about their day as usual, a few fans take shelter from the chilly breeze in a conservatory opposite the venue where they line up to test their abilities through a number of snooker challenges.

Many fans told CNN how excited they are to be here, that they’ve been waiting all year to make the trip, but the noise levels never peak above a quiet hum.

George Wood/Getty Images

The Crucible Theater seats 980. Demand for tickets absolutely exceeds capacity.

Throughout most of the year, the Crucible Theater is home to a range of world-class productions and is considered one of the best places to see live theater in England, if not the world.

It has been designed specifically with the audience in mind, with seats cascading down to a stage that has been home to Shakespearean tragedies and modern classics.

Snooker was brought to this enclave in northern England by promoter Mike Watterson in 1977, after his wife saw a play in a theater and suggested it might be a good option for holding a tournament.

Even at the time, there were concerns that the venue would be too small to accommodate the two snooker tables needed to host the tournament, but the decision was made to give it a try.

Now the 980-capacity arena could be sold several times over, as the historic venue is in desperate need of development. In a world where money is king, Crucible Theater seems to get in the way of acts of heroism.

This year, Iranian player Hossein Vafaei said the place “smelled very bad,” a harsh judgment on a place much loved by many.

But while its drab fairways probably don’t need a little paint, the pitch immediately catches the eye.

The two 12-by-6-foot tables stand sturdy under the bright lights, covered with a crisp green cloth. Every glitch, every flick of the chalk is enough to throw players off course, so the pristine playing surface is closely monitored by a small team of experts – looked after like the green grass at Wembley Stadium.

Snooker had its boom years here in the 1980s, and these walls have crowned dozens of world champions over the decades. You can feel the history, and that’s probably more important than anything money can buy.

The arena seats are closely packed together and tower over the players as they take to the stage that lives up to its name, The Crucible. The fans are very close to the players, as if they are part of the action. So close that they can see every furrowed brow of the players.

“Every seat is a great seat, you feel like the audience is right above you because that’s how it was designed,” Murphy adds. “This place was designed to perform, so when you get here, this atmosphere is unbelievable.”

“We are very, very lucky. It is the theater of our dreams. Young players, like me, when we started playing, we dreamed of doing it here. Just like tennis players dream of doing it at Wimbledon.”

Like many fans attending this year, 2005 world champion Murphy doesn’t want the tournament to move away from the Crucible stage, but he knows that romance and nostalgia alone won’t be enough to keep the tournament where it is.

While Sheffield holds the memories, Saudi Arabia offers the key to bigger prize money and bigger venues. It disrupted the nation’s top-flight football scene and caused a bitter split in professional golf.

And it looks like snooker could be next in line.

“Unfortunately, there is no real battle between nostalgia and business. There is no fight, really. “Money is made every day, that’s the nature of the world,” Murphy admits, calling on Sheffield to build a bigger arena in the city.

“As much of a snooker fan as I am, I don’t want the World Championships to ever leave here, but commercially we can’t continue to hold our biggest event on our smallest grounds.”

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Ronnie O’Sullivan is open to a Championship move away from Sheffield.

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Sean Murphy would like the event to remain at the Crucible Theatre.

It’s a sentiment shared, perhaps most brutally, by the game’s biggest star, Ronnie O’Sullivan.

The Englishman is arguably the greatest player to ever pick up snooker, having won seven world titles to date. His personality and sheer talent saw him outgrow the game, and he often threatened to walk away from the sport unless it started to catch on.

He has criticized the Crucible Theater in the past, wanting a more luxurious touch to the venue.

Perhaps ominously, O’Sullivan recently signed a three-year contract with Saudi Arabia in which he will serve as the country’s sporting ambassador.

Speaking to reporters after his first-round win at this year’s tournament, the 48-year-old reiterated his stance that respect for history should not stand in the way of progress.

“Every sport is a business, whether you like it or not. So you have to do what’s right for you. We live in a competitive world, so it’s great because there is a choice.”

He added: “The Saudis are a strong force, like China, they are serious players. Things get done very quickly. It is difficult to refuse them.”

“For me, I just want to play snooker, I want to be looked after, I want to be spoiled. Anyone who wants to spoil me, I’m your man.”

Saudi Arabia has previously responded to allegations of “sports whitewashing,” which involves countries using high-profile sporting events to project a positive image of their country around the world, often to draw attention away from alleged wrongdoing.

O’Sullivan was quick to dismiss the idea that Saudi Arabia’s human rights record would bar him from the project, pointing instead to the mistakes of countries in the Western world.

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The Crucible Theater has been home to the World Snooker Championship since 1977.

While the sport’s biggest star remains open to the move, the tournament organizer told CNN he is in talks with Sheffield City Council about new plans for the venue but said he is exploring all opportunities.

“First, we love the Crucible and absolutely share the connection players and fans feel,” WST president Steve Dawson said in a statement.

“It’s one of the great arenas in any sport around the world, and as soon as you walk through the door, you feel the history and remember all the great moments that happened on that stage. There’s a very strong emotional connection.

He added: “We have a responsibility to the players, fans and the sport itself to consider all options regarding the future of the tournament after 2027, whether that means staying in Sheffield or moving the event elsewhere.”

“We are a rapidly growing sport and this is already a huge global event, the pinnacle of the season and a global showcase for the sport. We will work to maximize its potential.”

While organisers, players and fans alike sing about what the Crucible Theater means to snooker, there is a sense of inevitability around the venue this year that an era is slowly coming to an end.

Saudi Arabia’s pursuit of snooker should come as no surprise, but moving the World Snooker Championship will be an emotional decision for many of its fans.

However, in search of a more profitable future, snooker may be the latest sport to turn to Saudi Arabia for help. Either way, it looks like the Crucible Theater may be left in the rearview mirror if it doesn’t keep up with the demands of the new sport.

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