By Bert van Manen
Give me a couple of minutes, and I can come up with fifteen or twenty names of famous chess players. Not for the life of me, could I produce the name of even a single chess CLUB. Most outsiders will feel the same about billiards: the man in the street will have heard of Caudron and Jaspers, but if he himself does not play billiards, the chance is about zero that he knows which club(s) they play for. Like chess, 3-cushion is a highly individual affair.
And yet, here in Western Europe we spend most of our billiard-playing time in the leagues, not in individual tournaments. We are so used to our teams of four players, two tables, comparable playing strength, no handicaps. It conveniently fills an afternoon or an evening, you referee each other’s matches, it’s a social event as well as a sport. The formula works so well, it is the going system in The Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, Denmark, Italy, Austria and probably a dozen more countries. In the USA, players are spread so much thinner and travel distances limit the possibility of league play. For us, those 11 home and 11 away games are the meat & potatoes of our billiards diet.
Last week, a press release came out, and it effectively announced the winner of the Belgian and Dutch leagues, for the season 2014 – 2015. In an economy where sponsors are hard to find, a business man (installations firm) stood up and announced that he had signed Frédéric Caudron, Dick Jaspers, Eddy Merckx and Jean Paul de Bruijn to form a team in both leagues. This of course reduces the chances of the other 11 teams in both countries to nil. If the best player of the opposing team can’t beat your third-best player, you might as well settle that match over the phone. Just hand over the Cup now, it is a done deal.
I have not heard from enough Belgians to know what the reactions were in billiard circles there. But in the fine Dutch tradition of always preferring complaint over applause, response was mostly negative in the Netherlands. “This will chase away the other, smaller sponsors.” “This is the end of our Eredivisie.” “Nobody will come and watch the other teams play anymore.” Just some of the comments I have heard. Even the players themselves caught some flak: “They should not have done this, they know we want them to play against each other, not together.” What should these four guys have done when presented with the opportunity to make (part of) a living, I ask? Draw straws?
Personally, I don’t think this news is so bad. The bottom half of the teams from this season found sponsors, even though they never had a chance at the title. Nothing really changes there. We’ve had super teams before: remember Hanze Catering, with TB, DJ, Horn and van Erp? That was not the “end of our Eredivisie”, and this won’t be either. It may even be a new impulse, attract some media attention, start a buzz, who knows?
For context, here’s a snippet of history. Why have we never had a team in the Dutch Eredivisie with three or even four international players, you may ask? The van Wanrooij team had Blomdahl and Sayginer, later Blomdahl and Sanchez, with two Dutchmen (van Wanrooij and Weijenburg, later van Erp). The Crystal Kelly team had Caudron and Ceulemans, with two Dutchmen (van Kuijk and Gieskens, later Burgman. ISMS had Nelin and Carlsen, with two Dutchmen, Jaspers and Habraken. Some 15 seasons of brilliant league play and high quality play-off matches we’ve had, and we owe at least some of that to Joop van Oosterom. See also:http://www.bcdedeken.be/pages/sub/66965/Eighteen_golden_years.html
When the teams first started hiring players from abroad, van Oosterom said: two Dutch players in every team, agreed? It was a gentleman’s agreement, but everybody knew he would retaliate hard if anyone broke it, he had hinted at that. By hiring TB, DJ, SS and DS, for example. It’s amazing, the things you can get done if you have a couple of billion. It was only years later, that the KNBB (Dutch federation) made official rules against hiring more than two players from abroad. It’s a good common sense rule, even though it would never hold up in court, with EU rule saying we have free traffic of goods and services.
And here we are, with the two best Belgians (double world champions together) and possibly the two best Dutchmen in the same team. I am not complaining, and I will go watch them whenever I have a chance. But I am rather skeptical about the sustainability of this venture. The new sponsor may be affluent, I don’t know the man. But he’s no billionaire, barely a multi-millionaire from what I hear. And more importantly: what is the return on his considerable investment, what’s in it for him? The most expensive front row seats in the history of billiards, is what he’s bought. Hanze Catering did not make it through its second season, and my gut feeling is, neither will this team. Trust me, it’s not what I hope, it’s what I fear.