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Shunning practice and getting drunk: Luca Brecel’s very unlikely route to snooker’s biggest prize

Luca Brecel poses with the World Snooker Championship trophy (PA)
Luca Brecel poses with the World Snooker Championship trophy (PA)

Luca Brecel potted the red that put the world title beyond Mark Selby’s grasp, turned around to eyeball the crowd and threw out his arms: are you not entertained?

He had won this tournament with a reckless abandon rarely seen at the Crucible, and certainly not in the final. There have been plenty of attacking champions before but few have done it with such nonchalance. Ten minutes before each session Brecel made the short walk from his hotel to the stage door behind the theatre, took off his jacket and walked out to play.

There he floated around the table, approaching each ball like he was browsing for groceries, seemingly immune to the tension this arena creates. It is a place his opponent Selby knows so well, having played five previous finals and won four. Selby was dubbed a “boa constrictor” this week and his tactical play was meant to squeeze Brecel to death. Instead it was Brecel’s relentless potting which set the tempo, and Selby couldn’t keep up.

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Brecel produced an extraordinary run, winning a deciding frame against Ricky Walden in round one, beating multiple champions Mark Williams and Ronnie O’Sullivan, before producing a record comeback to beat Si Jiahui in the semis. It was a shock win too – Brecel had never before got past the first round at the Crucible in a decade trying.

The obvious question is, why now? His raw talent has been known ever since he beat Stephen Hendry in an exhibition aged 14. He first came to the Crucible as the tournament’s youngest ever player, aged 17. But until this year he had lost every match here, his brand of laissez-faire snooker apparently incompatible with the rigours of hard World Championship match play.

Yet this time, something clicked. Brecel changed his approach: he did everything he could to reduce the pressure, forgoing practice to return to Belgium between matches where he played darts, computer games and got drunk with friends. For the first time he stopped trying to be the prototype of a world champion, and embraced his true Brecel-ism.

“Luca doesn’t mind losing,” says Belgian journalist Rudy Lanssens, reporting from the Crucible for the first time. “It’s unusual for champions, because they hate losing. He says, I want to win very much but if I lose I don’t mind. It’s like he’s playing in the club with his mates. I’ve been in this business for 32 years – I’ve covered football and cycling and darts and all kinds of sports – and this guy is really unique.”

He is the first winner from mainland Europe and Belgium has been hooked all week, even if the game is not universally understood and some broadcasters have had to explain the value of the balls. Lanssens usually covers darts among other sports, but he was scrambled to Sheffield to follow the story.

“What a time to come, it’s thrilling. With Luca there’s always excitement because he pots the most impossible balls, but he also misses the odd easy ball so you know something’s going to happen. He is on the front pages in Belgium, national news. We had the Belgian Cup final yesterday in football, and it was overshadowed by Brecel. That means a lot.”

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This was one of the most entertaining Crucible finals for many years. The two players brought the best out of one another: Brecel forced Selby to open up and attack; Selby made Brecel play a near-perfect game to beat him. Brecel won the first three frames on Sunday playing blistering snooker but Selby responded by winning the last three that night including his historic 147 in one of the mini-sessions of his life.

Brecel led 9-8 overnight but the momentum seemed to have swung in Selby’s favour. Yet Brecel returned on Monday playing his best snooker yet, rattling off the first four frames with a pot success of 98 per cent, scoring three centuries and doing so with customary panache. This style was a theme of the championship: the BBC ran a ‘shot of the tournament’ competition during the interval and four of the 10 candidates were by Brecel.

There is a fluency to his cueing, a legato stroke that swings gently back and forwards through the shot like a pendulum. Brecel plays with a long bridge (the distance between his left hand and the cue ball), which generates extra power, and it means his pots sound different: there is a satisfying clunk when a ball hits the pocket.

The gospel of ‘Luca Snooker’ is simple enough: I will try to pot any ball that’s geometrically pottable, whether it’s an acute cut into a blind middle pocket or a long red with the white pinned against the cushion. He sealed one frame on Monday afternoon with a high-risk double across the table, knowing the balls were perfectly set for Selby should he miss.

That style forced Selby to ask himself a question: can I get the cue ball safe – really safe – or do I take on a pot to try and keep Brecel off the table? At times Selby seemed to get caught in two minds and the small mistakes he made early on Monday were ruthlessly punished. Selby rallied in the evening and briefly it felt like he might reverse a 16-10 deficit, but Brecel dug in and held on – it is hard to rattle an opponent who doesn’t fear failure.

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How did Brecel really feel when Selby won five frames in a row on Monday night, eating away at his lead, slowly closing in on an improbable comeback? “At 16-15 I felt so bad, I didn’t believe I was going to win any more to be honest,” he admitted afterwards, sitting at a desk with the trophy under his chin. “He froze me out, I had to dig really deep to find something.”

Perhaps he doesn’t fear losing but he certainly suffers self-doubt. ​And yet the manner in which he won this trophy showed a mental toughness that Brecel admits he hasn’t always had. It has taken winning a few ranking tournaments to build belief and resilience, and those traits got him through. “I could have been out against every opponent. But somehow I still managed to find something in the most important moments.”

There will be no big party, he insists – all the late nights and pressure has taken an enormous toll over the past 17 days, and he needs to rest. Besides, he is going back to Belgium as the new world No 2, and the world champion, and that will be another challenge in itself. “It’s going to explode,” he says.