The Belgian, Dutch, French and German leagues have contributed as much to the 3-cushion sport as the World Cups, in the past thirty years. Caudron made 50 in 9 (three times over) in team play. Merckx played his world record of 50 in 6 in the Bundesliga. Blomdahl was the first player to average over 2.000 for a season (2.017 in 1998). Our history would be beheaded and cut in half, without the league results.
But is it all splendor? Do we want to keep it this way, because it works so well? Personally, I have my doubts. The individual nature of 3-cushion is inherent, the team aspect is manufactured. There is a downside to this manipulation.
The 3-cushion player market obeys the laws of supply and demand. In a strong economy (nineties), good players are in demand and salaries get pushed up. The good (but slightly lesser) players can also make a buck, because if the Maserati is already taken, you grab the Alfa Romeo. In a recession (since 2007), the top players need to compromise and the second echelon does not earn anything.
For a European top player to live off billiards, he is almost forced to play multiple leagues. And they do: some of the pro's are active in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal and Austria. It may sound glamorous, but it is in fact an insecure and stressful way to make a living, with a lot of exhausting travel. If you don't have a part-time job on the side, and you don't want to teach, it is the only way these days to be a 3-cushion professional.
Now let's for a second forget about the 1.500 - and over players (they manage), and look at the life of an up- and coming 3-cushion talent. With his 1.200 average, he can't earn any money abroad, he's not yet strong enough. So he misses out on that valuable chance to play against the big guns. If he wants to get his education by competing in World Cup tournaments, he'll have to pay his own way: inscription, travel, hotel, expenses. Most likely, he'll win a few matches against the "tourists", then run into a seasoned pro who beats him 40-23 in 18 innings. Prize money? Forget about it. Few people can afford to take a week off from a regular job and - depending on the destination - invest anywhere from € 1.200 to € 2.000 for 18 innings of experience.
They would love to climb the ladder, but there's not much difference between 150th and 15th place. To make it into the coveted top-12 of the world ranking list is a Herculean task. You may try for a decade and never get there, even if you are extremely good. Ask Eddy Leppens. And if you are in the top-12: one slightly mediocre season will put you in danger of dropping out again, even if you are in fact one of the three best in the world. Ask Frédéric Caudron.
An up- and coming player needs a skull made of steel. Because he is banging his head against a wall.
Why are our European top players so old, you may ask? Or to rephrase: where are the 27 and 34-year old players who challenge 48-year old Caudron, 50-year old Jaspers, 53-year old Zanetti and 53-year old Blomdahl? Are they just too good? Yes, they are. Because they have lived like a billiard professional for the past quarter-century, and that is exactly what the generation that came after them, COULD NOT DO.
The current top Europeans have experienced it all. They have played on Platin tables in Turkey, on Min tables in Korea, on Verhoevens and Gabriels in Europe. They can shape their game to fit the conditions. Yes, they have even learned from those 6-40 drubbings where the opponent gave them 11 innings and not a single position. They know how to adapt, adjust, handle match- and tournament pressure, win from behind. They have graduated from Billiards Harvard. The post-Blomdahl / Jaspers generation may have wanted to go to that fine university, but they simply couldn't afford the tuition.
The young 3-cushion players of 2016 have no realistic chance of catching up with the established elite. Even if they have the talent, they don't have the tools, the time, or the money. And as a result, they don't have the incentive. Our billiard world has a handful of kings, but it lacks princes.
The focus on league play, as opposed to individual tournaments, is one of the contrasts between Western Europe and Korea. We should seriously look at that with an open mind, asking ourselves if maybe they are the ones getting it right, and we are stuck in unproductive traditions. I am not advocating that we abolish our leagues, of course not. But I would certainly recommend that we find ways to make them less of a burden on the calendar.
The Asians have no team competition, 3-cushion is viewed as a truly individual sport. They have a wealth of small, local tournaments where there is often a little money to be made. In Vietnam, twenty 3-cushion players walk into a billiard room with 50 dollars; two days later one guy walks out with 1000. We could use a bit of that spirit, in Europe.
Bergisch Gladbach is currently the strongest team in the strongest league: the German Bundesliga.