SOFIA (Reuters) - Ten years ago there was not a single full-sized snooker table in Bulgaria and the majority of people in the Black Sea state would not have heard of the sport, let alone played it.
But the country has now hosted a Challenge Tour Event three years in a row and Bulgarian Ivaylo Pekov recently became only the second eastern European to compete in the world snooker championship qualifying rounds.
“Snooker? What’s this? That was the reaction of the Bulgarians until the middle of last decade,” Bulgarian snooker federation chairman Oleg Velinov told Reuters.
A Georgian businessman made the first snooker tables in Bulgaria and after professional tournaments were screened on television snooker broadcasts quickly became among the most-watched program's in the Balkan country.
Viewing figures already out-strip those for well-established sports like volleyball, which is Bulgaria’s most successful team sport.
Poland and Russia have also hosted Tour events as snooker looks to tap the potential market in eastern Europe.
“Everything changes so fast,” Velinov said.
“We invited (former world champion) Shaun Murphy to play an exhibition match in 2007 and we’re just happy to see such a great player. Nowadays, he’s competing in European Tour events in Bulgaria.”
Professional players in snooker's traditional heartlands of Britain, Ireland and Australia might not attract second glances but in Bulgaria the sport's big names are inundated by requests for autographs.
“The sport has a bright future in Bulgaria,” said Velinov, adding that he hoped local companies would recognize the potential of snooker.
“They see it’s not an expensive sport and investing in snooker, given it's growing popularity here, would be one of the best ways to advertise their products.
“Bulgarians are impressed with the sportsmanship of the game, there’s no cheating in snooker. They’d love to see something they can’t find any more in other sports, including soccer.”
Football is still the most popular sport in the country with a population of 7.2 million but its image has been tarnished by poor displays from the national team and crowd violence. The domestic league has been dogged by refereeing scandals and match-fixing allegations.
The 21-year-old Pekov won the qualifying tournament in Sofia to became Bulgaria’s pioneer at the world championship in Sheffield, England.
“I was very proud that I was able to qualify, but at the same time I realized the great responsibility, knowing I would be the first who would represent Bulgaria at this level,” Pekov told Reuters.
Pekov, however, failed to produce his best form, losing 10-2 to Scotland’s Marcus Campbell.
“I was not pleased with my performance,” said Pekov who began playing snooker at the age of 14 in his native Plovdiv and is one of many Bulgarians who idolizes five-times world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan.
“But I have already seen that there’s nothing to fear and I cannot wait to come back and win matches.”
The nature of the game and the personalities of the players are other factors that made Bulgarians fall in love with the sport.
“I’m not playing snooker but I just love to spend several hours, watching this great game,” 46-year-old Atanas Dimitrov from Sofia told Reuters. It’s the spirit of snooker, which makes it so attractive, it also requires mental toughness and strategic nous. And it’s so relaxing.”
Snooker is seeking to broaden its horizons in Bulgaria and women are taking it up in growing numbers.
“There’re a lot of young girls, who began practising snooker in the last years,” Bulgaria’s first snooker coach Bratislav Krastev said.
“We already have a number of women’s tournaments in Bulgaria and there are Bulgarian female referees officiating at top level.”
World snooker chairman Barry Hearn is delighted by the growth of the sport in Bulgaria.
“We’ve been thrilled to discover the extent of support for snooker in this fantastic location,” Hearn said.
“We’ve seen crowds of over 2,000 people pack the arena as well as strong viewing figures -- incredible in a country where our sport was barely known a decade ago,” he said.
Hearn is also keen to bring through the next generation of players and qualifying schools are planned in Eastern Europe.
"This is a quantum leap from where we are and it's only just the beginning," Hearn said.
"We're miles away from peaking. If we've come from base camp we're not even halfway up the mountain."
Editing by Ed Osmond