The Mosconi Cup is always the most anticipated match-up of the year in pool. The flag-waving and cheering make the event unique. The national pride among players that causes friends to become bitter enemies for four days is fascinating. It's pool's perfect year-ending event.
But this year was different than others. In 2014, the most intriguing part of the Mosconi Cup was the 11-month build-up, particularly here in the United States. The four days in Blackpool was just a barometer that measured the level of success of that 11-month experiment. Oh, I suppose some people actually believed that Team USA could pull off the biggest international sporting upset since "Miracle on Ice," but most of those believers would probably fall into the category of Natalie Wood's character in "Miracle on 34th Street." ("I believe. I believe. It's silly, but I believe.")
Don't get me wrong. The event itself was fantastic. I've seen the Mosconi Cup in virtually every venue in which it's been played, and nothing rivals this year's setting.
The Tower Circus in Blackpool was perhaps the best venue for championship pool since the days of Greenleaf and Hoppe, when huge ornate auditoriums were packed with men in suits. There was something about the dusty old circus, with its ornate Moorish architecture and early-bordello design that suited the occasion. More than 1,000 fans circled the single-table arena, many of them perched high up in the balconies that seemed to hover right over the table.
And for all the vitriol spewed online about "classless" and "rude" Brit fans (American Shane Van Boening went so far as to say, "Pool is not sport when it's like that."), the fact was 98 percent of the fans in Blackpool displayed controlled fanaticism. They cheered good shots by the Yanks, included them in some of their sing-song cheers, and gave the Americans an ear-splitting chant of "USA, USA" at the event's conclusion.
Still, the result in Blackpool was never really in question. Team Europe, handicapped to a certain extent by its own team selection process, was the better squad going into, during and after the event.
To a certain extent, this year's Mosconi Cup, and the build-up to it, was a microcosm of pool in the U.S. It exposed the problems that face professional pool in America, and offered a glimpse of what is possible in the future.
For starters, it's still clear that a lack of world-class international competition is stifling the growth of young American players. The top Europeans participate in all of the world-class events, regardless of where they take place. Sure, some of them take their lumps in the process, but that seasoning is invaluable over the long haul. The American players, save for Van Boening, looked out of their element in Blackpool.
Still, the smartest move event-promoter Matchroom Sport made was naming Mark Wilson captain of Team USA at the start of the year. Few people in pool are as hard-working and positive as Wilson. He's more than a coach. Wilson built a collegiate billiard program from nothing at Lindenwood University near St. Louis. Kids are even offered scholarships to join the program. And while Wilson develops the student athletes' talents on the table, he spends even more time helping develop their character. In doing so, he's developing future stars that the entire industry will be proud of.
Wilson approached Team USA with the same philosophy. The dysfunction that was so evident during Team USA's implosion in a 12-2 loss in 2013 needed to disappear, so Wilson started with a fresh slate. Both his selection process and his final selections came under heavy scrutiny, but Wilson never wavered from his philosophy.
The results were apparent, despite the final score in Blackpool. To a player, Team USA spoke in terms of "team" and "respect" and "character." They all made sacrifices to play for Team USA, and they all seemed to relish the opportunity to do so again. They spoke of wanting something better for the sport, and of their willingness to be part of that effort.
And when I throw on my rose-colored glasses, I see an opportunity for the whole sport here. In the perfect world, I could see Team USA - men and women - become a 12-month thing. I could see the industry supporting a program that developed talent and character. I could see players, with a better understanding of what being on Team USA means, knocking themselves out to be part of the program. I could see Team USA players, wearing Team USA jerseys, honing their skills in the toughest competition the world has to offer.
And I could see the program extending to a Junior Team USA. Develop America's youth and give them something to aspire to.
Sure, it's probably a pie-in-the-sky dream. But, in actuality, it's a relatively doable and affordable program. Much more affordable than trying to fund a pro tour, and much more efficient and effective than funding a big, one-off pro tournament.
It would be nice to see the industry get behind a program that has a plan, a future. It's apparent that there are people willing to make sacrifices to make it successful.