x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

When fantasy is the real deal

Half a million with their fingers on the button.

Players in the Interactive World Cup celebrate as much as those in the actual World Cup.
Players in the Interactive World Cup celebrate as much as those in the actual World Cup.

By midday, the temperature in Barcelona had soared into the mid-20s, turning the Catalonian capital into a glorious place to spend the first Saturday in May. The Mediterranean Sea was brilliantly blue as locals and tourists settled down for a day on the beach. The Port Olimpic may have attracted hordes of sun worshippers, but the real entertainment all day was taking place between the seafront restaurants and high-sailed yachts, where a collection of tents, a main stage, five-a-side football nets and rows of giant mounted plasma screens and computer consoles hinted at what lay ahead.

Barcelona was hosting the Fifa Interactive World Cup (FIWC) 2009 Grand Final, the culmination of a global search for the most gifted football gamer on the planet. More than 500,000 hopefuls had set out online or taken part in 19 live qualifying events more than six months previously, before regional qualifiers around the world had whittled the winners down to an elite group of 32 players. And those 32 were now about to compete in Barcelona to become the virtual equivalent of Cristiano Ronaldo - officially the best player in the world - as well as collect a US$20,000 (Dh73,400) winner's cheque and the keys to a KIA "Soul" car.

In normal circumstances gaming is a participation rather than spectator sport - but big screens, cheerleaders, an artificial beach and, appropriately, on a day when Barcelona faced arch-rivals Real Madrid in a crucial El Clasico clash at the top of Spain's Primera Liga, table football games set up in the colours of the country's two most famous clubs transformed the Port Olimpic into a venue where fans were fully engaged in the drama. And the players providing the action had come from all over the world: Daniel Sykes had made the 19,000km journey from New Zealand; a trio of players, Stephen Coorey, Jason Mac and Michael Pommer, had flown all the way from Australia; and Omar Jaleel, a Bolton Wanderers fan from Mumbai, was representing the Indian subcontinent.

As noticeable as the cosmopolitan make-up of the finalists was their youthfulness. They say football is a young man's game, but the virtual stars, all male, make their grass-based equivalents look like veterans. Half of the 32 finalists were teenagers; the average age of the field was 19.4 years; only two were aged 30 or above; and the youngest player of all, a 14-year-old FC Porto fan called Francisco Cruz, would become one of the stars of the tournament.

The Middle East's first representative at a FIWC Grand Final (the inaugural event was in 2004) was a 21-year-old Saudi Arabian finance student called Mohammed Nasser al Khathlan, who had qualified by winning heats in Riyadh and Dubai. While al Khathlan, a fan of Real Madrid and Al Ahly, had, remarkably, taken up the game only three months before, his Group D rival, 20-year-old Egyptian Hesham Khater, was one of the most feared players in the tournament.

Khater was an internet superstar: playing under the online moniker "Legend_never_die", the 20-year-old had qualified for the FIWC 2009 Grand Final by virtue of being the No 1 ranked internet player in the world. "Over the past five months I've played about 1,000 games online and won 800 of them," said the electrical engineering student from Cairo. "I've probably spent more time playing FIFA09 than studying. I play for three hours a day or 21 hours a week, but I've played more in the past month or so. I already know most of the other players here; we've played against each other online a lot."

Khater only just made it to Barcelona after his visa arrived at the last minute - but initially he must have wondered why he bothered. Overwhelmed by the atmosphere, he lost his opening game 1-0 against South Africa's Gordon Butler, and then crashed to a 7-5 defeat to England's Danny Taylor. Like so many other competitors, Taylor chose to play as Manchester United - which meant Manchester United v Manchester United clashes occurred throughout the competition.

"I hate Manchester United," said the 16-year-old from Middlesbrough. "But if you're going to ask me if I want to use them for a chance to win $20,000, then I'm prepared to use them for one day." Those successive defeats meant Khater had to defeat al Khathlan in his final group game and hope Taylor would beat Butler by a decent winning margin to stand any chance of reaching the knock-out phase. Finally the wheel turned in Khater's favour, as he beat al Khathlan 3-1 and Taylor thrashed Butler 6-1, a combination that earned the highly rated Egyptian a place in the last 16.

But the problem for Khater was that his next opponent was the Portuguese prodigy Cruz, who had breezed through the opening round with three consecutive victories, scoring 13 goals and conceding none. Standing barely 5ft tall, the boy became a giant with the console in his hands, even finding time to glance down the line at other matches. Nicknamed "El Nino" by admiring rivals, Cruz appeared to have the form that would beat the world's best internet player.

And so it proved when the last 16 got under way, as Cruz scored early against Khater before adopting the counter-attacking strategy that had served him so well in his previous matches. The Egyptian, frustrated by his younger rival's assured defending, looked out of sorts, and the confident "El Nino" scored a second, third and fourth goal to move into an unassailable lead. Khater netted late on, earning the minor consolation of being the first player to breach the whizzkid's defence, but the 4-1 final scoreline reflected the younger player's sup- eriority.

"I was too nervous. It's so hard playing in front of all these people," Khater said. "It's my first time in a Grand Final and I can play a lot better than that. It's so much easier playing online at home. You can focus better and there's no noise or distractions. It was really tough out there. "Cruz played well. He's like an Italian player; he's defensive and knows how to kill the game. I was hoping to go far but I didn't show my best today."

"El Nino" appeared to charging relentlessly towards the $20,000 first prize and keys to a car he was too young to drive. His comfortable quarter-final win over the Grand Final's second youngest competitor, 15-year-old Austrian Markus Serkan Boyer, set up a semi-final clash against curly-haired Ruben Morales Zerecero. Mexican Zerecero had attracted nearly as much attention as Cruz in the opening round - but nobody had been focusing on his football. Instead it was Zerecero's celebrations that turned heads - he greeted every goal he scored strike with cries of "Gol!! Vamos!! Mexico!!" and one-kneed, first-pumping celebrations.

Zerecero had clearly adapted better than most of his rivals to the peculiar playing conditions of the Grand Final. Standing up, side-by-side, in front of a large crowd, is a funny way to play a computer game - but while the likes of Khater had seemed fazed, Zerecero relished the mano-a-mano nature of the competition and implored the crowd - including a quartet of his friends wrapped in Mexico flags - to join in the fun.

The fun all went his way in the semi-final, as wonderkid Cruz finally hit a wall. The boy from Portugal never got going, enabling Zerecero to take an early lead - cue more demonstrations of delight - and control the game thereafter. Cruz's inexperience finally told; at one point, disbelievingly, he glanced over his shoulder, as if asking the crowd for help. As so often happens at the real World Cup, the early pacesetter had peaked too soon. Zerecero won 3-1 to leave "El Nino" and his followers stunned.

Zerecero's opponent in the final was a 22-year-old from Nantes called Bruce Grannec. The Frenchman had barely raised any interest en route to the final, perhaps because his approach was as stony-faced as Zerecero's was spectacular - but the contrast of styles appeared to suit Grannec as he took an early lead and maintained his advantage until half-time. Zerecero equalised shortly after the restart, but the Mexican's extravagant celebrations made no impact on his rival. In a battle of mental strength, Grannec appeared to have the edge, and he regained the lead with a beautifully stuck shot from outside the penalty with only a couple of minutes remaining. Now Zerecero had to attack - but that played straight into the hands of Grannec, who scored a third on the break. The final whistle sounded. Grannec had won 3-1 to become FIWC 2009 Grand Final champion.

Zerecero was first to congratulate the winner, and had already decided what he would spend his $5,000 runners-up prize on: "I'm going to take my girlfriend for a good dinner, and buy something for my mother. My dream was to become the world champion, but things happen for a reason. I'm really proud of how I did and I congratulate Bruce, who played a great game today." Grannec barely raised a smile as he collected his prize from Fifa executive committee member Chuck Blazer. "Maybe I don't seem happy because I prefer to celebrate inside but I can tell you I'm really happy about my win," he said. Compatriot Zinedine Zidane wasn't one for smiling. And he wasn't a bad player, either.

Becoming Fifa Interactive World Cup 2009 Grand Final champion may have been the biggest triumph of Bruce Grannec's career - but it certainly wasn't the first. The unassuming 22-year-old from Nantes, north-west France, was crowned Pro Evolution World Champion in 2006, collecting $13,000 in the process, and has also won several major invitational tournaments in China, picking up around $18,000 in prize money.

The $20,000 first prize he won at the FIWC 2009 Grand Final in Barcelona has added to Grannec's bank balance, as well as his burgeoning reputation as one of the game's global stars. He'll also attend Fifa's World Player of the Year Gala as a guest of honour next year, and one day hopes to turn professional. "I'd love to make a living from football gaming," he said. "I stopped my studies not long ago so in recent months I've been able to focus on playing and this competition.

"I didn't have a particular plan in the final. I just played my own style of football from the beginning to the end of the tournament." Unlike his rivals, Grannec does not believe that spending most of your spare time in front of the computer is ideal preparation for major competitions. "I play for only four hours a week, and sometimes even less than that. I don't think you gain a lot from sitting there playing for 20 hours a week. It's football, and if you have a bit of luck and you understand the game then you can be a winner."

@Email:jeastham@thenational.ae