Mohamad Al-Bacha may be the world champion of EA SPORTS™ FIFA 16, but every morning, Monday to Friday, the 17-year-old has to leave his new trophy in his bedroom and get across town before the school bell rings.
“One more year of high school and then we will see,” are how the teenager, raised in Denmark but born in Lebanon, describes his future after a surreal experience in New York City from 20-22 March that saw him win the Grand Final of the FIFA Interactive World Cup 2016.
“Winning this is everything. It’s the biggest achievement you can achieve with the FIFA game.” Mohamad told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. “I actually don’t play as much FIFA as people think. They might think I play 10 hours a day but it’s more like 10 hours a week, so I find it easy to balance it with my schoolwork and hobbies.”
“At first, my parents thought I was joking,” said Mohamad, recalling the dinner-table discussions after receiving his first console in 2011. “That’s where it actually all began. But once my parents saw the tournament’s reputation, the prize money, the Ballon d’Or trip and everything else behind the FIWC, they were, like, ‘go for it!’”
Despite the support and enthusiasm of family and friends, Al-Bacha arrived in New York in the shadow of Denmark E-Sports superstar August Rosenmeier - the five-time grand finalist and winner of FIWC 2014 in Brazil was a favourite to win the 2016 edition.
“I arrived in New York not expecting anything,” said Al-Bacha. “I just went into the games and stayed calm. I didn’t put any pressure on myself.” The comment seems a bit seasoned coming from such a young player, but in the world of E-Sports, Al Bacha had already learnt the type of hard lessons that help cultivate the experience and mentality needed to become a champion.
FIWC 2014 champion Rosenmeier described the first time he met Al-Bacha, at a national Danish tournament two years ago. “He was a bit cheeky before the tournament. He was this new guy to the scene,” said Rosenmeier. “I beat him 4-1, but I could quickly see that Mohamad had a talent for the game and an understanding that very few players in the world have.”
“Yeah. I was feeling very comfortable back then”, responds Al-Bacha shyly to the painful reminder. “I was playing really well at home but when I came to the live event environment, August just smashed me. In that moment, I realised my level was not as high as I thought it was.”
Push forward to 21 March 2016 – the first day of competition at the New York Grand Final - and Al-Bacha was riding a wave of momentum, having secured a semi-final place without conceding a single goal. Mohamad had levelled up, but so had the attention and pressure.
“I got a lot of messages but I didn’t want to look through them while I was playing,” said the Dane of the opening day. “I just wanted to keep my focus and not lose concentration. I only checked my messages once I got back from the hotel that night.”
Al-Bacha went on a similar media-blackout on the day of the Final, as he patiently waited for the 18:00 semi-final kick-off. “It’s a mental thing,” he said. “You have to be calm, forget about what people are saying and play your game. When I play a game, my main focus is just on the screen. I just forget everything around me. My eyes and my mind are just on the screen and I just keep my body calm.”
Still riding the euphoria of New York, Al-Bacha recalled a strange encounter with a journalist in the hotel lobby on the day of the final. The teenager was being interviewed while quietly waiting for his transport to Harlem’s Apollo Theater, where the world title would be decided. The journalist’s question: “If you could win the Interactive World Cup tonight in any style you like, how would you want to do it?” Reflexively, the youngster had said, “With power. In the 90th minute.”
The off-hand remark proved eerily prescient and few FIWC fans are unfamiliar with what happened later that day. Trailing 3-1 in the 89th minute of the second-leg of the gold medal match, Al-Bacha scored from a free-kick. Seconds later, the Dane scored another, tying the game and winning the final on aggregate. In the dying seconds, Mohamad had shattered his opponent, surpassed his wildest dreams and secured Denmark its second-ever FIFA Interactive World Cup.