Saturday 9 December 2006 became a historic day for the Netherlands today as they finally lifted a world crown after so many years of trying and coming so, so close. 17-year-old Andries Smit from The Hague was crowned the FIFA Interactive World Player for 2006 as he triumphed over the world's gaming elite at the FIFA Interactive World Cup Grand Final in Amsterdam today.
The tournament brought together the 128 best football gamers in the world. These virtual athletes train hard, practise their skills and are dedicated to their sport in the same way as the global superstars that fans watch every week. Every one of them had earned the right to represent themselves and their country at the prestigious event, either by successfully competing in a Qualifier Event, in an Online Tournament, or by having previously reached the Grand Final. Their superb virtual gaming skills were clear to see and many players commented that this was the strongest field ever to compete in a football gaming event.
Saturday's competition brought together players from over 25 different countries, across all six continents. The beauty of today's technology is that many of these players had played against each other before on EA Sports' FIFA 07 on Xbox 360, via the online Xbox Live, but had never met in person. But on Saturday they met and competed face-to-face, forging friendships and creating new rivalries. Brazilians swapped tactics with Koreans, Russians discussed formations with Australians and all relished the opportunity to compete for the title of FIFA Interactive World Player 2006.
The event also offered an opportunity for these virtual athletes, along with the people of Amsterdam, to test their skills in the real world of football - the speed of their shot, their dribbling skills and their football tricks were all put to the test. Amsterdam's best street footballers also showed up to demonstrate their unbelievable talent, and the whole crowd was stunned as those youngsters performed tricks that most can only dream about.
The tournament was full of surprises, and shock result followed shock result through the Group Stage, culminating with Chris Bullard, FIFA Interactive World Player 2005, exiting the competition at the first stage. Past champions, Qualifier event winners, and Xbox Live champions continued to fall as a new wave of young players dominated the competition.
Previous US Regional Event winners, Matija Biljeskovic (2004) and Ruben Morales (2005) both exited in the early knock-out stages in nail-biting penalty shoot-outs, and the tournament became wide open as the big names fell.
The first Semi-Final saw Wolfgang Meier of Austria edge a very tight match against Ragui Yogaranjan of Norway. His Barcelona team scored the only goal of the game to put the Austrian through to the Final. He was joined there by home favourite Andries Smit as he won by the odd goal in a five goal thriller against US player Felipe Stoyne.
Barca vs. Brazil
After Felipe had seen off Ragui to claim third place, the scene was set for a fantastic final, with a patriotic home crowd cheering for Andries, and a resilient Wolfgang determined to send them all home disappointed. The match did not disappoint and started in explosive fashion with Wolfgang's Barcelona taking a third minute lead against Andries' Brazil side.
The goals then flowed for both sides, with both players showing fantastic attacking skills but an inability to defend. The score reached 4-3 to Wolfgang by half time, with Ronaldinho on the score-sheet for both sides, representing both his club and his country in this virtual finale.
Both players pulled their defences together for a tighter second half, but it was Andries' Brazil side who started to show the greater determination and stamina, drawing level in the 66th minute, and then following up with two more Ronaldinho goals in the 69th and 75th minutes to take a commanding 6-4 lead. Wolfgang rallied but, driven on by the support of the Dutch crowd, Andries held on to claim his title, and the 20,000 USD first prize.
After being congratulated on stage by FIFA delegate and FIFA Executive Committee member Chuck Blazer, an emotional and exhausted looking Andries was overcome by his success, "I'm so happy, I can't stop shaking. This is great - the best moment of my life," exclaimed the young champion.
This great day, however, may well be quickly overtaken as the best moment of his life as he will be travelling to Switzerland next week to receive his FIFA Interactive World Player 2006 trophy at the FIFA World Player Gala celebrations. Dutch International and Tottenham Hotspur midfielder, Edgar Davids, one of Andries' football heroes, will present him with the award.