It was merely weeks ago in Porte de Versailles, Paris, that 22-year old Bruce Grannec was embroiled in a quarter-final penalty shoot-out during the FIFA Interactive World Cup 2009 French Live Qualification Event. On the verge of elimination, the ice-cool kid from Chilly Mazarin held his nerve, outscored his opponent and went on to win the national title.
"If I can get past the group stage, then anything can happen," were Bruce's words in Paris, when thinking about the Grand Final. 'Anything can happen' proved to be a phrase that would resonate throughout the tournament. From competition records to online leaderboards, the fifth edition of the FIFA Interactive World Cup was one of the most exciting and successful FIWC events yet.
Over half-a-million players competed in online qualification and thousands more participated in the 19 global live qualifier events. The Grand Final, held in Barcelona on 2 May, was the culmination of an incredible FIWC season as 32 EA Sports™ FIFA09 Grandmasters battled for the ultimate prize - being crowned as the 2009 champion of the FIWC.
Bruce's road to glory
Bruce won his first Grand Final match comfortably, overpowering Australia's Jason Mac 4-1 in the group stages. The victory was, however, soon overshadowed by an encounter with the magical Merjim Sadriji from Switzerland. Merjim beat the Frenchman 3-2. Despite an early exit, Mergim will draw solace from the fact that he was the only Grand Finalist to beat the 2009 FIWC Champion.
Grannec, sobered by the possibility of failing to progress, quickly set about dismantling Englishman Adam Winster's defence, winning their final group match, 6-1. Next, Bruce took apart Italian Daniele D'Alterio in the Round of 16, with a comfortable 4-0 win.
Bruce's quarter-final against 2005 FIWC champion Chris Bullard was one of the tournament highlights. Chris offered FIFA.com a post-match play-by-play: "We both scored very early, then soon after Bruce got a fortunate break to get him 2-1 up. This led to a huge momentum switch to his team and just after half time I was 5-1 down. I then got a momentum boost of my own when I racked up a couple quick goals to finally make it 5-4 in the 85th minute. With time against me, Bruce did the smart thing and ran out the clock."
As if the quarter-final wasn't dramatic enough, the Frenchman snatched a last-minute goal to beat Czech Republic's Radim Kluka 2-1 in the semi-final.
The Grand Final wasn't just virtual fun. Set alongside the Barcelona beachfront, and with the Marina providing a postcard backdrop, the event provided a relaxing contrast to the intense tournament underway. FIFA Beach Soccer World Player 2008 Ramiro Amarelle hosted a mini-beach soccer tournament and an array of cheerleaders, ball jugglers, freestylers and beat masters kept the crowd "ooing" and "aaing" throughout the day.
Four times left wanting
Facing Bruce in the final was Ruben Morales Zerecero, a four-time Grand Finalist that Bullard has described as "the best player never to win the FIWC." For the past two FIWCs, Ruben has trekked from Mexico to Brazil to participate, and win, the South America live qualifier. Few people can forget the sight of Ruben traipsing around the Sao Paulo event with wild hair, a Mexico flag tied around his shoulders and a contingent of nervous Brazilians trailing his every move.
Like Bruce, Ruben's path to the final had some spectacular moments. He beat 2006 champion Andries Smit in the pool stage, ousted German powerhouse Patrick Straschek, who had topped a group that included two previous FIWC Champions, and beat the tournaments biggest surprise, 14-year old Fransisco Cruz, in the semi-final.
3-1 would be the scoreline to, at first elate, and then haunt Ruben. The Mexican won his quarter-final and semi-final matches 3-1 respectively only to lose to Bruce by the very same scoreline in the final.
Nursing an injured ankle from playing football prior to visiting Barcelona, the new FIWC champion showed more strain in holding the heavy, impressive trophy than he had in any live FIFA09 match to date. His winning performance in Barcelona earned him US$20,000, and new KIA Soul and a trip to the 2009 FIFA World Player Gala.
Francisco Cruz was the tournament's biggest surprise. The 14-year old scored 13 goals while conceding none in his three pool games. Older players may have scoffed when, prior to the tournament, the young gun uttered, "I am here to win." but after finishing third overall in his first Grand Final appearance, many are now tipping Cruz for future FIWC greatness.
Ruben, who played Cruz in the semi-finals, was clearly impressed by the young Portuguese: "Francisco, as I see it, will be one of the next FIFA superstars." He remarked further, "I think Francisco's advantage was that he was just having a good time and enjoying every game. For me it was the same; I was having a lot of fun in every game." Well said Ruben; the prizes may be huge, and the competitive nature intense, but at the day's end what makes FIWC such a massive success, is that its just so much fun: fun to play, fun to watch, and fun to look forward to. Roll on the 2010 FIWC!