California native Giuseppe Guastella unseated pre-event favourite 'White' Mike LaBelle in the North American final of the FIFA Interactive World Cup 2009 on 4 April. Held in the futuristic confines of the Sony Wonder Lab, amid the hustle and bustle of Manhattan's iconic Madison Avenue, 23-year-old Guiseppe - from sun-splashed San Pedro some 3000 miles away - proved himself the best of the best, eventually edging out last year's winner in a marathon penalty shootout in the final.
"I practiced more hours than I can count to get to where I am right now and the key to victory was all about defence. I think some of the other players focussed too much on attack and scoring a lot of goals, but for me the other end of the field is the most important," said Guastella, a full-time student who only began playing the EA Sports™ FIFA series on his Sony PlayStation®3 a year ago. The North American winner will now head off to Barcelona for the Grand Final on 2 May, where he will take on some of the best virtual football gamers in the world.
One fan visibly impressed by all eight contestants' ability on the virtual pitch was Chuck Blazer, General Secretary of CONCACAF and FIFA Executive Committee member. "I must say that I am simply in awe of the skill these young men possess," he said. "It's a pleasure to watch."
Road to the final
Guastella, who qualified for the eight-player elite event in New York City via an online qualifying competition, bounced back from a slim loss in the first round, finishing on top of Group B via a superior goal difference. His opponent in the final, 19-year-old Mike LaBelle from Houston, Texas, was undefeated heading into the final and every inch the favourite with a seven-point haul in the first round and a commanding 4-2 win in his semi-final. The teenager's confident swagger was in sharp contrast to Giuseppe's straight-faced, all-business demeanour.
Devils square off
Undaunted by being the underdog, Guastella, who won his semi-final 5-1 (with all six goals coming in the second half), hit out in the final with an eye to neutralising the over-the-top ball to Cristiano Ronaldo that Labelle had used to great effect in his previous games. It was a surreal swirl of Red Devils, too, as both players chose Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United to play with, Guastella in red and LaBelle in white. Labelle opened the scoring through the dominant Ronaldo with a full volley after a cautious opening period, one that drew a huge smile and a round of applause from guest of honour Carlos ‘El Pibe' Valderrama of Colombia and Major League Soccer fame.
But Giuseppe, on his first trip to New York City, stormed back, scoring the equaliser in the 61st minute to a roar of delight from the crowd. The game ended 1-1 after 90 minutes and, after 30 additional minutes of goalless extra time, the two competitors could not be separated. 20-plus penalties were needed before the Edwin van der Sar at Giuseppe's command dove to his left to block Carlos Tevez's poorly taken penalty. LaBelle banged his fist against the console kiosk in disappointment as the winner threw his hands in the air in celebration. "This is such a great moment for me," Giuseppe said, overwhelmed by the moment. "All the hard work paid off and I really would like to thank my girlfriend for putting up with all the practice I had to put in!"
Bring on Barcelona
Guastella now moves on to the Grand Final in Spain, where he will meet up with the 32 best FIFA09 gamers on the planet. And far from being overawed by the stiff competition, the Californian is expecting to sweep his second straight event and be crowned FIFA Interactive World Player of the Year for 2009. "I don't think I'm going to win in Barcelona," he said with a smirk, "I know I am going to win. I have a lot of confidence in myself and I am playing at my peak ability right now. Bring on Barcelona!"