Virtual world title in their sights
© FIFA.com

Most of them are young lads and all of them have the power to control the runs, passes and shots of world superstars such as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Michael Ballack. This can only mean one thing - this year's FIFA Interactive World Cup is finally upon us!

After 19 live qualifier events across every continent, as well as an online qualification campaign in which over 500,000 people took part, the best 32 gamers from around the globe will be congregating on 2 May for the Grand Final in Barcelona, where they will battle to become champions of the virtual football world.

Last year's winner, Alfonso Ramos, is involved again this year and the Spaniard is confident of retaining his title on home soil. "I'm the current world champion and I want to be the first player ever to win the FIWC twice," explained the 20-year-old, who has been training 20 hours a week in the hope that his dream will become a reality.

Aside from Ramos there are two other former world champions taking part in the finals. 2006 winner Andries Smit from the Netherlands and Great Britain's Chris Bullard, who won the coveted prize in 2005, are both desperate to dethrone the reigning champion. Indeed, Bullard is leaving nothing to chance, telling FIFA.com how he has been practicing up to 30 hours a week in a bid to regain the crown. However, if there were an award for the participant who trained the most, it would most definitely go to Stephen Coorey of New Zealand. The 27-year-old software developer spends up to 70 hours per week on his PLAYSTATION®3, honing his skills on the virtual grass of EA SPORTS™ FIFA 09 to make sure he blows his competitors away in Barcelona.

The honour of the oldest and youngest competitors go to Gordon Butler of South Africa and Francisco Cruz of Portugal, who are 31 and 14 respectively. Portuguese teenager Cruz appeared anything but fazed by his more senior counterparts, though, belying his tender years by confidently proclaiming: "I am here to win". 

And the skilful schoolboy was not the only participant keen to talk up his own chances either: "I've played against all the best players and beaten them, so it shouldn't be a problem," said Mexico's Jesus Rodriguez, while Hungarian whizz Peter Kocacs declared himself among the favourites "because I'm the best".

I'm the current world champion and I want to be the first player ever to win the FIWC twice.
Alfonso Ramos is aiming high.

Another British finalist, Adam Winster, reckons he is the man to bring the crown back to England, thus emulating Chris Bullard's 2005 success: "I think I'll win the Grand Final because I'm the best player and if I play well and have a little bit of luck along the way, then nobody will be able to beat me." One of the most intriguing battles from the qualifying rounds, meanwhile, was won by Frederik Nordmark Laursen of Denmark: "I was playing against my cousin, and he's an extremely good player."

‘Attack wins games, defence wins championships' - a pearl of footballing wisdom that several of the gamers are hoping to employ at the main event in Barcelona. "Defence is my main strength. I'm more of a Trappatoni-style player in the respect. If you keep a clean sheet at the back, there's no way you can lose," explains Patrick Straschek of Germany. "You need to be ice-cool in front of goal as well. Every shot needs to hit the back of the net."

Giuseppe Guastella of the USA is another who subscribes to this school of tactical thought: "I have a strong attack and a solid defence, so I'm optimistic and feel I have a good chance of winning the Grand Final." India's Omar Jaleel, meanwhile, is hoping to put his opponents on the back foot by setting his stall out defensively before breaking quickly: "I'm really good at counter-attacking, so hopefully I'll be able to take the other players by surprise."

"Let's wait and see...," said Egypt's Hesham Medhat Khater diplomatically when asked by FIFA.com about his chances of winning the tournament. Marcus Lee of Singapore was equally coy when revealing his own expectations: "Outsiders always have a chance of causing an upset." "Anything is possible," agreed Dan Sykes of New Zealand.

The countdown to the Grand Final on the beaches of Barcelona has started, and while almost all of the 32 finalists will believe they can emerge victorious, as ever there can only be one winner.