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Virtual soccer’s top players kick it up a notch at tournament

There were sweaty palms and sore thumbs Thursday as four of the world’s best video game players hunched over their controllers in Los Angeles to compete for soccer’s Interactive World Cup.

All that was missing at the competition at downtown’s Mayan Theater were the deafening vuvuzela stadium horns that drown everything out at real soccer games run by FIFA, the International Federation of Association Football.

The federation sponsored Thursday’s virtual playoffs, which capped six months of preliminary competition among 869,543 players worldwide.

Sixteen-year-old Francisco Cruz of Portugal emerged the winner, earning $20,000 by beating 20-year-old Javier Munoz of Colombia, 4-1.

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The playoffs began Tuesday at a Hollywood Hills mansion with two dozen competitors. Elimination matches played Wednesday on the top floor of the 32-story AT&T tower narrowed the field to four: Cruz, Munoz, Mark Azzi of Australia and Adam Winster of England.

For placing second, Munoz earned $5,000, while third-place finisher Azzi, 22, won $1,000.

Tournament participants played a federation-licensed video soccer game that simulates the playing styles of actual FIFA players and teams.

“The thing about this is that each player plays exactly like the real player plays,” marveled Eric Wynalda, a former professional soccer player who in 1996 scored the first goal ever in U.S. Major League Soccer. He delivered play-by-play commentary along with 2010’s FIFA interactive champion, Nenad Stojkovic.

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The Serbian-born Stojkovic is a 24-year-old nursing student who lives in Cleveland and won last year’s title in Barcelona. He was defeated by Winster in this year’s semifinals.

Stojkovic acknowledged that some contestants’ hands were shaking as they held the Sony PlayStation3 controllers. But he said competitors have given little thought to the game system hackers who since April have stolen more than 100 million gamers’ Sony user accounts.

“My credit card isn’t on there. But what they did was unbelievable. Everybody plays online now,” he said.

Comedian Frank Nicotero, the tournament’s emcee, turned to Francisco’s father after his prize was presented. “His playing in his room all day certainly paid off, eh Dad?” Nicotero joked.

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Francisco said he plans to save his money. “Winning this is magical,” the teenager said. “Can I go now?”

bob.pool@latimes.com


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