As I was getting ready for my trip to Voitsberg, there were plenty of things for me to be sad about. For the first time ever, I would be the only Greek making the trip. For the first time ever, there hadn't been a single tournament in Athens during the year. In fact, apart from my visit to Milan in January and a best of 10 against Panayotis, I hadn't had any human opposition in 2013. It would be tiny world cup with only 18 players, a definite sign that the end of this beautiful tale is much closer than the beginning. Close friends such as Robert, Alex and so many others would not be present. However, I had plenty of things to be happy about, too, and I had decided beforehand to focus on those. I would get to have a road trip with some great friends, to a cozy town such as Voitsberg, where I would play in the best tournament room ever. Plus, the presence of Michael Fuchs as the organizer guaranteed a perfect event. Above all, this was the FUCKING KICK OFF 2 WORLD CUP!
Unfortunately, there weren't many affordable options for me to go to Vienna directly without arriving late in the evening, so I had to fly via Munich and my journey started in the wee hours of the morning. As most of you already know, Jorn, Mark, Andy, Rodolfo and me had rented a car and we'd drive to Voitsberg. Jorn arrived first, followed shortly by Mark. We enjoyed our usual nonsensical conversations about, well, nothing and everything, really. Just to give you an idea, at some point we were looking at the Arrivals board to see how many of the cities had hosted a KO2 World Cup, and get some tips for potential future venues... then we were Googling some of them to find out which country they were in. I am willing to bet my joystick that durban hasn't uttered three consecutive serious phrases in his life, and he's always hilarious. We made some hand made signs to welcome first Rodolfo and then Andy. Andy arrived with Steve, who had stealthilly rented a car too, only without making a soap opera out of it like we had! Good thing, too, as I doubt all our luggage would have fit into ours.
So, the road trip became a convoy, Steve would ride with Andy and after a long misunderstanding about who was waiting for whom in the parking lot, off we were!
The ride was very pleasant, and we have Jorn to thank for that. We arrived at the familiar surroundings of Voitsberg more or less on time, then for twenty minutes we desperately tried to get Steve to stop at the hotel as he kept driving past it. Memories returned back to me while walking Kickoffzweistraße to the city hall, painfully remembering that there were five more Greeks with me in 2009. Of course, when we arrived at this fantastic Kick Off venue all was forgotten! The Michaels were there, and also Helmut, Klaus, I'm sorry if I am forgetting anyone. I approached Michael Ma who was playing the newbie Christopher, and in fact losing to him! You could tell he was good just by watching him for a couple of minutes, a fact I verified when I played a friendly against him. We then went to the restaurant, which was different than the one we had gone to four years ago but the food was similar (excellent).
Gianni arrived later with Lorenzo and Michele, he liked the place so much that he left right away to get Maria Chiara and Ettore! I remember thinking, "is he crazy? No way she will come after such a long ride, she's probably sleeping already" but of course I had underestimated how much she loves the WC atmosphere. Even though she has never played an official game, Maria Chiara is really more of a KOAer than most. And Ettore is a little angel! Nice to see Regine too, that's twice I've met her now during both of them she was very pregnant! My only problems that evening were about time, I had woken up at 4 am and only ate a snack at the airport, I was famished and the food tooκ forever to arrive (or so it seemed to me). Then there was a long wait for the taxis... but other than that, a perfect KOA night, as expected.Saturday
Breakfast time, and there was Dino! I'm so glad he enjoyed Milan so much that he decided to join us again. I really hope we'll get to see both him and Steve Screech in Copenhagen. Then off we were to the tournament room. In theory, this world cup looked like the most predictable one in the history of the game. The way it looked, Gianni was the ultimate favorite, and Andy & I would probably battle for the silver & bronze medals. Then Oliver was probably going to finish fourth, unless Steve or Michael Malli had a different opinion. So many years, and still we haven't learned how silly those predictions often turn out to be... I expected some hiccups here and there (after all, the last time there were supposedly only three medals contestants in Voitsberg I finished... fourth!), but I certainly did not anticipate the most surprising tournament in the history of world cups! Because that was exactly what we got.
The day began with the official presentation, which I hope people enjoyed even though I prepared it rather hastily. With zero tournaments in Athens in 2013, I had practiced less than ever for this world cup. However, the results of the first round weren't going to determine much, so I was hoping to use it as a chance to get my game going for the big Sunday matches. As it turned out, I played OK most of the time, but there were also some very poor performances of mine that somehow didn't cost me any points.Michele L - Alkis P 0 - 9
Michele had showed a lot of promise in Milan, with good results against players like Kostas, Jorn and Helmut. However, contrary to the Italian tradition, he did not improve his game. I like his joystick, it's very Greek-style!Alkis P - Dino D 6 - 0
I watched Dino lose his opening match 1-3 to Michael Fu, and I felt worried that he was not going to get any points during the weekend. I think he is using a very bad joystick for Kick Off!Jorn F - Alkis P 1 - 8
I conceded the first goal of the tournament to my chauffeur. He was having some trouble with his arm.Alkis P - Jorg P 10 - 4
Although I see Jorn every year, we rarely get to play against each other. This was the first time that he scored more than two goals against me, which was a definite sign that my defense was not going to be very reliable that day.Christopher D - Alkis P 7 - 8
Just like in real football, the best performance doesn't always win the game in Kick Off 2. Christopher played a fantastic match, getting behind my defense again and again. He only lost it due to his inexperience that caused some mistakes in crucial moments. He even lost to Michael by the same score! I doubt we'll get the chance to do that to him again next year. A really nice guy who fit right into our gang, I'm so glad he found us.Alkis P - Gianni T 3 - 8
There was something terribly off with my timing in that match, causing me to give away three penalty kicks. I offered some resistance in the first half, but other than that this looked like almost any other WC match of mine against Gianni: an easy win for him. I now have 12 defeats in 12 world cup matches against Gianni, and at that moment I thought I confirmed what I already knew, that second place was the absolute best I could hope for in Voitsberg.
Lunch time! I had the spaghetti, which was not bad. I still can't believe we got this amazing tournament room plus two meals for just 55 Euro.Peter S - Alkis P 0 - 10
Peter is a player who beongs in the top places of a Bronze Cup or even the bottom ones of a Silver Cup in a regular size world cup, it was unfair for him that there were so few poor players in Voitsberg.Alkis P - Klaus Le 9 - 0
Klaus is one of the first foreigners I ever played against, inside a hotel room in Dartford before the first world cup had even started. Always a pleasure!Rodolfo M - Alkis P 2 - 7
I honestly thought Rodolfo would make it to the quarter finals this year. Perhaps he could have, if it weren't for the surprise of Christopher.Alkis P - Andy G 6 - 4
This was an important match for many reasons. First of all, it was a matter of prestige, as well as getting a tiny psychological advantage over Andy for Sunday. Second, as he had already dropped points to Mark I saw the opportunity to drop Andy to fourth place, ensuring (or so I thought) he'd play Gianni in the semis. This was one of my best games on Saturday, decided on details, and certainly a much better level of Kick Off than the one we offered the crowd in the final!Steve C - Alkis P 4 - 6
Steve was not playing well in the first round, but he still gave me a hell of a game. This was one of the matches where I played poorly but it didn't cost me.Alkis P - Michael Ma 7 - 3
Michael was having a day full of close and interesting results: very narrow wins against Jorn & Jorg, an epic 8-8 versus Oliver and a painful defeat to Klaus. He did shape up later on, though.Alkis P - Helmut H 11 - 1
The downside of Helmut winning a David Vs Goliath trophy in Milan is that people will think twice before underestimating him in the future.Michael F - Alkis P 0 - 12
I am in awe of Michael's organization abilities, especially considering he didn't have the help people usually have when hosting a world cup. I feel sad for him that so few people turned up, even his townsmen ditched him.Oliver St - Alkis P 4 - 5
The tradition of Oliver coming very close to beating me without succeeding continues on Saturday. I almost feel bad when beating him after he plays better... almost!Alkis P - Lorenzo L 8 - 2
Lorenzo is one of the few Italians left who still have trouble scoring against me. He had a terrible first day in the world cup, finishing in 13th place.Mark W - Alkis P 1 - 9
It seemed that I left my best performance for the last game. Mark looked like a serious medal contestant on Saturday, so I gave him everything I had. The final result was a little unfair for him, but it certainly didn't ruin the excellent impressions he left during that day. Let us now forget that this is the same player who had finished 25th the previous time he was in Voitsberg.
That was the end of the first round. 16/17 victories and a comfortable second place was more than I had hoped for! The standings were surprising, with Andy in 4th place, below durban who beat him for the first time ever, Steve and Lorenzo much lower than expected. It was then time for the Game of Shame, and finally we'd get an official 2 Vs 2 match after thirteen world cups!
It was a very good game, a real beauty to watch and I think much more fun than regular GoS. In the shootout, Peter proved more calm than Dino so the KOA would honor the maker of the game that brought them all together by handing him... a shirt of shame! Way to go, guys.
As some of us had predicted, not many people were fond of the idea of going to the spa/sauna thing, so we returned to the hotel to regroup before going out. Some of us in the lobby were worried about Dino getting offended, until he cleared all these thoughts by proudly walking down the stairs wearing sunglasses and his shirt, looking like Dan Aykroyd in the Blues Brothers! The Austrians walked us to a bar where there was a Foosball table, but many of us were hungry so we went to a pizza/kebab joint nearby. I trust stereotypes when it comes to cuisine, and after one look at the owners' complexion I decided that I trusted them to make good oriental food much more than to make pizza, so I was the only one who ordered kebab - and delicious it was.Sunday
I had Oliver, Lorenzo, Jorg and Dino in my group. Unless there was a huge surprise, I expected to meet one of Mark and Steve in the quarter finals. But the interesting group was the one that had Christopher and Andy. Who would manage to finish first and avoid Gianni?Alkis P - Oliver St 6 - 4, 6-10
The first game was a little easier than usual. But in the rematch, I made the mistake of starting a little too relaxed, because Oliver had already drawn against Lorenzo which meant that I would definitely finish first. The German was simply amazing, taking the lead by 4-0 and 5-1, hammering me with quality finishing. I managed to shape up in the second half, and at some point even managed to equalize 5-5, but this time Oliver had no intention of letting the victory slip. This was one of the best attacking performances I've ever faced, and he totally deserves making it to that small group of players who have scored 10 goals against me (still no Greeks in it!). I was shocked when he didn't make it to the next round!Lorenzo L - Alkis P 2 - 6, 3 - 9
These scores are deceiving, because the second match was actually much tougher: It was 1-1 or 2-1 for too many minutes. I only managed to crack Lorenzo's defense with consecutive goals in the last 100 seconds or so. After a poor first day, beating Oliver and making it to the quarter finals was a huge achievement for him.Alkis P - Jorg P 6 - 3, 13 - 0
I've only played 6 official matches against Jorg in 10 years, and five of them were in Voitsberg!Dino D - Alkis P 0 - 5, 2 - 5
I tried to use my matches against Dino to give him a little bit of coaching. It seemed to pay off when I offered him my spare joystick, as he managed to score two beautiful goals against me.
With all my games finished, I turned my attention to the group of death. Andy and Christopher had drawn their first match and they were playing their second one. At half time, I wondered if they knew what would happen if they drew again, I tried to let them know but they were understandably preoccupied. Turned out they didn't know! But it didn't matter anyway, because the Norwegian won it rather comfortably. So we'd have a premature final in our hands: Andy versus Gianni!Mark W - Alkis P 4 - 8, 2 - 7
Although these games were nowhere near as easy for me as the one we had played on Saturday, I never felt that I was in danger against Mark. He seems to have a style of play that is not very effective against mine, causing me to beat him more easily than one would expect, judging from the other results he gets.
In the other quarter finals, Christopher and Steve prevailed and... Andy beat Gianni 6-5 in the first game! Just to give you an idea what a huge deal this is, you should know that Gianni had never been disqualified in a world cup before. In fact, he lost the first leg of the first quarter final he played against Michael O in 2005, and since then he'd had 15 victories in 15 games! But, that was only the first leg, and I couldn't allow myself to hope for much in the 10 minutes that remained... Indeed, in the rematch Gianni took a 5-1 lead, and I thought "curtains"... but amazingly, Andy returned to lose 7-6 and get a golden draw on overtime! He did what I have never even come close to doing, and for that perhaps he deserved to win the world cup.
I want to say something important about Gianni at this point. After five consecutive finals during 2007-2011, he was out of the final twice in the past two years. I do not think that is is a coincidence that during these two last competitions, he was also in charge of the fixtures software. I know from first hand experience how exhausting it is to spend the hours before the crucial knockouts trying to configure the fixtures and correct mistakes, while your opponents are practicing or concentrating. Imagine that on both occasions, he was out by a single goal, and tell me that it played no role in his disqualifications. Yet he does it without ever complaining, knowing that it can screw up his game. I think that the KOA own him to never let him have to do all this work alone ever again.
The players who would battle in the semis would be the ones who had finished 2nd, 4th, 7th and 8th in the first round! If that's not the weirdest world cup ever, I don't know which it was.
The pressure at that point was overwhelming for me. This was my biggest chance ever, semi-finals without any of my three nemesis to block my way: Gianluca, Dagh or Gianni. But that certainly did not mean it was going to be easy. I cursed myself for not having practiced more. I was getting messages from Greeks who were telling me that I'd already won, as if beating players who are at your own level instead of considerably better is something easy! They should know better - they all lose to people who have hundreds of less ranking points than them every year. I need to calm my nerves, and who better to help me do that than my daughter on video call?Alkis P - Steve C 10 - 4, 7 - 6
After a quality Silver Cup final, it was time for me to face Steve Camber. I play him almost every year since 2001, in friendlies or official games, and he has never defeated me, so I was feeling confident. Indeed, in the first leg my tactic of denying him most lobs and taking the game to the wings paid off as I managed my first double figure win against him. But in the rematch, the referee was Indi and he wouldn't let me replace him! I hate it when I can't tackle, and as a result he found the necessary room for his deadly long shots. He was up by 6-2 with 3:30 to go, and looked capable of even turning it around. I did shape up in time though, and scored 5 unanswered goals to win it. Still, a hell of a second day for him, and his first medal was well deserved.
The other semi-final was close for only the first 10 minutes, as Andy was not going to black out against Christopher again. Still, kudos to the newbie for an amazing run. Was this going to be Andy's year, then?Andy G - Alkis P 3 - 5, 4 - 3
The final, then. My fourth one, and another Englishman in my way, 11 years after Wonka. Andy and I knew each other's game very well by then, so we concentrated on neutralizing the other one's main attacking schemes. I wanted to deny him easy access to the positions that lead to a "jawohl" goal (red area), while he was determined not to let me launch my diagonal crosses (yellow area).
Of course, as those who watched the matches know, nervousness was a major factor too, and therefore the level of Kick Off played was not great. Half of my goals were lobs, which I know is frowned upon by many. I think everyone knows by now that they're just something I enjoy doing, not some sort of dirty trick I resort to when losing. And it's not like I took a shot whenever I had the ball; it's just that, pretty much nothing else seemed to work for me in those matches! Just look at all those missed chances inside the box. By the way, in my previous three finals, I had never managed to score a single lob in 60 minutes of Kick Off! Not for lack of trying... so when my first shot went in, seconds into the first leg, I felt a huge confidence boost.
I hope Andy doesn't mind me saying that I feel he made the mistake of insisting a bit too much on trying for the jawohl goal, especially during the first leg, considering the variety of chances he is normally able to create. I had much more trouble against him during the first half of the rematch, exactly because he tried many different ways of approaching the goal. I was sometimes very disappointed with my attack, sometimes with my luck - just look at the four missed chances in the final thirty seconds of the first half of the first leg, and, of course, I scored another own goal in a final! Of course, Andy was unlucky -and nervous- at times too, he had many chances to finish me in the rematch, during which I was stuck at a single goal for almost eight whole minutes! That diagonal lob with 2:06 to go felt like a sip of cool water down the throat of a dehydrated man in the desert...
Anyway, in the end I was victorious by a single goal, and my hopping around after the final whistle provided the crowd with the entertainment I had robbed him off during the actual games. I burst out laughing every time I watch me jumping into Andy's arms and him politely patting my back.
Say what you will about Andy, you can never call him lucky. In all three world cups he attended, he missed the chance to finish higher by a single goal. In 2011, he won the first semi-final against me 8-5 and lost the second one 8-4. In 2012, he lost the 3rd place final to Gianni 7-6 on overtime. And this year, he lost the first final 5-3 and won the second one 4-3. It's obvious that his turn is right around the corner!
I couldn't wait until I held my precious in my arms again! Michael teased me by drawing out his final speech for ever, but at last, I had it!
About Sunday evening, the less we tell the world about it, the better. Let's protect our jobs and marriages...Monday
Amazingly, Jorn was fit to drive us back to Vienna. We were already getting excited about the prospect of Copenhagen 2014, but before that, Mark and Andy expressed interest to fly to Athens for a tournament! Looking forward to it...