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The Other World Cup

Local team vies for international foosball dominance

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The World Cup just ended, or is it just ready to get started? For Jonathan Robertson and Mark Carpenter of Charlotte, the real World Cup begins on August 28. But they play a different brand of soccer. Instead of taking place on a huge grassy field, the games for this championship will be held on a small table. Table soccer, better known as foosball, is the game, and Robertson and Carpenter will represent Charlotte in the world championships.The fact that locals will compete on the world scene is probably not as surprising as the existence of an international stage for foosball. Like every hobby or pastime, foosball has its fanatics who live for the game. Luckily, competitive foosballers don't seem to be quite as scary as Trekkies or karaoke addicts. However, devotees of the game have developed regional, national, and international tournaments and gatherings to showcase their love for the, um, sport. Dallas, TX will be the grand stage for foosball this year, with the world championships taking place there August 28 through September 2.

Jonathan Robertson, 36, and his partner, 21-year-old Mark Carpenter, enter the world championships after finishing second at the national tournament held in Atlanta in early July. Robertson says he's been playing foosball for nearly 15 years, but it wasn't until he moved from Asheville to Charlotte five years ago that he learned of competitive foosball. Some friends encouraged Robertson to try his luck in local tournaments, and he admits his initial reaction was one of surprise: "They have tournaments for foosball? I had always enjoyed playing, but I never thought of doing it competitively, or that the opportunity even existed."

After playing a few tournaments and doing pretty well, Robertson was hooked. "I realized I had a chance to compete on the same level as some excellent players, so I pursued it," says Robertson.

The foosball these men play is not the garden variety, college dorm lobby brand of table soccer. Granted, the game may not be quite as awe-inspiring as Ron Francis' overtime goal in the Stanley Cup, but it's pretty impressive. But if you happen to stumble upon the foosball tables at Bailey's Sports Bar on Pineville/Matthews Road on a Friday or Saturday night, chances are you'll see some top-quality players. "Some of the best players in the world are right here in Charlotte and around North Carolina," states Robertson. Seeing, or rather, not seeing the ball as they whiz it around the table and make it disappear into the goal before you can catch up will give anyone a little of the "how'd he do that?" feeling.

While North Carolina is home to several prominent players on the foosball circuit (yes, there's a circuit), there are no leagues in the state, unlike in many other states. Leagues, circuits? In many ways foosball is much like bowling; it just doesn't require an entire building for more than a few people to play. And although table soccer doesn't boast the popularity of bowling, it does possess a solid following, as can be seen by the more than 60 events held all over the country and in Europe thus far in 2002. Up for grabs in these tournaments: a total of nearly $450,000 in prizes and cash. Obviously, no foosball player expects to get rich off his winnings, but when money and fame aren't present it's easier to see how much people really love their game.

What sort of person would devote so much of their time to becoming the best foosball player they can be? If Robertson and Carpenter are par for the course, then foosball fanatics are pretty normal. They love their game, and they can be a little over the top about it, but isn't everyone a little crazy about the things they love? The people who play table soccer competitively could talk to you all day about strategy, tactics and maneuvers, but they also seem to understand the principles of sportsmanship and the purpose of playing any game -- to have fun.

"I enjoy doing something I'm good at," says Robertson. "How many things are there where you can become the best? I can't be a pro football or basketball player, but foosball is something I can play and become a national champion. There aren't too many people who can say they are national or world champions of anything, but this game gives me that opportunity."

Another month of practicing and playing warm-up tourneys should have the partners from Charlotte ready to compete in the world championships. You probably won't see the tournament results on ESPN's Bottom Line, but you can be sure that the competitors will be playing their hearts out -- especially if it's anything like the national championships, where Robertson and Carpenter played eight straight hours for their second place finish.

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