The smartest soccer talent on the planet is 16 years old, will soon rub shoulders with Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi and has tricks and skills that defy belief. But you've never heard of Francisco Cruz and you will never see him on the pitch.

Cruz is not very athletic, quietly-spoken, wears glasses, and hopes to become one of Portugal's premier economists when he grows up. Yet in the parallel universe of soccer video games, he is a superstar, a legend whose name strikes fear into any opponent in the online world.

Last week Cruz was crowned champion at the FIFA Interactive World Cup, outlasting 869,452 players and a final field of 24 at the Mayan Theater in Los Angeles. He returned triumphant to his home city of Porto with a check for $20,000 stashed safely in his luggage. Perhaps even better is the all-expenses-paid trip to the FIFA Ballon D'Or award, which recognizes the world's best player in Zurich. That's where Cruz will meet Messi and Ronaldo.

The family of soccer's governing body FIFA -- which was recently rocked by a bribery and corruption scandal -- has many branches, from the World Cup every four years which captures the imagination of billions, to the women's game, plus beach and indoor soccer. Interactive soccer might be the tentacle which is furthest removed from the game's roots, but it is also arguably the biggest.

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This year's FIWC broke its own record as the largest gaming event in history, and a representative of the Guinness Book of Records was on hand to present a trophy and confirm the numbers. It had the feel of a legitimate sporting event too, with the Mayan decked out in burning red and creating a dramatic backdrop.

Chart-toppers Far East Movement was on hand to make the official draw for the semifinals, after two days of grueling pool play which eliminated most of the field of 24 players from 15 countries. The combatants then squared off on the Mayan's stage, sitting inches away from each other on side-by-side cushioned chairs, with their exploits beamed up onto a giant overhead screen for the benefit of the other players, friends and family, media and some interested spectators who had come to see what all the fuss was about.

Video game technology has evolved dramatically in recent years, and the EA Sports FIFA '11 game used for the tournament comes with an incredible level of realism. The images of real life players from Chelsea, Real Madrid or any one of hundreds of professional teams are so close to their actual profile that it feels like watching a game on a television, instead of something that is computer generated and controlled by the reflexes and minds of teenagers.

The boys in question for the final were Cruz and his opponent, Javier Munoz of Colombia. They had rarely been outside their home country previously and a trip to Tinseltown, where the chosen 24 lived in a mansion and flew in a helicopter, was literally a whirlwind experience.

"It was special," Cruz told ThePostGame.com. "To come here and play the best in the world at what we do -- it felt like really being a part of the world football community. To have this lifestyle for a few days and to play in something arranged by FIFA and called a World Cup, and to win ... incredible."

FIFA's hierarchy is globally perceived as being a bunch of stuffy and morally-dubious old men in suits, with little in common with the modern world. At the very least though, those suits can't be accused of failing to recognize the value of a money-spinner. FIFA quickly latched onto the fact that video gaming was big business and could only enhance the popularity of the real product.

Perhaps nowhere is that more relevant than in the United States, where the building of a fan base is a longer, slower, and more competitive process than in nations where the sport is more inherent in the national culture.

"Soccer is different in this country," says former professional Ben Hooper, founder of the Bumpy Pitch soccer fashion line. "People get into it in different ways. It might be because they love playing video games, and some of the coolest games are soccer related."

It is impossible to calculate how many new American soccer fans have been spawned by EA Sports' annual FIFA game, which is updated each year to reflect the various personnel changes at various clubs and to reflect players' changing standards. Celebrity athletes found their route into the game by that method -- NBA players like Kevin Garnett falling in love with FIFA on his console and then going on to become friends with soccer luminaries David Beckham and Didier Drogba.

The computer-generated likeness of Drogba was featured heavily at the FIWC, with three of the four semifinalists picking Chelsea as their team of choice. Cruz used the Ivory Coast striker to good effect as he dispatched Munoz's Real Madrid in the final, as ex-USA international forward Eric Wynalda provided play-by-play commentary alongside Nenad Stojkovic, the American who won the 2010 event.

For Wynalda, whose career came at a time when American soccer was still very much marginalized, the recent developments have been remarkable.

"People forget how recently it was that really no one in America cared anything much about soccer," says Wynalda. "And now it is so different. The ratings for international games and Champions League games are doing great and there's a real culture surrounding soccer now.

"If there are gamers out there who start to play FIFA and then go to a park and play, or go to an MLS game, or start following the national team, that is a wonderful thing."

The worlds of gaming and sports have not always been easy bedfellows. After all, the high school jock and the video games nerd have little in common. But when it comes to the FIWC, the lines are heavily blurred.

These gamers must not only have great manual dexterity, but they must also possess an in-depth knowledge of soccer tactics and personnel.

"The games are so realistic that it really is like you are coaching an actual team," says Cruz. "My biggest strength is that I know a lot about tactics and the various abilities of different players. Of course this is a game but the strategy is the same as that which you would use in the sport of football. It is cooler than just being good at some game which does not relate to anything."

There is no doubt that video games are a booming industry and top players such as Cruz can make serious money pursuing what started out as nothing more than a hobby. Successful gamers get plenty of attention too, with Cruz phoning his mother in Portugal to try to figure out a way to avoid talking to the press when he arrived back at Lisbon airport.

Just like Ronaldo or Messi.

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