by Chris Nafekh

Six French foosball tables. Twelve orange foosballs. Sixteen teams of two. Thirty-two competitors. Two giant inflatable foosmen. Fifteen Games, five goals to win, four brackets, one winner. It was all part of the 2015 World Cup Foosball Tournament, part of an attempt to bring younger patrons to Old Salem, the historic village and gardens. The evening was more amusing than competitive, but a few die-hards came to win. None of the attendees were professional foosballers, but everyone anticipated stiff competition.

At the front desk, event coordinator Tabitha Renegar welcomed spectators who were still streaming in.

“It’s the perfect amount of competition,” she said. “It’s not cutthroat, nobody’s going to the regionals.” Food, wine and Old Salem merch was the packaged first-prize for the winning team.

The two-player teams were diverse; some were friends with strong shared foosball history. Around the room were likely pairs, like father-son duo Ken and Vince Nocito. There was Patrick Schell and Ben Schroeder who played for Carolina’s Vineyards and Hops, which catered the open bar and supplied Nuevo Rouge, pinot grigio, one keg of Mother Earth’s Weeping Willow Wit and another of Working Man’s Lunch from Fullsteam in Durham. Putters Patio and Grill donated 150 chicken wings, 120 quesadillas and 120 club sandwiches.

“I wonder if that counts.” Joey Papuga said after his slap-shot bounced out of the net. “It probably doesn’t.”

“We’re okay.” Dan Watson, Papuga’s partner said hopefully. “We’re going to win tonight.” The two were practicing foosball shots on a table in the Old Winston Visitors center before the competition. They wore matching blue shirts and red shorts. The back of their Ts displayed team nicknames. Papuga’s read “Polish Hammer” and Watson’s read “El Savor,” which is Spanish for “the goalie.” Together, they called themselves “Foos-Me? Foos-You!”

“I’m more of a defensive specialist,” Watson explained. “That’s how my grandfather’s game was, and his father before him; it’s in my blood. Joey’s a little bit different. He’s an offensive genius. He’s Steve Spurrier and I’m Bill Parcells.”

Like soccer with fewer concussions, foosball has a number of rules that the World Cup tried to follow. To start, no windmills were allowed — players couldn’t spin the sticks wildly in hopes of a strong shot. Teams must toss a coin to see who places the ball first, and no tilting the table. In an average competition, after a team makes a goal, that team rotates offensive and defensive positions. But nobody enforced this rule.

In their first game of the evening, Foos-You played Kelly and Wes Benson. The Bensons played foosball together as elementary school friends, and later fell in love and got married.

“Good luck guys!” Papuga said as the players looked at each other. “Ready?”

The ball dropped, drifting slowly towards the middle. With a flick of her wrist, Kelly Benson made the first goal of the night. The ball was tossed back in the arena and, after numerous shots bouncing left and right, nearly slipped into Foos-You’s goal. Dan saved it with his middle goalie and then snapped the ball across the table for a goal. Soon, the game was tied at three.

“Put it in!” yelled a woman chomping a club sandwich, avidly watching Foos-You take on Kelly and Wes Benson. Wes made a shot, which Watson saved, passing up to Papuga for a goal. And another. Foos-You won the first match, paving a path that eventually led into the finals.

“Man, I was nervous,” Dan exhaled. “That girl was good.”

Across the room, the Carolina’s Vineyards and Hops duo prepared for their next game, to be played against Foos-You.

“I used to play a lot,” Ben Schroeder reminisced. “In my co-op in college, we had a table.” Carefully approaching the table, Schroeder began to explain his technique.

Like a well-trained bartender, a foosballer must know his shots. Everyone can windmill, that’s easy. But a push-shot, using one side of the foosman to push the ball diagonally, that takes skill. There’s the pull shot, the wall pass, the wrist-rocket and the notorious pinch-shot. By pinching the ball perfectly between a foosman and the table, one can kick the ball with force without moving it. By doing this a few times to fake out the other team and following with a push-shot, any player can make a crafty goal.

Foos-You and Carolina’s Vineyards approached their table and began with a series of high-stress fast passes and shots. Each team scored a goal. With a failed power-shot, Papuga sent the ball flying backwards into Schroeder’s territory. Schroeder capitalized on the miss and scored a goal of his own. The game was 3-3, but Carolina’s Vineyards took the lead, which they held onto for a win.

“The dream’s over,” Joey sighed. With a thumb down and frowny faces, Foos-You deserted the table.

The final match was one for the books. Ben and Pat played two underdogs named Pirouz Daeihagh and Chris Marshall, who had quietly made their way to the final rounds. After the ball drop, Pat slapped the ball relentlessly, twisted his sticks and made the first two goals. They tossed the ball in again, and Ben stopped it in his defensive corner. With a determined look, he propelled it all the way across the table for the team’s third goal. After Pat and Ben’s fourth goal, Daeihagh and Marshall rotated. Daeihagh made a shot on the goal, which Schroeder’s defenses reversed and wall-passed to Schell at the offence. Schell pushed the ball in for their final goal of the night and spectators cheered and hi-fived. Daeihagh grunted as he left the table.

“We got lucky,” Patrick said with a smile.

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