Tucked in the far northwest corner of the Italian Alps, the small town of St. Vincent has achieved a singular distinction: For three days a year it is transformed into the central hub of world foosball, or table soccer.
This past weekend, for the third year running, the Valle d'Aosta region, where this city is, has been the host for the game's world championships. But to say that this sleepy hamlet was gripped by foosball fever -- or even that the sport taps into Italy's soccer-loving vein -- would be a stretch.
"It seems a bit strange as a game trying to become a sport," said 83-year-old Maria Theresa Abriani, a lifelong resident of St. Vincent whose response when asked about the tournament was typical among the residents.
"I didn't even know it was here. Maybe in the summer they could get more people," she said.
Indeed, the few nonparticipants who made their way into the town's Palais sports center looked more lost than enthusiastic.
"It is very strange; we don't really have a foosball culture," said Laura Serra, 28, a resident who works in a woman's clothing store on St. Vincent's main shopping street. "And we haven't seen any of them around."
No matter. That would not stop the Zinedine Zidanes and the Mia Hamms of foosball from convening here and battling it out for the title of world's best.
In foosball, tiny "players" are arrayed along rods, each with a handle, on a table representing a soccer field. Each human player controls the rods for one team, moving them to the left or right to position the tiny players to try to score a goal or to block the other team's attempts.
Dozens of players from approximately 40 countries ranging from South Africa to Bulgaria brought their individual techniques and tactics to St. Vincent to compete in the men's and women's singles and doubles.
"I like to compare it to those old karate movies when all those bizarre styles come together to see who is the best," said Larry Davis, executive director of the US Table Soccer Federation and a formidable player in his day.
St. Vincent is an unlikely place for an international competition, even a fairly obscure one. It serves as a mountain getaway for people who live in nearby Turin or Milan and is a ski resort during the snowy months.
The Italian chapter of the International Table Soccer Federation is in this region, and it apparently persuaded regional government officials to pay for the tournament, and even for transportation and expenses for some of the players, in the hope that it would give the region more exposure.
Some of the players seemed as bemused at finding themselves here as the local residents were at finding them here.
"This is the first time for me outside of the states, for other than the Bahamas, and I am enjoying it," said Cindy Head, a policewoman from Alabama who is considered the world's best foosballer in the women's division.
Frederic Collignon, a 30-year-old who works as a car salesman in Liege, Belgium, but who is considered by his fans to be the Michael Jordan of foosball, said, "Nice mountains, nice view, a little bit too cold, and it is different from Vegas, but I still like the town."
On Saturday night, Collignon and his doubles partner, Ismael Saban, also of Belgium, won the doubles championship, besting a Canadian doubles team in a hard-fought overtime match.