The first goal I ever scored was an own goal. For those unfamiliar with the rules of football (or soccer), scoring an own goal is the game’s equivalent of committing hara-kiri, except there’s no honour it (and marginally lesser bloodshed). My captain, a tall senior, had expressed himself freely on the subject of my clumsiness. To report what he said verbatim would be to scar many readers, suffice to say he wasn’t too happy with my performance. I bore the insults stoically but when the prepubescent giraffe suggested that a 2 year old would play the game better than me, I could stand it no more.“ In that case I suggest you find yourself a two year old,” I said and walked off.
“ Wait you can’t go, there will only be 10 of us.”
Ignoring his pleas I exited the field. Despite my regal retreat, the incident had a long lasting effect on me. After stubbing my toes so badly, I decided to stay clear of the game. Over the years I dabbled in table tennis, basketball and even cricket (leaving behind a group of angry teammates with each subsequent sport) but never ventured back into the soccer field.
Last summer, however, I returned to football. Any true fan will tell you that while physical prowess on the field is much admired, it’s a player’s skill in FIFA that truly impresses.
For the uninformed, FIFA is Electronic Art’s flagship football game, available on all gaming platforms, nearly every country on the globe and in the hands of every follower of the beautiful game. Put in charge of an entire virtual team the only thing that matters is the dexterity of your fingers and the agility of your brain. Some disciples of the game have been playing FIFA since they were in the cradle (sparing their parents the customary headaches associated with childhood).
My 7 year old cousin is one such stalwart. He has been inseparable from his iPad ever since he downloaded FIFA and his dedication to the game, in which he loses perpetually, is nothing short of remarkable. He sits on his bed, his face bathed in a strange green light, fingers working furiously, saying nothing and opening his mouth only to emit the occasional high pitched shriek when the tides of fortune turn against him. “ When I was your age I used to read books,” I told him in my best stern-and-wise-elder-brother imitation. “ That’s because they didn’t have games in your time,” he replied, not looking up from the screen. 7 year olds can make you feel like dinosaurs. I bristled. “ That’s not true, we had great games back then. Mario, Age of Empires and…”
“ Goal!” my cousin shouted, obliterating my reminiscences. “ I just scored a goal,” and he jumped off the bed and ran to tell the entire household of his victory, as fast as his tiny legs would carry him.
Seeing my cousin’s strange preoccupation with the game, I decided to download FIFA myself and see what the fuss was about. I went through the basic tutorial and the controls seemed simple enough. I decided to play my first game. To improve the odds of success I chose to play as Real Madrid (widely touted as one of the best teams in the world). Following the maxim of choosing my enemies carefully, I spent a good ten minutes identifying the worst ranked team in the game. I don’t remember the name of my opponent, but they had a bright orange jersey that so badly bedazzled me that I nearly quit at the kick-off.
After having recovered my strength (and blinking several times) I valiantly continued playing. Soon the screen was blur of orange and white and I had the beginnings of a fine headache. I was stabbing my fingers haphazardly over the screen praying for a miracle when suddenly a box popped up announcing that a goal had been scored and the decibel level of the in-game audience went up a notch. I tapped my cousin on the shoulder, he took a moment to look up from his own game, “ What?” “ I just scored a goal.” He looked at my screen, “ No that’s the other team,” and he returned to his game. That was the day the mighty Real Madrid fell 0-5 to a gaggle of orange clad amateurs. It was a tragic aberration in the team’s otherwise glorious history and I felt extremely guilty. I spent a whole minute in mourning before trying the next match with Manchester City and ruining their sterling record as well. My cousin looked over my shoulder, “ You’re playing the lowest difficulty level too,” he said, adding salt to my wounds.
After this initial debacle I vowed to become better at the game. So it came to be that when the following evening my mother walked into
my room she found me flexing my fingers with intense concentration. “ What are you doing?” “ Finger exercises for FIFA.” “ What?” “ You won’t understand Mom.” Indeed no one seemed to be the least sympathetic to my noble aim. “ Is it necessary to play that game all day,” my father enquired. “ If only you guys put this much effort in your studies,” my aunt sighed when I told her about how I’d completed my first one-two pass. While watching the World Cup I found myself cheering the players that I had in my own roster. I nearly bedewed my bed with tears (always wanted to use that somewhere) when Higuain missed a goal in the final, thereby completely scuttling his in-game re-sale value. Conversations with friends soon began to revolve around my latest acquisition or a tournament that I had just won. “ Will you stop talking about that damn game,” one of my friends finally snapped, when I was trying to describe the sublime goal Balotelli had scored from the half-line. “ Would you prefer to watch the replay instead?” I asked, holding out the tablet.
It is strange how you never really notice an addiction creeping up on you, until it has you firmly in its grip. Having got a grasp on you, it dictates your actions like a rogue puppet-master. Under the influence of the game I stopped reading books (a sort of personal Dark Ages, I still shudder to think of it), spent an inordinate amount of time browsing sport websites and became decidedly anti-social (“I’m sorry I’m busy negotiating a million dollar transfer right now, maybe I can call you next month?”).
I don’t know how long my obsession with the game would have continued; fortunately, I had a fixed end-point in mind. FIFA Ultimate League has 10 divisions, with the 10th division being the worst (it was where I had my humble beginnings) and the 1st division being the league of champions. At the beginning of my sojourn I had reckoned that if I could win the 1st division title, then I would have conquered the game. After a month of incessant playing (and sweat, toil and tears) I had finally ascended to la primera división (incidentally my cousin was still stuck on division 4). Through a series of shrewd transactions and financial acumen my team of unknowns had been replaced by a group of all-stars (Balotelli, Higuain, Vidal, Pogba, Gerrard). My panicked and clumsy persona was long gone, in its place the calm precision of an expert.
I had come a long way, but I started the division 1 tournament with no little trepidation. I would be taking on the Goliaths of football: Barcelona, Manchester City, Juventus; teams whose star-studded rosters made my own bench seem positively run-down. The difficulty level was “World Class” (the highest AI level). To compound my fears, the spectre of relegation hung over the entire proceedings. In my first game, against Real Madrid, I played so cautiously that at the blow of the whistle the score read 0-0. Since this was the last division I needed 28 points to win the title, which meant I had to win every single remaining game. What followed was the sort of tale bards sing about (indeed I’m surprised that they’ve been so quiet about it).
My campaign was a narrative of beguiling chip-shots, acrobatic headers, last-minute-sniper free kicks, heroic dives and desperate sliding tackles. It was a tear-wrenching story of passion, skill and sacrifice (Pogba suffered a bone-crushing injury). I played nobly and calmly, with my heart and with my head. But above all I played with honour (I was tempted to disconnect the Wi-Fi and reset when losing to Juventus but I stayed strong, and won).
After the initial draw against Real Madrid, I won my next 8 games. I had 25 points, and needed to win the last match to win the division 1
cup (and thus achieve immortality). However, there was still a hurdle to cross. My opponent was the famed Barcelona, the highest rated team in FIFA. A team with mountains of silverware and the physics-defying maestro — Messi. Sitting in my room, perspiring in the Delhi summer, I started the game with trembling fingers.
Within the first 10 minutes tragedy struck. At the cusp of my triumphant return to football, I conceded an own goal (oh the irony, the all engulfing shame) and tumbled back into follies of the past. The next 70 minutes were spent valiantly trying to equalize. I finally scored a goal. And then…with just a minute left on the clock, Palacio headed the ball in. I had won, and suddenly my pilgrimage was at an end.
After winning the last division, I stopped playing FIFA. Like a diver surfacing after a long expedition, I walked around wondering where I was and where I had been. It was strange not having contracts to renew or a tournament to win, and for a while I didn’t know what to do. I slowly got back into my normal routines (I started reading again). I also thought a lot about why I had been so taken by the game. Don’t get me wrong, I love video games, but I had never before become so involved with one. And I never completely figured out the root of my strange affliction. However, if I had to hazard a guess, I would say that the game created a world which seemed better than reality. A world where losing didn’t matter. A world where an unknown team could rise to stardom. A world where own goals could be redeemed, even by a boy with clumsy feet, and big dreams.