Siberian Soapbox

FIFA 19 has a lot to answer for, and not just because I am utterly horrific at it. By far the most popular football console game, it has untold influence over real life. It has an artificial sheen of glamour mirrored by its official authorisation from FIFA itself. If the now-deceased Joao Havelange was a spotty-faced teenager, he’d be playing it all day with a jacked-up junkie. This, I think, we can all agree on. Probably.

Super Soccer – a more innocent time

I first realised all referees were wankers when that little bastard stole the World Cup on Super Soccer. Mashing those stubby round Super Nintendo buttons for probably days on end to finally beat West Germany, and then the sly bugger brings out his team of super evil black-shirted metronomes. In my entire career (don’t laugh – I put at least a higher education’s worth into honing my skills in preparation) I think I beat them once.

In my mind that made me the greatest. That glorious success was down to a significant number of blisters and gallons of sweat, nothing else. I had earned it. But no fanfare arrived, no open top bus parade, no weird rapper walking around the outfield singing my name. And certainly no goddamn ratings.

Ok, let’s rewind just a moment before anyone gets upset; referees are not wankers at all. Apart from Jeff Winter, of course. I sent in too many reducer challenges for a computer to count; I deserved every one of those Super Soccer red cards.

The shiny world of FIFA 19

Right, time for the Delorean again – we’re in a mystical future time where lives are lived in pixels. Everything is gleaming and sparkly. Skin blemishes? Pah! A single hair out of place? Get real. The pound no longer exists. Instead, the UK, like the entire world, deals only in the only commodity worth considering – content. How much gold can you make glisten in the team selection panel? Now THAT’S the sign of success.

Sound familiar? It doesn’t to me, because my career (Yes, it WAS a career…) ended about a decade ago. I’ve since grown a beard, actually got a job, and no longer have the luxury of being able to lounge about all day on a mouldy sofa until the off license received delivery of White Snake Lightning Dragon™ to make more snakebite.

For many, however, living in a displaced utopia of FIFA’s latest regurgitated product is heaven. Perhaps heroin would be a better analogy. Who knows, for some those two aren’t mutually exclusive*. (*Any pedants/lawyers/parents, for Christ sake, wake up and realise this is hardly the most serious of columns before whinging about what message the Soapbox sends out.)

FIFA 19 rating changes

I couldn’t avoid seeing the latest massive, incredible, ground-breaking news of FIFA 19’s release. Maybe it was a demo. Honestly, I couldn’t care less; all I know is there were instantly endless posts on social media – because that’s where real life happens nowadays, innit? – about which rating changes were good or bad, right or wrong. Outrage swirled over somebody getting a rating of 75 not 74 in a fictional universe. Christ, you’d think the Matrix really did exist and these numbers actually meant something.

CSKA Moscow did a decent little two-minute video that was more my kind of thing. Kirill Nababkin is an average left-back who only gets game time because of huge squad changes. Konstantin Kuchaev is an electric young attacking midfielder. The two tried to guess each other’s ratings (95 and 94, since you ask…) before revealing their official FIFA rating cards (75 and 67). It wasn’t serious in the slightest, just like a computer game isn’t serious.

Why in the name of that fictional fairy-tale character in the Bible is anyone paying so much heed to these ratings? Yes, I’m aware of the irony that I myself am contributing to the attention. The official game of the official guardians of the world’s official sport is producing the official ratings of players. Hmm. And look! It is actually newsworthy that for the first time ever that Cristiano and Leo Messi share the same rating! Incredible! It’s almost like FIFA themselves have tired of the debate.

Football Manager

I’d have hoped that football fans would have graduated on from being sucked in by official propaganda. Apparently not. Why not pay attention to the assessment of the world’s widest and deepest scouting network? Here’s the kicker – it is readily available to everyone. I’m not saying FIFA researchers don’t put some work in. I am saying they cannot possibly rival the depth and attention to detail that Football Manager’s ridiculous tentacles have.

Here’s an example of how thorough the FM scouting system is. I live in a Siberian village where bears roam the streets with a Kalashnikov in one hand and a bottle of Putinka Vodka in the other. Wooden huts line the muddy streets. OK, a slight exaggeration, but you get my point. When I offered my services as a local researcher, the regional manager corrected me on the spelling of our then-Ukrainian striker’s name. He was wrong, the tosser – Vladimir Korobka told me himself in person he prefered the Russian spelling instead of the Ukrainian ‘Volodymyr’ – but he knew the formal details of a third-tier Russian journeyman player, as well as his playing history, strengths and weaknesses and probably hairstyle.

Lazy debate

Back to FIFA 19. I realise the easy access and popularity of the game lends itself to this sort of debate. I am also aware that not everyone takes the ratings seriously, which is how it should be. What frustrates me is the laziness with which people settle for an accessible option to debate.

A simplified number out of 100 is a silly way to categorise a player. Messi, for example, is a cerebral player whose strength in FIFA 19-land would be in the ability of the human controller. Cristiano, on the other hand, is a far superior athlete, and so will naturally have higher stats on more obvious areas for any level of gamer.

On a more sinister level, the complete monopoly FIFA’s official branded game on the console market is worrying. Pro Evolution Soccer was by far the better game in my mind about a decade or so ago. Gameplay was smoother, players were realistic enough – relative to the time – and the ball reacted more naturally. Honestly, I had to check whether Pro Evo still existed yesterday. Apparently, it does, but you’d be hard-pressed to know that such is the sheer all-consuming omnipotence of FIFA 19 marketing.

Players now seem to have to like FIFA’s game, or they’ll be left behind in the social media stakes. The rating changes were even the topic in a Premier League press conference this week. As one journalist rightly suggested, the questioner should be banned for (personally I’d go for life imprisonment).

Once again, I fear I am showing my considerable age. Ah, sod it – that’s the benefit of experience; you’re always right.