Standing in New York’s Times Square, Frank Lampard poses for a photograph with the large group of boys huddled excitedly around him. Above them, massive screens pulsate in frenetic arrangements of colour-saturated pixels.
Everything about Times Square is extroverted, boastful and in deep contrast to the quiet Englishman politely posing for photos as it begins to snow. And yet there is a strong commonality in the odd pairing of subject and stage. The footballer's trophies and individual accolades leave a 15-year trail that is every bit as luminous and headline-grabbing as the world’s most famous intersection.
The 32 fans surrounding Lampard, while strangers to the surge of tourists passing through, are all formidable stars in their own field - the realm of eSports, where the goals are virtual, but the football dreams are just as real. They're the 32 best players of EA SPORTS™ FIFA 16 and they are in New York from 20-22 March to compete for FIFA’s electronic equivalent of the FIFA World Cup™ - the FIFA Interactive World Cup (FIWC).
“These 32 players will never forget this moment,” Lampard tells FIFA.com. “My advice to them is to enjoy every second."
The former English International, who represented his country at three World Cups, emphasises the importance of what has already been achieved by the boys around him. “It's incredible to think that over two million people from all over the world competed in qualifying for this tournament,” he says. “All 32 players that are here in New York to represent their countries should be proud of what they’ve accomplished."
“I think for any young boy or girl, come Christmas, you’re asking for video games,” says Lampard, who describes his childhood as being a combination of “homework, video games and kicking a ball in the garden with my friends”.
As the demands of full-time football took hold, there remained, always, time for a little gaming. “We had a really strong spirit at Chelsea and a lot of that was born from what took place behind the scenes,” he says. “In the hotels, in the dressing room, we’d be playing FIFA. The camaraderie of playing FIFA was something that was very important in bonding the squad. We played a lot.”
Pirlo wins. Unfortunately Pirlo always wins.
Now at New York City FC, The Englishman shares the midfield with former European rival Andrea Pirlo. “I had a huge respect for him when playing against him, even then I was learning from him,” explains Lampard. “He’s one of the greatest players of his era. It’s a pleasure to play alongside him at this stage of my career.”
While equals on the pitch, things become a little more hierarchical with the Italian off of it. “Pirlo wins. Unfortunately Pirlo always wins,” says Lampard laughing, when asked how a game of FIFA 16 with the former Juventus man ends.
“I read his book and he spoke about playing FIFA the afternoon before he won the World Cup for Italy in 2006. I couldn’t do that,” says the Englishman. “Before a match, I like to relax and just think about the game. I’m quite intense to the point where sometimes it overcomes me. Different people have different ways of relaxing or focusing though, and I know many England players who play FIFA a lot during tournaments.”
Asked the most pressing virtual football question you could ask a real-life champion, namely, which single goal of his would he most like to see immortalised in the EA SPORTS™ FIFA-series, Lampard turns his attention to Europe.
“I scored a goal against Barcelona in the Champions League in 2006. I chipped it over Valdes from virtually the byline. I chipped it and bent it in. I’d like to see that one on FIFA. It was one of those goals that for me was one in a million. I don't think I could do it ever again.”
FIWC titles, just like real World Cups, have been decided at times from the penalty spot. A well-respected set-piece taker, Lampard shared some advice with this year’s finalists. “Dealing with the pressure of a penalty, particularly in a major game, in a final or penalty shootout, is the highest moment you can have as a football player in your career.
“I just try to zone out. I try to focus. It’s not easy. I practiced a lot. How much you practice is a big factor, in the end, you have to make it second nature. You have to stay strong, make your choice and never change your mind.”