Off The Ball

Blurred lines: footballers and video games

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"After the wheel, the Playstation is the greatest invention of all time," wrote Andrea Pirlo

in his autobiography. Like so many of his peers, the former Juventus playmaker is a huge fan of video games, and nothing seems to stir the modern footballer quite so much as the EA SPORTS FIFA series. Thanks to the wonders of technology, players can now pursue their passion off the pitch as well, free from any pressure or the risk of injury. Likewise, goalkeepers can experience the thrill of burying a thunderbolt from distance and even the lowliest professional can lift the FIFA World Cup™ – all from the comfort of their own couch.   

On occasion, the line between simulation and reality can almost become blurred, as Pirlo explained in his book. "On 9 July 2006, I spent the afternoon sleeping and playing Playstation in Berlin. Then, in the evening I went out and won the World Cup." That was nearly a decade ago, and the excitement the game inspires in players has only grown since, with the realism of the virtual version catching up with the genuine article year on year.

"I don't notice the difference," Brazil legend Ronaldo told during the final of the FIFA Interactive World Cup 2014. "I think a genius made this video game. You can see they learn from us, the players on the field. So I think we still have to improve on the real field to improve the video game even more." An adept of the game himself, the two-time FIFA World Cup winner added that he only ever chooses to play "as Brazil and Real Madrid". 

Two-way process

The game's stunning likeness to the real thing is the result of painstaking work. "For the action to be as realistic and impressive as possible, we record and study how the players move on the pitch, the precision of their passing, how they take a penalty, their headers, and even the physics of the ball," said EA SPORTS producer Gilliard Lopes Dos Santos. "And, bizarrely, we often see that footballers learn things from video games. It's a permanent two-way process. We're living in an age when the real and virtual influence each other."

"Obviously, a professional footballer can use his own experience to manage certain situations in the game," Germany defender Mats Hummelstold in 2013. "Conversely, some people maybe use what they learn in FIFA when they find themselves on a pitch." That was certainly the case for Marco Ameliain 2008, when the then Parma goalkeeper drew on his gaming knowledge to keep out a penalty from Ronaldinho in a match against AC Milan. "It was just like playing against him on Playstation," Amelia revealed. "He had the same run-up. It was very strange."

Meanwhile, footballers are sometimes able to achieve things in real life that they can never pull off at the controls, as Scottish international Ikechi Anya discovered after finding the net against Germany last September. "[Finally] I scored against Manuel Neuer," he tweeted at the time. "Wowwww, I can't even do that on FIFA."


— Ikechi (@IkechiAnya) September 8, 2014

While the standards of realism attained by console games are a thing to behold, Lionel Messi often seems capable of feats only possible in the computerised version. "Messi does things you only see in video games," marvelled Zlatan Ibrahimovicwhile a team-mate at Barcelona, though current Barça coach Luis Enrique believes Messi's abilities actually surpass those of any digital player: "I see him every day in training and he can do things that you won't see in [animated series] Captain Tsubasa or on a Playstation."

Cloak of anonymity
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Messi is another fan of the game. "I play FIFA on the Playstation against my Barcelona or Argentina team-mates and it's always a lot of fun," he said. "Mind you, I'm not going to say I'm the king as some of them are really very good." *La Pulga *(the Flea) also enjoys the cloak of anonymity the series gives him. "I love playing Playstation online with people who don't know who I am," he added … making it possible that you too have taken on the four-time FIFA Ballon d'Or winner.

When he settles down for a session, Messi opts invariably for Barcelona or Argentina, which – questions of loyalty aside – makes perfect sense. After all, his spectacular in-game stats make both those teams a force to be reckoned with. Hummels, meanwhile, is more or less satisfied with his own slightly less glittering figures. "It looks quite flattering to me," he commented. "I wouldn't have said no to five more points for speed, but anything else would seem presumptuous." The centre-back's compatriot Bastian Schweinsteigerprefers not to deal with his own avatar, in contrast. "I never play as my player," he said. "Most of the time, I choose Premier League teams because I really like English football," said the German midfielder, who recently made his virtual football dreams of Premier League football a reality by joining Manchester United.  

"In general, you don't play as your own team but as the team of your dreams – Chelsea, Real Madrid, Manchester City etc," explained retired French midfielder Edouard Cisse. "I take Barça and try to respect their playing philosophy. I've got awful stats in FIFA so it's more fun to be Messi."

The former Paris Saint-Germain player believes his approach is a common one, having noted similar tendencies among his old colleagues at PSG, Marseille and Monaco. "It's rare to want to be yourself in the game. Of course you look at how you come off and check your stats, and sometimes you might transfer yourself to your ideal club, but it's rare because you know people will laugh. I even know of players who've changed their own stats in the game, but if a team-mate finds out… it's pretty embarrassing!"

The ultimate sacrifice
Despite the banter – or, more likely, because of it – video games serve a valuable role in forging bonds between players and creating a positive atmosphere within a squad, much as card games or table football once did. Away trips and team get-togethers provide a perfect opportunity to organise tournaments, and Brazilpounced on one such occasion when they travelled to South Africa in March last year. The final results revealed that Neymar came out on top that day, with fellow forward Hulklanguishing in last place.   

*Auriverde *centre-back Dante did not take part, which may have been wise given that he has probably put in fewer hours than his team-mates. "Like every boy in Brazil, my dream was to become a footballer, but my family didn't believe I'd ever turn professional because I'd had unsuccessful trials with some local clubs," he recalled. "But there was something inside me that pushed me to keep believing in my dream. My parents told me they weren't going to support me, so I decided to sell my Playstation and buy a bus ticket so that I could go on more trials."

That sacrifice clearly paid off as the Wolfsburg defender has since gone on to flourish at the highest level – and force game designers to create his own double in the Playstation realm.

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