The World Cup is here; its videogames never left

There are few emotions more prevalent in a World Cup year for a mid-20s Englishman than that of disappointment. For Brazil 2014 we have been advised to strip our expectations to a minimal flickering of hope; our national team is half too old and half too young with little in between. Not to mention the fact that we face Uruguay, Italy and Costa Rica in the group stages amid the sweltering tropics of South America, a far cry from the perennial drizzle in which the entirety of the England national team usually play. But so ingrained is the English sense of entitlement when it comes to football (i.e., “We invented the game, it’s not our fault we forgot to get good at it”) that the mantra will nevertheless become: in spite of everything; against all logic; England expects; etc.

Generally speaking, we use blind optimism to prepare for the World Cup. We long for the Three Lions to pull it out of the bag, but deep down know that our failure is just as inevitable as the tears to follow; the tournament becomes a simultaneous exercise in patriotism and denial. Alongside this irrational disappointment comes another: the release of a FIFA World Cup game.

Over the past few years EA Sports have essentially tweaked the series into their vision of perfection and the FIFA World Cup series even has a good tradition of replicating the World Cup Fever phenomenon. So why will the game be a disappointment? For my generation the answer is simple: because of the monumentally high standards set sixteen years ago by World Cup 98.

World Cup 98 was the football game of my youth—what Pro Evolution Soccer 2005 was to my adolescence and FIFA 14 is today. World Cup 98 was my first taste of real football gaming, and it stood alone, looming in one of those overly large monolithic boxes that PC games used to come in. I had tried football games before: FIFA 1997, which was clumsy at best; Actua Soccer, on which I never scored; and Premier Manager 97, which only served to cultivate a stat-based geekery. But World Cup 98 was the first truly playable football game I ever encountered, and, to paraphrase an old cliché: you can only play the game that’s in front of you.

The France 98 tournament came a few years in to my football obsession and I became suitably fascinated, absorbing a mostly arbitrary knowledge from a large unofficial book of World Cup Legends. I weighed up the impact Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane would have on the competition despite never having seen them play before—only to be blown away by Dennis Bergkamp and Frank de Boer. Unfortunately England’s own cup campaign came to an abrupt and grisly end.

There was an air of magic around the 1998 English national team. In goal David Seaman with his iconic moustache-and-ponytail combination, Tony Adams in central defense, Man United legend Paul Scholes in central midfield alongside a 23-year-old David Beckham en route to becoming England’s most successful player of all time. In front of this solid support were youth and experience personified in out-and-out goal scorer Alan Shearer and a teenage Michael Owen. There was a sense that this was an England team one could believe in: a likeable team of honest players and the last generation to have the nation’s full support before astronomical wages, an air of arrogance and excessive male grooming overshadowed team spirit. After a strong showing at Euro 96 two years previously when England lost on penalties to eventual winners Germany, expectations were high.

We felt we were witnessing the birth of a Golden Generation. 

The team made a quintessentially English ordeal of the group stage by losing 2-1 to Romania, meaning only a win against Colombia in the final group game would ensure progress. Thankfully England eased to a 2-0 win; Beckham capping the win with a sumptuous curling free-kick that would become his trademark. Belief was building back in the motherland by the time we faced Argentina in the first knock-out round, relishing the opportunity for revenge against our bitter rivals. We felt we were witnessing the birth of a Golden Generation and dared to dream of our first World Cup triumph since 1966.

The rivalry with Argentina stems from the 1986 World Cup, where Diego Maradona scored two goals, one of which was arguably the most brilliant display of individual skill ever seen, and the other was the most outrageous piece of cheating ever to go unpunished—a goal scored by a punch barely masquerading as a header. We saw the game as good vs evil, our fresh-faced, clean-cut sons of England against the decidedly more hirsute Argentine savages. The good, the bad and a mutual ugliness combined in a nervy, bloody match that opened with a penalty for both sides within fifteen minutes. With the tie poised at 1-1, Michael Owen scored a remarkable individual goal to rival Maradona’s back in ‘86. After Argentina equalised with a diabolically worked free kick on the stroke of halftime the game teetered on a knife edge. Good vs Evil, something had to give. And it did.

Just after halftime, Diego Simeone barrelled through the back of David Beckham, who reacted with a petulant kick that sent Simeone tumbling extravagantly to the floor. The contact was minimal but cynical and Beckham duly received a red card, leaving the pitch in tears and our hopes in tatters. The remaining ten men defended with stoicism for the rest of the second half the score remaining 2-2 through extra time; with no difference between the sides, the game went to a penalty shoot-out. England have a dismal record in penalties and by the time David Batty had his crucial spot kick saved it had felt inevitable, England’s darling buds were eliminated. There was an overwhelming sense that this would have been England’s year were it not for bad refereeing, bad luck and ultimately bad decisions. Though we didn’t admit to it for a few years all the boys of my generation cried that night. This was our first taste of heartbreak. For me, that’s where World Cup 98 came in.

Compelled by the injustice of the real-world tournament, I persevered through the initial frustrations of the keyboard-as-gaming-controller, to the point where it felt entirely natural to weave (at 45° angles, a control method FIFA would retain for a decade) through the opposition, hammer the “D” key to unleash a shot and use the bracket keys to curl it outlandishly. I even sadistically navigated a few victories using the PC mouse, surely the clunkiest controller of all time.

Once I had settled into my style of play (70’s Dutch-style total football, only with more ball-hogging), I set about putting the world to rights. I would modify the squad, taking Paul Gascoigne who missed the tournament due to a “lack of fitness” (ie. a struggle with alcoholism that had little bearing over his in-game counterpart) over the unfortunate David Batty, who I cruelly dismissed for his fluffed penalty. Personally, I never blamed Beckham for what he did and would keep him in my line-up, and, while some sent him death threats and burnt his effigy, I gave him a private shot at redemption. Sometimes I would add myself to the England team using the character modification option, usually at the expense of Darren Anderton, but generally speaking my campaigns were within the realm of reality rather than fantasy. I would thrash Tunisia, drub Romania and crush Columbia. But after the first few cathartic slayings I would only beat Argentina. As much as I resented my nemeses I had to grudgingly respect them—respect and destroy.

I guided my heroes to the victory they had been unjustly denied time and time again, the trophy gripped between two crassly rendered fists as TV’s Des Lynam announced my victory to the world. National pride was momentarily restored—I imagined the polygonal masses swarming the streets of Paris, David Beckham effigies raised above the crowds rather than hanged from pub corners. Then I would repeat. Though each tournament campaign lasted only a maximum of 7 matches, somehow the possibilities seemed endless. I wasn’t striving to score more goals with my repeated conquests, or for a higher score—I was just addicted to the cause. I played World Cup 98 throughout 98, 99 and even into 2000; I remember worrying that my saved replays may be wiped by the millennium bug. Such concerns, or lack thereof, are emblematic of youth and my idealistic memories of the time.

The memories that we compose around sporting events are often peculiar. I vividly remember the night of the 98 Argentina game, in particular Brian Moores’ iconic TV commentary on Owen’s breakthrough goal. Only I don’t, because I was in fact listening to the BBC Five Live radio commentary in a Ford Fiesta on some south England A-road. I recall it instead from the re-runs that were played for weeks after and indeed for years to come. We absorb sport through the sensationalist medium of sports broadcasting, which veers wildly from inspired analysis to tired cliché often within the space of a few seconds. We are powerless to resist the hyperbole, the bias and more than anything the repetition.

Sports games allow us to meddle with fate. 

During the build up to the 2014 finals English TV will gorge on the feast of failure that is David Beckham’s red card, David Batty’s missed penalty, Paul Gascoigne’s tears, Maradona’s “hand of God”. England’s shortcomings broadcasted and re-broadcasted, echoing eternally, lest we forget. But also we will be encouraged to consider what could have been, how close we came and how we just may be the underdogs this year. If the phenomenon known as World Cup Fever could be defined by mathematic formula it would be something along the lines of (misery plus romance) multiplied by (expectation minus reason). While Sports television ultimately reminds us of our futility and pointless fandom in defeat, sports games allow us to meddle with fate.

Though it’s unlikely that EA Sports imagined World Cup 98 would be remembered so fondly, they certainly understood the broadcasting rhetoric that fuels World Cup fanaticism. This is why the game featured the first-ever inclusion of the ambitious unlockable World Cup Classics Mode, which recreated iconic World Cup Finals throughout the history of the tournament, complete with introductory videos, original line ups, kits and bespoke Kenneth Wolstleholme commentary. The mode even charted the visual history of broadcasting, from 30s sepia tone, through black and white 50’s to the saturated 70s, recreating the decade specific technology through which the events were viewed. The earlier matches had the in-built anachronism of referees issuing yellow and red cards (which were first implemented at Mexico 1970), as if in a knowing wink to the space-time-continuum-disrupting player.

World Cup 98 used the language of broadcasting itself to create a sense of spectacle, burrowing deep into the tournament history and indulging younger players in fantasies and composite memories beyond their years. The inclusion of the Classics Mode at a time when no one had previously even nailed football gameplay is testament to the confidence and the skill of the team behind it. It was undoubtedly an immensely playable, ambitious work of passion—but for me, fresh-faced and new to the world of football games, it was the timing that lead it to be more than the sum of its parts. No doubt come England’s cup demise the Brazil World Cup 14 video game will act as the cathartic instrument of redemption for the younger generation, just as World Cup 98 did for mine.

I rewrote the tragedy of ’98 so many times that, although I never forgot the reality, the breadth and splendor of the alternate stories I had spun became part of the fabric of that reality. I viewed what actually occurred as an anomaly. Oddly, when re-viewing the TV footage from 98 it feels a little flat: stripped of the contextual emotional drive and nationalistic fuel, as if the team were maybe not the heroes we thought. I imagine that revisiting World Cup 98 would provide an even more intense disparity. After the dizzying rush of World Cup Fever and the crash of defeat, World Cup 98 emerged in the wake as a way to cling on to that moment of hope and to superficially cope with the loss. Ultimately, it was an extended exercise in denial. Will my virtual victories from yesteryear make the next dose of disappointment easier to swallow? God no, but at least now I have beer.