Every year since 2001, I have received a copy of the FIFA football video game for Christmas. Each Christmas since then has revolved around the unwrapping of this one gift, and the events after have since been a Christmas day tradition. The format and controls of FIFA rarely deviate from the previous year, which makes the setting up of the game a ritual before the real journey begins. The most important part of this ritual is the creation of my avatar or virtual pro. This is a tradition that takes place an hour before Christmas dinner and continues for two more hours after that until my avatar is fully prepared for his journey into the new season and beyond.
I recall the first year my avatar was no longer the youngest player on the game. It was Christmas Day 2011, and it was probably the first time I realised my commitment to this fantasy was unhealthy. The fact that there were real-life footballers on the game playing alongside my avatar was part of the enormous appeal of the game for me. Although the moment those real-life players became younger than my fictional avatar made the illusion slightly less believable. Rather than growing out of the game, I decided to commit to the fantasy further. I began to imagine my avatar’s life beyond the video game I was playing. Each year after that, I would envisage a different background story for my avatar to justify why he was slightly older than the other emerging talents in European football.
My most popular origin story involves a family holiday to Rome, Amsterdam or Salzburg, where a local scout while enjoying a kick about with me discovers my potential to be a special player. I begin the narrative at Roma, Ajax or Red Bull Salzburg. These teams meet my selection criteria due to their attractive locations, footballing challenge and narrative potential. After I have chosen my first team, I begin adjusting the appearance of my avatar to look more like me. This is the most essential part of the ritual as the more like myself the avatar looks; the more I completely lose myself in the world. It also presents an opportunity to improve myself, to have the perfect haircut, the perfect amount of stubble and to have the perfect tan for when my avatar represents England in the World Cup in Qatar.
This is the point in the article where I stop referring to my ‘avatar’ as an ‘avatar’ and instead discuss my ‘avatar’s’ journey in the first person, because it’s easier that way, because it’s easier to pretend that this is real life, because nothing else matters when you’ve won two World Cups and seven Champions Leagues.
After adjusting my appearance, I select my kit options. My shirt number is always 41 due to the significance of that number in the film Ben-Hur (1959). I often manipulate the narrative of my career in my head to create parallels with this film. I always have my shirt tucked in and my sleeves long rather than short, as this is how I wore my shirt when I played for my local village team.* The shorts are one standard-setting, which really frustrates me because I would ideally wear short shorts in homage to the football fashion of the 1980s. To compensate for this my sock height is on the lowest setting possible, thus revealing more leg and creating the look of short shorts. My boots are Adidas World Cup Classics because they have a traditional look and the boots were worn by former greats such as Platini and Beckenbauer.
The next step in my ritual is to determine my attributes. The key here is to be good enough to hit the ground running while having enough room for improvement to keep things interesting for 15 seasons (That’s how long the career mode is). I like to make my real-life attributes the template for this process, and then exaggerate my strengths and weaknesses to bring myself up to the required professional standard. Although after almost 15 years I still haven’t got the hang of this part. For example, in the latest edition of the game, I gave myself a rating of 77 for slide tackling. This is truthfully one of my strongest attributes, and I thought 77 was a modest exaggeration. However, I discovered later that Steven Gerrard’s slide tackling has a rating of 64. Needless to say, Steven Gerrard is a much better slide tackler than me.*
After finalising my attributes, the ritual is complete, and I can begin my career. At this point, I let my imagination run wild while simultaneously playing the game. In my head, I follow the same narrative structure every time I begin a new career mode but allow for minor alterations depending on where the video game takes me.
The narrative begins like this; in the early days, I make the same mistakes that every young footballer makes. I have a terrible disciplinary record (My aggression rating is 86), and my private life interferes with my performances on the pitch. The media compare me to George Best and Paul Gascoigne, which only serve to increase the weight of expectation on my young shoulders. After some sort of national betrayal, I am exiled and forced to play abroad, I even subject myself to a teary-eyed interview with Oprah Winfrey (probably to promote soccer in the USA). Shortly after this, I form an inspirational partnership with a manager named Gabriel Batistuta (Who bears a striking resemblance to Jesus), and my career is changed for the better. It’s really odd because before I knew Batistuta, we kept having these chance encounters with each other. For example, there was this one time when I was playing for England against Argentina, and I was really thirsty. From nowhere on the sidelines appeared Batistuta with this massive jug of Gatorade, it was so weird. Also, there was this other time when Batistuta was carrying loads of shopping in the centre of Rome when he suddenly fell to the ground and dropped his shopping, so I helped him to his feet and carried some of the shopping for him.
The final stage of the narrative never changes, in my last ever game I justly defeat Germany in the World Cup Final and do my family and country proud. Sometimes I have to quit the final match and re-start it again to ensure that I score the winning goal. After I have completed the career mode, the game sends an automated message congratulating me on a glorious career before it returns to the startup menu, where I can either start another career mode or wait for the next game to come out.
It is a Boxing Day tradition, to emerge from my room with moderately bloodshot eyes caused by an overindulgence of FIFA from the night before. This is more than just a video game to me. When I’m in my room absorbed by this fantasy, nothing else matters. I have no worries or concerns as long as I’m performing on the pitch. I often find myself in bed trying to get to sleep, or in the bath, or on the toilet, thinking about my career mode, mulling over transfers, wondering where to move next. Should I stay with Leicester City? I have a good relationship with the manager and a genuine connection with the city. Or what about Paris St Germain? My wife and kids could stay in London, and I could return home for the weekends via the Eurostar. Or what about Real Betis? I adore their strip, and the green would go so well with my hair colour.
Over the last few years, it has occurred to me that this addiction required treatment. I prescribed myself classical music to listen to while playing the matches, in an attempt to elevate what I was doing into a more sophisticated hobby. This did not work; I only occasionally acknowledged the irony of what I was doing, the rest of the time I was concentrating on getting England through to the semi-final of the World Cup.* I finally hit the nail on the head while watching some of my most excellent goals in the replay theatre. When listening, I thought back to the importance of those goals in the context of the game, and how significant they were in forging the legacy of my career. After that, I thought, what was I actually doing when I scored that goal? Did I celebrate with 80,000 supporters, or was I sat on my bed, waiting for dinner? Did I even smile when the goal went in? Were my parents also proud of my career? Do my parents even realise that I am the most decorated English footballer of all time? Of course not. I didn’t talk to anyone about my career mode, not a single person, despite it being such a massive part of my life. The truth is I was probably asleep the whole time, dreaming of the game in my head because I wasn’t awake when I played that game, I was somewhere else entirely.
When you get lost in a good book nothing else outside of your engagement with the narrative matters, and that’s the appeal of it, you can relate to the protagonist and imagine how you would behave in their circumstances. I have the same relationship with FIFA, except in FIFA, my stimulus isn’t someone else’s protagonist; I am the protagonist. I guess sometimes it’s easier to be the protagonist in my own world rather than the real world.
* I played for Houghton Rangers in the heart of the midfield, where I won one player of the year trophy but was denied more due to extended periods in the treatment room with knee ligament damage.
* Seriously, check this guys’ slide tackling out! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=keBWInsAA-I
* WE ONLY WENT AND WON THE BLOODY THING! INGERLAND INGERLAND INGERLAND!!!!!