Although I didn’t realise it at the time, on a blank rewritable compact disc back in the days when you could have your PlayStation chipped, I was given the game that would push me head over heels in love with football. The case was a thin plastic sleeve, and upon was messily handwritten ‘Fifa 98’.
At the time, it was late 1997 and I was the first kid on my street to have a PlayStation and that particular title. The brothers that lived across the street had a Nintendo 64 that we huddled around to play Goldeneye, and the lad at the bottom of the road had a computer in his bedroom powerful enough to play Championship Manager on.
Fifa, both figuratively and literally, forced all of those in to a dusty corner.
Playing the game, I’d never skip past the introductory film. Nondescript players in nondescript kits kicked and juggled a nondescript ball around to the tune of ‘Song 2’ by Blur.
I was hooked, and to this day, I can’t listen to that song without being transported back to feeling five years old, sat on a pile of pillows in a hallway in Huddersfield in front of a TV, grey remote in hand.
Helicopter shots of iconic stadiums like the San Siro and Old Wembley opened the door to a world featuring in game footage you’d come to know and love. This was your first experience of the yellow circles illuminating the pitch under the feet of the player under your control, the thick red arrow that come to be your dead ball bread and butter and the ability to dribble and side tackle with all the freedom of a game in real life.
Subtitled “Road To World Cup 98”, the playable teams were mainly all international. That said, rarely, if ever, did I decide to play as England. With the whole licensed Fifa world at your fingertips, teams like the Netherlands, France, Italy and Brazil were all the more appealing.
I fell in love with these players I’d never set eyes on before, but had learnt their names and game through the medium of Fifa. Brazil boasted Ronaldo, Cafu, Dunga, Rivaldo and Roberto Carlos. Italy had with them Toldo and Buffon, Maldini and Cannavaro, Nesta, Del Piero, Vieri, Roberto Baggio and Pippo Inzaghi.
Back then, these were just the names that helped me beat my friends, but I’d grow to worship the turf they played on. I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that without the experience of Fifa 98, my interest in the world of football may never have blossomed as it has done since.
The gameplay was like nothing I’d ever seen or experienced previously. Passing the ball quickly between players, swinging in crosses, taking shots from distance and defending with the best of your ability was all part of the experience, but in truth, where the game really excelled were in it’s many gloriously unintended imperfections.
Nothing punctuated a heavy defeat like losing your temper and slide tackling the opposition goalkeeper with ball in hand. Of course, you’d be given a red card instantly for committing such an obvious professional foul, but it was worth it for the satisfaction received each and every time you committed the crime.
Experts like myself knew that changing the weather settings to snow would see the game played with the novelty orange ball. The ultimate ‘cheat’ though, was to select Internazionale and continuously play balls from Djorkaeff, Pirlo and Simeone to the feet of Roberto Baggio and Ronaldo, which would result in a goal at least 98% of the time.
However, the pièce de résistance was the indoor arena. Normal gameplay featured a pitch that was somewhat smaller than you’d expect, meaning intricacies were few and score lines high, but the indoor was something special. Goals direct from the goalkeeper, no throw-ins, constant elevated balls towards the strikers who would perform acrobatic efforts at will – it was a format that literally had everything. With the option to actually play full 45 minute halves included, it wasn’t unknown for games to reach ridiculous scores of over 30 and 40.
In this day and age, Fifa is no longer a game, it’s a simulator. The fun, and the obvious imperfections have been steadily ironed out by EA, and the current model is geared to test and frustrate rather than amuse and entertain. Wars concerning popularity and sales figures with Konami and their Pro Evolution series dominated the turn of the millennium, but Fifa has fought back to regain supremacy.
So here’s to that somewhat illegally made disc that taught me to love the beautiful game. Here’s to my mother who bought it for me, the man at her work she had do it, and EA for making it. Here’s to my introduction to international and european football, afternoons spent discovering Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga, and the players that graced those leagues.
Without that game, I wouldn’t be writing about football, and I wouldn’t have the passion to learn as much about the sport as I possibly can.