The Best Cure for World Cup Heartbreak: Video Games

When England flamed out at the tournament 16 years ago, I turned to EA Sports' FIFA 98 to rewrite history. It may be time to break out the controller again. 
EA Sports

A World Cup year for a mid-20s English sports fan usually means one thing: disappointment. For Brazil 2014 we were advised (correctly, it turns out) 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 were to face Uruguay, Italy, and Costa Rica in the group stages amid the sweltering tropics of South America, far from the perennial drizzle in which the England national team usually plays.

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 nevertheless becomes: In spite of everything, against all logic, England expects. The tournament is therefore a simultaneous exercise in patriotism and denial, and then, heartbreak.

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 16 years ago by World Cup 98.

EA Sports

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 mustache-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 group 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.

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 15 minutes. With the tie poised at 1-1, Michael Owen scored a remarkable individual goal to rival Maradona’s back in ‘86. After Argentina equalized 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.

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Just after halftime, Diego Simeone barreled 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 10 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, most of 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.

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George Collum writes for Kill Screen.

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