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.
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.