Soccer is the world’s most popular sport, but it has never really caught on here in the U.S. This sometimes gets us some derision around the world, as other nations assume that we are either too self-centered to follow a sport that’s not exclusively “ours”, or too ignorant to appreciate it. I think that’s really unfair, if only for the simple fact that Canada also doesn’t give a damn about soccer, but nobody ever makes them feel guilty about it.
Still, in the interest of building some international goodwill, I decided to buy a soccer game and tell all of you proud U.S. Americans about it, in the hopes that you would read about it and maybe become more interested in the “Beautiful Game”. In order to recreate the sport accurately, I decided to play the most realistic simulation of the sport, which I decided was FIFA 07, based almost entirely on the fact that it only cost $7.
Before we get started, I should disclose the fact that while I don’t watch any pro soccer, I’m not completely ignorant about how the sport is played. I played youth soccer until I was 17. Of course, the league I played in may have had a slightly different interpretation of the rules. The last two years I played, our opponents’ main tactic for scoring was to kick the ball to our goalie, then run into her (it was a co-ed league) to knock the ball loose and into the net. My job was to beat the hell out of anyone who tried to do that. You could determine how well I was playing by counting the number of broken noses the guys on the other team had and subtracting from that the number of times I ended up standing over our goalie saying “Kellie? Are you dead?”
In most real soccer leagues, I’m told they have rules that discourage these kinds of behavior.
One last thing I should mention before we go any further: All of the entries will note the time on the game clock when whatever I described happened. Also, like many international sports, the leagues in FIFA use a time clock that counts upward instead of the typical American style of counting down to zero. Now, I’m not some arrogant American who can’t appreciate the styles and preferences of other countries (I mean, I am playing a soccer game after all), but for the life of me I can’t figure how the rest of the world finds it more useful to know how much time has passed in the game rather than how much time is left. As much as I hate to say it, I’m inclined to think that we may have actually gotten that one right. Then again, the rest of the world calls this sport “football”, and we were the idiots that decided “No, football isn’t a very descriptive name for a sport that is based around kicking a ball around. We’ll call it soccer instead and save the name football for a sport that places much less emphasis on the feet.” So I guess that makes us about even in the stupid department.
The first thing I have to do is choose a team. Since I don’t follow professional soccer at all, this is a bigger challenge than you might think. The only soccer team I’ve ever even heard of is Manchester United, and that was only because when I was a junior in high school some kid in my math class wouldn’t shut up about them. Upon remembering this, I immediately decide that any team other than “Man U” would be acceptable. I nearly chose Barcelona, due to their awesome sherbet orange colored jerseys, which look oddly similar to the old Tampa Bay Buccaneers uniforms. Still, something doesn’t quite seem right about them. I press on a little further and stumble upon a team called Real Madrid.
Real Madrid? I’m immediately intrigued by the fact that they needed to specify the fact that they were Real, and ponder the possibility that there might be a Fake Madrid out there. Would the Fake Madrid be an entire false city, or just a knock-off soccer team that pretends to be from Madrid? Just thinking of the intense rivalry that must exist between Real Madrid and Fake Madrid gets me excited. I choose Real Madrid as my team and immediately begin looking for Fake Madrid to select as my opponent.
After a few minutes of looking, I am unable to find Fake Madrid. A quick internet search reveals that there is no such thing as Fake Madrid, and that “real” is the Spanish word for royal. Crap. Determined not to let this be too much of a setback, I stick with my choice of Real Madrid, and for an opponent, choose FC Lorient, based almost entirely on the fact that their logo appears to be fish balancing a soccer ball on its head. I’m assuming the FC stands for Fish Champion.
As the teams take the field and the starting lineups are announced, I discover that I have David Beckham on my team. Yes! Since Beckham is the only active soccer player I’ve heard of, he therefore must also be the best player in the world. That’s only logical. A quick search online seems to reinforce this theory, and provides me with some important insight as well: David Beckham specializes in taking penalties. I immediately start formulating a game plan based around “Dirty” David Beckham tripping his opponents, punching them, and possibly just picking the ball up and throwing it into the goal, until I figure out that in soccer parlance, “taking penalties” refers not to the act of committing a penalty, but rather to the action of taking the free kick after the other team commits a foul. My new strategy is to somehow get my opponents to want to punch David Beckham, which shouldn’t be too hard since he invented the term “metrosexual” and married Posh Spice. I also discover that Beckham used to play for Manchester United, which in a weird way kind of makes me the equivalent of some English guy who doesn’t know anything about baseball but has heard of the Yankees and Derek Jeter.
The game goes back and forth for a little bit, when all of a sudden, FC Lorient breaks through my defense and rushes in on goal. The attacking forward gently kicks the ball right to my goaltender, who catches it. For some reason, this impresses the hell out of the announcers, who go on and on about the “brilliant goalkeeping”. I can’t figure out why they’re so excited about this routine looking save, unless the Spanish league is a lot like a little kid’s soccer league, and most of the goalies are afraid of the ball.
The goalies are definitely not afraid of the ball. Mine might be dead, though.
What happened is that Lorient broke through my sieve-like defense with another scoring rush. Once again, they kicked the ball right to my goalkeeper, but this time at about 100 miles an hour. Somehow, he manages to deflect this over the net. The announcers actually seem less impressed by this display of goaltending than by the previous save.
One of my players slide tackles an opposing player from behind, resulting in a red card. This means that he is out of the game, and my team must play shorthanded for the remainder of the match. Going from 11 guys to 10 might not seem like a huge disadvantage, but because a soccer field is so large, it essentially means each player’s responsibility has gone from covering an area of the pitch about the size of Vermont to one about the size of Ohio.
Scoring in soccer is really hard. That’s a big part of why 1-0 games are considered fairly normal. But while my defense seems to just let everyone on the other team run right by them, confident that scoring will just naturally stay low without their help, the other team takes a more active approach to defending. FC Lorient’s goal is so well defended that attacking it feels like storming the beaches of Normandy all by myself, armed only with a soccer ball. Even so, we do manage to get one good rush going, as my player works his way close to the net, then passes across the inner box to a wide open teammate a foot away from the wide open goal. This teammate then blasts the ball as hard as he can into the outside of the net. Scoring chance eliminated. My players all look disappointed, except for my defenders, who see this as proof that they don’t need to try. Scoring in soccer is just near-impossible on its own.
Not ones to wallow in discouragement, Real Madrid soon gets another scoring opportunity. This time a player brings the ball up the sideline, then floats a “cross” (basically, a high kick across the goal area) to an open teammate. Showing an amazing display of skill and coordination, the teammate kicks the ball right out of mid-air, punting it well over the goal and into the upper deck of the stadium. I’m beginning to get frustrated.
Beckham comes in on a rush, but is stopped after running right into an opposing player. Apparently simply being David Beckham isn’t enough to get past a defender.
Or maybe it is. This time Beckham gets the ball, runs right past everyone on the other team, and basically kicks it through the opposing goalie. I feel kind of silly about all that “strategy” and “passing” I tried earlier. Apparently the trick to scoring in soccer is to simply run in a straight line and then kick the ball really hard.
Halftime. Or at least it would be. As the clock reaches 45:00, a “+2” appears above it, indicating that more time has been added. See, the clock never stops in soccer…not for injuries, or the ball being kicked into the stands, or anything. So at the end of the half, they add a little bit of time to make up for it. How much time? Well, in this case, “+2”. I have no idea if that means seconds, minutes, or days, and the clock doesn’t bother going into any more detail, it just sits there saying 45:00, with a “+2” above it. How much of that +2 has gone by? It doesn’t say. I hate to sound like some ignorant American, but how is this even remotely acceptable? Doesn’t anyone want to know how much time is left?
But as I play into this bonus time, I find out something even crazier. The announcers are going on about the “+2”, and what a nice thing it is for the fans that they do that now. Apparently, this is a recent innovation, and only a few years ago, the referee would not tell anyone how much time he was adding. He’d just stop the game at some previously undisclosed point after time had run out. Again, I have to ask: How was that ever ok?
After about two minutes (though that’s just a guess), the ref blows the whistle and we head into the locker room for halftime.
Taking a one goal lead into the half, I try to figure out the best strategy for preserving this lead and coming away with a win. I think back to my youth soccer days and remember one team I played against, whose coach’s entire strategy seemed to consist of yelling “Don’t let them score!” over and over from the sideline. I decide to adopt this tactic into my overall strategy for the rest of the game, though I’m not abandoning my previous plan of trying to get my opponents to punch David Beckham in the face.
Fish Champion Lorient starts with the ball this half, and within two minutes, are rushing past my hapless defenders toward the goal. The attacker comes in unchallenged, gets close to the net, and then lazily boots the ball out of bounds, as my goalie watches nonchalantly. I’m beginning to wonder if any of the players are taking this game seriously.
Almost immediately after the previous scoring threat is averted, Lorient gets the ball back and again charges in on my goal. Once again, my defenders make ineffectual attempts to stop them, and once again my opponent breaks through for a great scoring chance. As the attacker gets past my defense, he winds up and kicks the ball as hard as he can, launching it over the goal and into the parking lot outside the stadium.
All these close calls are starting to worry me. I decide to change strategy and begin yelling “Don’t let them score!” in Spanish instead. ¡No permítales rayar!
My new “Run in a straight line” strategy seems to be working rather well, as I am rewarded with another scoring chance. This time, my player is the one blasting the ball as hard as he can into the crowd. I can’t help but think that there’s a really good chance I just severely injured some poor spectator.
My strategy has finally paid off! Beckham gets the ball, comes in on a rush, and then rather brutally has his legs taken out by a defender. Although this foul didn’t occur in the goal box, which would have lead to a one-on-one penalty kick from up close, this still means that he’ll be awarded a free kick not too far away from the goal — his specialty. I can’t wait to “Bend it Like Beckham” and put the game away…
…except that Beckham is still rolling around on the ground holding his leg. That’s not good.
It turns out that the sneaky bastards on FC Lorient have injured him. The offending player is given a red card and kicked out of the game, but I’m out my best player, and now someone else has to take the free kick. The replacement goes up, takes the kick, and…surprise! Knocks it into the crowd. I’m pretty sure with that kick we’ve now tied Lorient in the “shots kicked into crowd” category. This would be great if it were a home run derby.
The game is almost over now, but FC Lorient comes in on another rush. “Don’t let them score!” I yell, feebly, as they get through my defense. My goalie thwarts them with a brilliant save, and is so pumped up about it (or else I just forgot the controls) that he celebrates by throwing the ball out of bounds, which essentially gives Lorient possession of the ball again. I hope that doesn’t come back to haunt me.
It’s beginning to look like this is going to haunt me. Lorient has had constant possession of the ball in my end of the field ever since I threw the ball out of bounds. I’m yelling “Don’t let them score!” as hard as I can, but I’m not sure we’ll be able to hold them off for the remaining six minutes, plus the additional mystery time.
Still haven’t gotten the ball back and the pressure’s really on. They get another good shot off, and it’s all my goalie can do to deflect it over the net. This allows the other team to take a corner kick, which is a fairly advantageous situation for them.
They score. Dammit.
Regulation ends with the score tied at one. I’m given the option of standard overtime, or something called “Golden Goal”. Standard overtime means we play a 15 minute overtime period, and if it’s still tied after that, we play another one. Golden Goal is the equivalent of what we here in the U.S. refer to as “Sudden Death” overtime, where the game ends as soon as one team scores. I’m assuming they shy away from calling it sudden death in FIFA because of all the fans who have already suffered a sudden death as the result of my errant shots.
Seeing as the goals each came about 45 minutes apart, the idea of both teams scoring within the same 15 minutes seems highly unlikely. I opt for Golden Goal; if only to avoid dragging out the inevitable should one team take a lead.
After a few minutes of back and forth action, Real Madrid takes the ball and runs down the sideline. I cross the ball into the box, one of my players gets it and…GOOOOOOAAAAAAALLLLL! We win!
I try to figure out who scored the winning goal, but on replay it’s revealed that the ball touched a defender on the way into the goal. This didn’t really affect the course of the shot at all, but the announcers are all over him for scoring on his own team. It seems kind of unfair, seeing as he didn’t actually kick the ball into his own goal or anything. But that’s not even the worst part — he’s the one credited with scoring the goal! That’s incredibly harsh, not only to him but also to the guy on my team who actually deserves the credit.
Later on, I go online and find out that “FC” actually stands for Football Club, not Fish Champions. This is a pretty embarrassing mistake; I had no idea the players were allowed to carry clubs.