I played two of the best FIFA 19 players in the world and this is what happened
I play FIFA occasionally and therefore think I am the best person to ever play FIFA just like absolutely everybody else
Playing against somebody you know is better than you at FIFA, as in you can feel it in your bones, in the pit of your stomach, in the very murky depths of your mind, is one of the worst experiences a human being can have.
I am inferior to this person at bashing the X button and finesse shooting from the edge of the box and off the ball pressure. I am worthless. I am nothing.
To play against them is to attempt to swim up the Niagara Falls. It is to get into a fist-fight with a brick wall. It is to rap-battle Andre 3000, or play Magnus Carlsen as black, or guard James Harden on a basketball court. It is to play a FIFA genius at their own game, and it is no fun at all.
On Wednesday, during the warm-ups (I learned that eSports players need warm-ups as much as real footballers need warm-ups, which I laughed at and probably shouldn't have laughed at) of the first-ever ePremier League final featuring 40 of the best FIFA 19 players on the planet, I took the opportunity to see what I was really made of on a game that, all humbleness aside, I rarely lose.
I mean, I almost exclusively play my mates with a tin in hand. It's not exactly the most pressured environment, it's not exactly consequential if I do slip to a shock 2-1 defeat to Watford because this dickhead on the sofa next to me can exploit Troy Deeney's unique abilities as a target man like no other, or I'm subjected to a sweaty, rage-inducing loss because my other pal only ever plays as Porto in an attacking 4-2-4 and he only plays as Porto in an attacking 4-2-4 because they have Yacine Brahimi and Jesus Corona and Vincent Aboubakar and Moussa Marega and as he plays with these digital mutants, these souped-up attackers with their five-star skill moves and five-star weak foots and unconquerable, unfathomable combination of pace and strength and finishing, he will yell at me, he will yell at me the things he is doing to me as he does them, and sometimes things that are not even relevant at all.
FINTEKE! He will shout as he shoots, FINTEKE!, a portmanteau of 'Finish!' and 'Benteke!', a remnant of a past FIFA where he would only ever be Belgium in an attacking 4-2-4 with Hazard and Mertens and Lukaku and Benteke. And occasionally he will win because he is Porto, and he is only ever Porto.
But, as any self-respecting FIFA player does, I have an arrogance that cannot be tamed. It permeates me like moisture in soil. Fundamentally I am the best FIFA player I know. And I firmly believe this, regardless of form, of recent results, regardless of the fact that I don't currently own a console, nor FIFA 19, and play roughly once a fortnight, I know that when I'm on my game, when the conditions are right, I am untouchable. I have won Division 1 on both PlayStation and Xbox and scored flowing team-goals you would never believe. I am no mere mortal.
The problem is, everybody thinks this. Anybody who has ever played FIFA thinks this. The game does this to you, it convinces you that you are brilliant and that your losses are down to an unfair exploitation of game mechanics, or a console advantage, or because you simply weren't trying.
I once had a mate - and I use the term 'mate' very loosely - who was convinced, convinced, he couldn't play right to left. He was covinced he couldn't play literally one half of every game and he would say things like "It's because I'm on this side. That's why I'm 3-0 down at half-time. But don't worry, second half you're going to see what I could do". And then he would concede five more. He was a complete whopper, but he was a FIFA player. He held that unshakeable belief. He was one of us.
What I am saying is this: even though I was about to play two of the world's best FIFA players, I was still quietly confident. I thought I had a chance. I thought if I moved the ball around like I normally do in my patient 4-3-3, gradually creating pressure like I'm uncorking a bottle of wine, which I actually can't do in real life, I'd be alright. I would unpick them with my intricate build up, my endless one-two bounces off my deep-lying forward, my searching crossfield balls to the full-backs. I would give them a good game.
I looked up from the shallow pool of rocks at the very bottom, Niagara looming over me, and thought yeah, fuck it, I'll be fine. Stand back, but before you do, pass me my swim cap and goggles. I'm swimming up this motherfucker.
Game 1 - Ryan Pessoa (Hashtag Ryan - Professional Fifa Player)
Ryan beat me 4-0. Ryan beat me 4-0 and barely looked arsed. He was smiling the entire time.
I was there, beads of sweat trickling down the back of my neck, vein bulging in my forehead, using every ounce of brain power I had to focus on passing the ball along my back four and occasionally into my midfield without giving it away. And he would just sit there, grinning, telling me how he is also doing a degree in Business as well as being a PROFESSIONAL FIFA PLAYER and turn to face me every so often, literally not even looking at the screen, whilst I was trying not to blink because my five-yard passes between Otamendi and Kompany were being pressed perfectly.
I couldn't turn and I had no options, no avenues at all, so occasionally I'd hit it to Kyle Walker and back to Kompany and now into De Bruyne and back to Otamendi but he has closed me down already and I have no passes on at all on now, zero fucking options, so I'm shamelessly going back to Ederson and Ryan is telling me he was once ranked number one in the world on FIFA 18 on the Xbox for a month, and that he is actually feeling a bit rusty and that he once had an unbeaten streak of four years (FOUR YEARS) against his group of friends and that he's not feeling nervous for the ePremier League tournament but that's bad, because he plays better when he's nervous.
I hit one of the best passes I've ever hit, a rare, searching long-ball pinged into the feet of Raheem Sterling hugging the touchline, just like Ederson does in real life, and Ryan says "great ball". I am relaxed for a second before he reads my turn inside like an Ikea manual, nicks the ball off me - off the best pass I've ever hit - and waltzes up the pitch and scores. He might as well have lit a cigar, put on a blindfold and stuck his feet up on the desk. He does this several more times and even misses a few sitters too, one because he thought Morata was Giroud and shifted it onto his left foot and one because Eden Hazard turned into Shane Long for a split-second. Even professionals make mistakes.
I had only one half-chance during the game and I almost, almost buried it; a David Silva chip over the goalkeeper from the edge of the box that hit the underside of the crossbar and agonisingly bounced out. Had it gone in, my shirt was going over my head.
Ryan's post-match verdict: "You're not actually that bad. I've played much worse."
My post-match verdict: Probably shouldn't have swapped out Fernandinho and played a D. Silva-De Bruyne-B. Silva midfield, the most flamboyant three-man midfield ever played, against one of the best FIFA players in the world. Probably shouldn't have done that. Still, I did dominate possession. And that's the real quiz.
Game 2 - Michael Faria (ItsMeAuzio)
Michael played 25 games in qualifying and won 25 of them. He scored 127 goals and conceded 23. He was Crystal Palace and I was Liverpool and I was scrambling from the very first minute of the game. I pushed Virgil van Dijk's virtual counterpart to its absolute limit, making my pixelated Dutch colossus cover the entire penalty box almost singlehandedly with despairing last-ditch challenges and blocks against all the shots and crosses raining in.
When I did get the ball, Michael utilised his apparent knack for telepathy to once again ensure that whenever I got hold of the ball, I had absolutely fucking nothing on. The structure of my attacks was this: Fabinho, head up at the top of the centre circle, swivelling one way and then back and then the other way again, loosely resembling a step-dad in a supermarket trying to find black beans. He has checked near the Heinz tins and they're not there and now he is lost.
Despite my attacking struggles, I manage to keep both my shape and the ball fairly well - mostly through a substantial dread of the consequences if I lose it - and go in at half-time only 1-0 down. The goal itself, flicking the ball up over my defender and angling a volley top bins from the edge of the box, is one I could do nothing about.
In the second half I start to come out of my shell a bit, an anxious tortoise at a house party where he only knows one other tortoise, desperate to score at least one goal. If I can just score one I can go home happy. As a direct result of me opening up, Michael starts to carve out chance after chance, usually through Christian Benteke, and soon goes 2-0 up.
My best moment of the game occurs soon after, a daring escapade down the right flank that involves a Pythagorean sequence of passes between Clyne, Salah and Bobby Firmino that eventually sends the Egyptian King in behind the Palace defence. Knowing that if I try and dummy shot turn he will read it, or if I shoot he will read it, or if I do just about anything he will read it, I opt to float in an early cross to the far post. It's a glorious ball and an onrushing Sadio Mane manages to get his considerable forehead to it. It beats the keeper but rolls agonisingly across the goalmouth and the wrong side of the far post. Michael scores a third. Stick a fork in me, I'm done.
Michael's post-match verdict: "Your attacking was good. The only thing I'd say is pass the ball quicker. Your defence needs work."
My post-match verdict: We can just rule out passing the ball quicker now. Not gonna happen. I am what I am, and Fabinho's pass percentage was fantastic. It was off the charts.
So after seven goals conceded and none scored in two matches I had a lot of thinking to do. A long hard look in the glossy FIFA mirror. A deep and unflinching analysis of my technical shortcomings was in order. And do you know what? Upon reflection, I think the deciding factor, other than them being much better than me, was that both of my opponents nipped into custom tactics screen and set their defensive positioning to 'drop back', utilising the AI's efficient positioning and meaning their teams rarely, if ever, lost their shape while I passed the ball around backwards and sideways like the Caucasian John Obi Mikel.
Take that setting off and I think it would have been close(r). To Ryan and Michael I say: take that setting off and play me, you cowards, mano a mano with space in behind and gaps between your banks of four, and, yeah, I still won't win, but my god will I eventually probably maybe score a goal. Of that I am certain.
I am a FIFA player, that is my excuse for the day and fundamentally, I am still the best player I know. This is my curse and it will never go away.
Chelsea player Ryan Pessoa and Crystal Palace player Michael Faria were speaking as they competed in the inaugural ePremier League final. To watch the action live and see the twenty Premier League clubs going head-to-head on FIFA 19, tune into Sky Sports or the EA SPORTS FIFA Twitch channel: https://www.twitch.tv/easportsfifa