Welcome to my most self-indulgent post ever. If you don't like football or don't play FIFA, I'd advise you skip it. Really.
Still here? Ok.
FIFA 09: 6 Goals
David Silva for Spain vs France
Spain are perhaps my favourite team to play as. As in the real world, the entire team has ridiculously solid technique, making their possession game both a necessity and a joy. As Spain - and a few other teams similarly bestowed with creativity and technique - I can keep the ball endlessly, playing in little first time triangles, shifting the play all across the pitch. The magic midfield line-up of Xavi-Senna- Iniesta-Silva is a beautiful thing. And ahead of it are Torres and Villa, to my mind the best strike pairing in the entire game. Villa can seemingly do anything, and he scores goals of unlikely quality: shots from distance, free-kicks, volleys, tap-ins, headers, dribbles...nothing is beyond him in front of goal. Alongside him, Torres' pace is a lethal weapon. I have scored more goals playing through-balls for an on-the-shoulder striker to run onto than of any other kind (though this goal probably belongs in the category of the second most common kind of goal I've scored - the pounce upon a rebound from a save) , and Torres is perhaps the best player in FIFA 09 at playing to this tactic. His pace, once he gets on the ball, is terrifying, and he is virtually uncatchable by legal means. Spain just seem to have goals in them at any point during a game. And its always lovely to look at...
Near the end of a tight game under the floodlights at the Mestalla. A goalless stalemate so far, despite Torres striking a post and Villa twice clipping the crossbar, and Henry being denied in a one-on-one by the onrushing and suicidally brave Casillas. Spain dominate possession while France break with pace down the flanks, usually via the elusive Ribery.
Spain are stroking the ball around in midfield, as they have done all game. Xavi takes a touch, turns away from the pressing Toulalan, then plays the ball off to Senna, who finds him with the return, Toulalan now lost in the space between them. Seeing the opportunity, Xavi plays in Torres with a first-time ball along the turf. Torres, who has made a run along the edge of the box, turns speedily into the area as Gallas closes towards him.
Torres deigns not to shoot and instead cuts it back for Villa, near the penalty spot. The ball is a little behind him and his shot is not as powerful as it should be, but it forces the keeper to dive to his right to save it, then Mexes hooks it clear.
It arcs out of the box towards David Silva, loitering near the left touchline. He takes a short run and hits it first-time, on the volley and it travels over the crowd of players in the area and into the far top corner like an exocet, the keeper barely having moved. Silva may even have done the robot in celebration.
Juan Roman Riquelme for Boca Juniors vs Sao Paolo
Boca are probably the team I play as on the most regular basis, and it is a source of massive heartache that the Argentine League is not one of the featured leagues, and something EA should address forthwith. I would play as Estudiantes, Lanus and Independiente, for instance. I never ever play the Danish League. Or the J-League or K-League. Anyway, I have to create tournaments if I want to "manage" Boca the way I can Man Utd or Barcelona, say. And, being a stickler for some sort of realism, I tend to make my tournaments regional in nature. So Boca play River Plate, obviously, the bigger Mexican clubs, and a lot of Brazilian teams. Probably the strongest of these teams is Sao Paolo, who are pacy all over the pitch and always tough to beat. Boca play a short-passing game, you see, meaning you need to be at your best to unlock a well-organised team, and that it is extremely difficult against the big European Super-Clubs, who all have considerably better stats.
The pace of Palacio upfront or even Vargas in midfield is no use against a team as fast over the ground as Sao Paolo. But I love playing as Boca. Riquelme, who the commentary in Fifa 08 branded "the orchestrator of the midfield" is just that, on the ball more than anybody else in every game. He also breaks into the box to score crucial goals, as his finishing is almost as good as his passing. This goal, however, was sort of a fluke. I meant it, but it shouldn't have worked.
Boca pass it out from the back, creating little triangles between defenders and then feeding defensive midfielder Sebastian Battaglia, who turns and slides it to Riquelme, hovering, back to goal, near the halfway line. He turns with a little backheel. He has space, a snatch of time. There is no pass on save for a safe ball out to the flank. Instead he looks up, and instantly shoots. One stroke of the boot and the ball is high in the air and traveling at pace in a low arc over the pitch. The goalkeeper is scrambling already and then, somehow, ridiculously, the ball is passing into the net just under the crossbar, the keeper in a heap on the goal line.
1-0 Boca. Beautiful. Later Riquelme would sweep a free kick into the top corner, just to make the result safe, before Palacio stabbed a Palermo cutback inside the near post in injury time to flatter the Argentines with a 3-0.
Kaka for Brazil vs Paraguay
The problem with Brazil is that midfield. Two destroyers in the middle makes them slightly less terrifying than they should be, despite the amazing attacking talent at the top of the pitch (Ronaldinho, Adriano and Robinho in addition to Kaka, with Pato and Diego on the bench). So I changed it. What does Dunga know? I put in Thiago Motta and Felipe Melo, more rounded players, giving the team a more creative element in that area. Motta, in particular is adept at charging forward and delivering telling passes to the forward players. Altough sometimes they do that themselves. for years, when PES was in its pomp and lording it over FIFA, the accusation most commonly made of EA's game was that it was too easy. That you could pick up the ball with one player and dribble right the way through the opposition to score. There may even have been something to this, back then. But for the last 2 years, PES has been the easier, more Arcade game, all unrealistically pacy players and spectacular goals. FIFA is now a game where tactics and patience matter, where goals can be rare and precious for that. And yet it can be spectacular and even beautiful when something goes right. In short, its a true simulation, it feels like football. PES feels like a game. Made by people who want football to be more like a game. Sometimes, though, with the right player at the right moment in the right game and the right coordination, its still possible to score one of those "beat-the-entire-defence" goals in FIFA 09...
Kaka takes the ball from Melo inside his own half. Brazil already lead 2-0. He turns and sets off at pace, beating a midfielder with his speed within two strides, then turning past another. Passes open up for him; Robinho making a run towards the box to his left, Ronaldinho loitering in safe distance. He ignores them. The penalty box is in view now and he performs a step-over and then slaloms between two defenders with a burst of acceleration and into it, heading towards the corner flag, the keeper unsure whether to come out or not. Morel-Rodriguez, the Paraguayan left back, is charging at him and will be there in an instant. Kaka clips the ball just as the keeper commits himself and before Rodriguez arrives and it flicks almost apologetically over his ankle and nestles in the side netting just inside the far post, the goalkeeper skidding into Kaka as Brazil begin to celebrate. He has beaten four or five players and run from the halfway line.
Berbatov for Manchester United vs Arsenal
United are too good in FIFA. Its too easy. No team really measures up. Strong in defence, able to pass it through the middle, quick and inventive on the flanks and with an awesome array of attacking options. If I play as United and get an early goal, it is usually the first of many. Rooney scores amazing goals, of course, as do Ronaldo and Tevez. But Berbatov seems programmed in FIFA to play as a poacher, which he isn't remotely in real life. So he finishes off long passing moves. He scores tap-ins. The real Berbatov likes to drop back and dictate the play, to create for others. Here Rooney does that job. This Berbatov is also blessed with the kind of pace the real Berbatov can only dream of, or at least rarely displays. But one thing is legitimate: that divine touch. That elegance of movement and vision. I usually prefer Tevez. But Berbatov is better in the air and the EA version isn't as seemingly lazy as the real Dimitar...this goal was maybe the second time that trying this had ever worked for me. Which was exhilarating. Especially against Arsenal.
A night time game at the Emirates. United lead 1-0 from an early Rooney missile from the edge of the box. Arsenal have had a couple of chances, and have finally gone all cavalier in the last minutes of the game in a desperate attempt to score an equaliser. As a result, United are breaking and threatening every minute or so. On this occasion, Giggs plays a smart first time ball to Berbatov after an Arsenal move has broken down at the feet of Carrick. Berbatove nudges it to Rooney, again first time, and Rooney rounds Sagna and plays it back into Berbatov's path. Gallas and Toure snap at his heels as he approaches the box. Goalkeeper Almunia advances slightly. So Berbatov lobs him. An impudent flick, perfectly struck and judged. Almunia leaps but comes nowhere near. The ball crosses the line at waist height. Berbatov celebrates. Almunia will get one back with a great header in injury time.
Zico for Classic XI vs Brazil
If I miss anything about the old days when I played PES instead of FIFA, its the Classic lineups of International teams. To play with a Classic Argentina starring Maradona (alright, Manadona) and Redondo (Redanda) was a great pleasure. Figuring out who some of the other players were meant to be was always amusing, too. I often found myself scruitinizing an England full-back, thinking "Could it be Kenny Sansom?" This is one rare PES feature FIFA should copy outright. At present, the closest it gets is the Classic XI and the World XI. The World XI seems an arbitrary and somewhat silly notion. As does the Classic XI, I guess. But it allows you to play as Cantona and Hugo Sanchez. Or even better, as Zico. One of the greatest players ever, he is a little underrated, for my liking. He should be somewhere just below Maradona and Pele and Crujif in the pantheon, alongside Platini and Zidane (he was easily the equal of either). In FIFA his stats reflect how good he was. And he can score the most sublime goals. So can most of his Classic XI teammates, to be fair...
Sometimes a player will do something you didn't expect in FIFA. Some combination of buttons and triggers and analogue stick pressure elicits a move you didn't know was possible. A drag back and flicked backheel of a pass. An overhead flick. This Zico goal was like that. And all the more enjoyable for it.
A corner kick. Taken by Paul Gascoine. Zico near the penalty spot, a crowd of Brazilian and CLassic XI players also in the box. As Gascoine steps up to the ball, Zico makes a short run to the edge of the six yard box. The ball is floated in. Behind him. He goes for it anyway, but instead of heading it hopelessly over the bar - which seems the only real option - he dives backwards and, almost upside-down as he strikes it, scissor-kicks it into the top corner. It is a graceful, balletic physical motion, then the ball is in the back of the net.
Thierry Henry for Barcelona vs Real Madrid
Ah, Barcelona. Pass-pass-pass-pass-pass- little dribble - pass-turn-pass-pass-pass-flick-pass-goal. Like Spain, like Man Utd, playing with Barcelona is almost too easy, too smooth. Built for possession, they pass and score, pass and score. Their defence may be unrealistically solid, but they lose the ball so seldom it barely matters. Their midfielders all pass the ball beautifully, their strikers all have amazing pace and finishing prowess - every game is a feast of perfect through-balls and superb clips into the bottom corner.
Anyone who knows me well and talks about football with me knows I love a passing game. Football is a passing game. It must be played that way. Long ball football is an affront to the soul. When I play it I want to play in a passing team. I get annoyed when I don't play in a passing team. When I watch football I want to watch beautiful technical football. Yes, there is a separate pleasure to a strong, well-organised defence, but there is something almost sacred in the sight of a team playing as one in possession of the ball. Even to be involved in a goal based upon the timeless principles of "pass, move, offer, receive, pass" is the greatest pleasure in the game, I think.
But from playing and watching others play FIFA, it is obvious that not everyone plays the game the same way. Most people, in fact, play a weird combination of ceaseless dribbling and long balls muntered up front. Give the ball to a fast, skillful player, and let him do some damage, seems to be the theory. And of course all football comes down to this at some point. Only, with the best teams and the best football, it only comes into focus in the six yard box, after a beautiful sequence of passes has opened up the soft underbelly of the opposition. Style in football is a moral question, I think. If you play ugly, pragmatic football, you're in the wrong, win or not. Thats why the Brazil team of 1982 are more beloved than the team of 1994. Or to quote Keats: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty."
This all applies to FIFA as much as real football.
This goal came at the end of a period of short passing possession that went on so long I was almost getting bored. Then a hole appeared in the other teams defence. And the flea found it.
Barcelona pass it about from a short goal kick. Puyol to Alves, up to Messi, over to Xavi, back to Puyol, over to Milito, out to Abidal, back to Milito, forward to Iniesta, out to Henry, back to Toure, to Xavi, to Iniesta, to Messi, to Xavi, to Alves, to Messi, to Xavi, to Toure, to Etoo etc etc. Madrid make the odd lunging tackle and continually press but never really threaten to regain possession. The ball comes to Messi, facing Heinze. He sprints up the wing then turns sharply and cuts infield. He lays it off to Xavi. Xavi plays it in to Etoo, who plays it across the corner of the box to Messi, back on the wing. Messi turns and flicks the ball past Heinze, and is beyond him before he can even turn. On the edge of the box he plays it fast along the ground almost perfectly along the six yard line. Etoo is already past the ball, as are a scrambling Cannavaro and Pepe. It rolls straight into the path of Henry's run, and he strokes it first time into the top corner, Casillas having no chance. this is the opening goal. Barca will score four more, Madrid none.