By Neil Merrett
Fifa 99 on Playstation – released 1998, Electronic Arts
Few will probably remember the all conquering Tottenham Hotspur team of the 1998-99 football season.
English, European and EA Cup champions in a single campaign, they were renowned for combining a mixture of obscure, highly rated players from Eastern Europe, South America and Coventry City, with a mostly middle range squad of British and Swiss misfits.
Their experimental, somewhat swashbuckling and heavily wing-based 4-2-4 formation, rarely copied – if at all – in professional football during the year’s that have passed, was created over a not insignificant number of training matches and friendlies, before evolving into a style of unparalleled footballing beauty.
The real Spurs team of that year, sans their Eastern European and South American contingent finished 11th in the league. In what was a season of a few positives, the squad scraped through to win the League Cup and a return to European competition the following season after at least decade in the wilderness.
It was not a glorious time, yet the Tottenham side that existed within the parallel world of the Sony Playstation seemed to take on a life of their own, going on to retain their league and cup titles, but eventually falling to Leeds United in an overambitious 32 team, world club tournament.
Their achievements have largely passed into personal sporting legend – their trophies and achievements now existing only on some long-lost memory card stashed away in a box somewhere. Yet they were never forgotten by their quiet yet charismatic manager.
In the subsequent years that followed, the manager would build a whole new Tottenham squad for Fifa 2001 – built this time around the actual under performing team of the 2000-01 season, with the one exception of then Chelsea youngster John Harley in a failed attempt to show a fine eye for young talent.
This squad again won all competitions for several seasons that passed in-game, before their ambitious coach memorably moved on to reach the semi-finals of the 2003 World Cup with a surprisingly dynamic and attacking Thailand team.
Yet their hands-on manager failed to rediscover his form at the highest levels of Fifa 2004 and This is Football 2005, despite the frequent, yet wasted hours trying to find his next winning strategy against the foremost levels of artificial intelligence afforded by the Playstation 2
In years to come there would be the occasional forays back into Fifa, both via the Nintendo DS in 2011 and an attempt at joint management that saw Newport County rise towards Premier League glory with Fifa 14.
For the last few decades, sport games have existed in a parallel world happily divorced from the realities of sport and age. As their engines have grown more sophisticated, or at least prettier, real genuine news organisations seek to recreate real world goals using an Xbox 360. At the same time, actual professional athletes talk of parallel careers as literal seasons are swallowed up by games like Championship Manages.
These games allow frequently for very real glory and sometimes painful history to be rewritten, where players classed as failures or could-have-beens become some of the greatest footballers of all time.
In some cases these unremarkable, but real players are loved for the performance of a parallel video game sprite that carries the same name and general skin colour. Every player is a potential legend to some bedroom-bound frustrated sportsman. Just asked Newport County legend David Pipe after his digital ascension to the top tier of English football through Fifa 14.
As games increasingly seek to mimic real world settings in which to allow players to realise our wildest dreams, sports games are perhaps the most obvious, and in some ways earliest example of the immersive and simulative powers of video games.
In the 1990’s hardware restraints still limited what programmers could do within the mostly two dimensional restraints of 16-bit games.
This required creative and imaginative programming to allow people to believe in the world of a game – a difficult, but incredible achievement when done right.
Yet sports, with their in-built prejudices and emotions, even in some of the earliest guises of football games, have long carried our real world dreams and let us build our own histories and dynasties, setting right what perhaps what once went wrong within our reality.
In a pre-internet era where pubs were a no go, picking a team hundreds of miles away to support was perhaps utter folly, with access to regular football consigned largely to mid-week European games of the real contenders of the age, Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool
But Fifa and Sensible Soccer allowed you to overcome the hurdles of an underperforming team and a personal lack of any footballing talent. The real life heroes and villains of the 1997-98 season now exist equally as vividly in my mind as the 32-bit likes of Luke Young becoming a champion athlete and living his dream through the means of a Playstation.
Perhaps just like real sport, videogames are at their best as a form of escapism to pour one’s hope dreams and fears into – albeit it with the comfort of several beers and a sofa.