Who wants to live forever? – the limits of FIFA’s timeless digital athletes

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By Neil Merrett

On Saturday March 30, 2019, real life attempted to mirror the appeal of a videogame by bringing together athletes that were some of the greatest players of their age. It just so happens that some of these ages happened to be decades apart.

How then does a real-life ‘dream team’ compare to their pixel perfect, ageless avatars?

Thanks to the extensive licensing forked out by videogame giant EA to FIFA, football’s monstrously corrupt and all encompassing government body, your sporting heroes – no matter how obscure or old – will never die in the realms of digital entertainment.

One of the benefits of having the most up to date names, kits and likenesses of hundreds of thousands of real life footballers in FIFA 20, is that every player that has ever existed can in theory be brought together in some semi-photorealistic digital team.

Imagine all your favourite players, whether living, long since retired or dead, existing at the same time.

Games can do that – at least on a surface level.

Even better, is that you the player can get to control them and relive their glories or rewrite their failings in your own image. Oh my, videogames can be therapeutic – as well as simultaneously being a time-sink, an addictive habit, and some simple mindless escapism.

Time is not always kind on our real life heroes, and they don’t always use the time they have well. So why not play them as you would like them to be remembered – athletes in eternal peak condition, brought together from throughout time to prove some fantasy of a team’s collective brilliance.

A digital team tells us little, if anything, of why we loved, loathed or begrudgingly respected certain athletes however, or the role they may have had in our lives in some profound or throwaway capacity.

Even with the hardware innovations that allow us to bring back a young Paul Gascoigne to his world conquering best, as if all the complicated and troubling career developments had never happened – the idea of building a fantasy dreamteam is a hollow experience.

Paul Gascoigne is a flawed, complicated, sometimes charismatic and deeply troubled man. An athlete, like many of the best, who at times seems to have had a superhuman grasp of their chosen application, but whose very human flaws were often overwhelming.

While a videogame can increasingly break down individual skill and raw talent into a complicated range of numerical values, it cannot – at least yet – account for those human failings and personal triumphs that lead millions of people to adore an athlete.

By the 1998 World Cup in France, Paul Gascoigne was at the end of the road as a international footballer. He would be dropped from the England squad for a selection of younger athletes and newbies such as a young man named David Beckham – the world was moving on.

The official tie-in videogame of the same event did allow for Gazza to be part of that England team, whereby he could score ludicrous 20 yard scorchers as some strange form of personal vindication for a fan.

But Gascoigne’s story and struggles are who he is. To pretend he was some sort of timeless sporting Adonis denies an essential part of the man, and sport.

21 years after being dropped from the England squad, Gazza strapped on his boots once more to be part, for a fleeting moment of time, of a dream team-type squad of players in the real world. These were players that both preceded and followed him into the realm of becoming a professional athlete.

He was joined at the event, designed to mark the opening of a modern, state of the art football stadium in north London, by contemporaries and others who have not kicked a ball professionally in decades. There are people who have gone on to live their lives as individuals outside the game. As parents, grandparents, or businessmen – now just mere mortals, albeit well paid ones in many cases.

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Footballers such as Micky Hazard, who despite being arguably at least double the man he once was, were still able to entertain tens of thousands of people by playing the game.  That is reassuring for us all, especially when you consider his athletic heyday was over two decades ago.

Mr Hazard played alongside men regarded as some of the world’s finest players at one time or another, Jurgen Klinsmann, Juan Sebastian Veron and former Scotland goalkeeper Neil Sullivan.

The ‘cult appeal’ algorithm

Perhaps more importantly, there were also many cult heroes for people of a certain persuasion, Darren Anderton, Erik Thorstvedt and Paul Stalteri – one of Canada’s finest experts for people accustomed with the N17 postcode. The legendary status of these players is not something easily defined in statistics, or the number of goals scored, but in the everyday and banal.

The ‘legendary’ match in real life wasn’t always dignified, or particularly athletic, but it was all the more thrilling for those surprising and occasional darting runs down a pitch and the potential of what may still be there.

A treasured icon from a decade ago, for instance, managing to lob an opposing goalkeeper with a backheel.

This wasn’t a real game of football, but it was being played by very real people.  Individuals fleshed out, quite literally in some cases, failing and fumbling around a pitch with others who have shared their relatively unique career path.

It was more importantly a reminder that a dream athlete, in reality, isn’t just defined by some previously held incredible skills, but by the shared moments that can often be deeply personal for those who chose to follow footballers, or any kind of performer.

Players such as Steffen Freund and Teemu Tainio are arguably loved more for being part of a shared sense of history, than a particular goal. For being the personal embodiment of some personal failings or tragedies, a reflection of chances missed and those odd moments of farce or split second brilliance.

Being a hero is more complex than just being great, it is sometimes just about being there, struggling on in a very human way.

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Legends – just a little older, balder and greyer

You may never choose to put some of these kind players in your dream digital team on some future high end version of FIFA on some hypothetical Playstation 6 – partly because a game cannot recreate what they may have meant for good or worse in our lives.

In the long-term, we like and need our heroes to be human, even with the paunch and somewhat more limited levels of athleticism that come with five decades of living complex lives.

The truth is, our heroes never leave us. Yet they cannot also just be loaded up and assembled for our convenience at the touch of a few buttons. They have evolved, which has sometimes involved getting bigger and slower and sometimes more tragic, but these are our heroes and it is down for us to find peace in that.

This makes them truly timeless, just in ways EA has yet to find a way of programming.

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