With 1.5 million copies sold in the UK and a Twitter feed ticking over every couple of minutes, FIFA 12 has its share of disciples.
Amongst England’s professional footballers it is almost a religion. Wayne Rooney is EA Sports’ pin-up boy (sic) and Jack Wilshere, the Arsenal midfielder, joined him on the cover of a computer game which is 18 years old and on to its 19th version. “This is going to get played all night,” Wilshere tweeted after his copy arrived through the post.
The bug has infected Leeds United’s dressing room, as it has every other across the country. After training on Tuesday morning, Thorp Arch saw the arrival of the ultimate stag-do accessory – a FIFA 12 trailer, kitted out with a gaming booth, iPads and more widescreen TVs than Richer Sounds.
“Can you rent this?” I asked hopefully. “Not on your wages,” came the reply.
The roadshow has landed at Thorp Arch as part of the FIFA 12 Pro Player Challenge, an inter-club tournament in which footballers compete to represent their team at the grand final in Manchester next month. It is the ideal way to settle an argument which patently rages behind closed doors – which member of Leeds United’s squad is the master of the joypads? Lloyd Sam, according to some. “Definitely Ross McCormack,” Sam says cautiously.
It’s a bit of fun and the outcome doesn’t matter. Really, it doesn’t matter. Which is why Sam looked psyched and Robert Snodgrass showed up 10 minutes before kick-off, apparently in search of a moment’s practice.
Semi-final 1: Robert Snodgrass (Barcelona) v Ross McCormack (Real Madrid)
It’s never a bad thing to get your excuses in early. Snodgrass appeared with a bandage on one hand, evidence of surgery carried out at the start of the month. There’s some debate about whether the strapping was necessary or whether the winger was playing dead.
“Hey Ross,” he said to McCormack, “you’ll have to show me which buttons to use.” McCormack smiled and shook his head. As if.
They warmed up with a Manchester derby – not exactly the PC choice at Thorp Arch – before the selections got serious. “I’m going Real Madrid,” McCormack confirmed. So Snodgrass went for Barcelona.
“Strange how no one is picking Leeds,” quipped one of the audience.
The pair exchanged a handshake and began hostilities with relish. The first half was 17 minutes old when a pass found Cristiano Ronaldo clean through, with Victor Valdes to beat. “Go on Ronny!” McCormack shouted, jumping out of his seat as he buried the ball. “Against the run of play,” said a frustrated Snodgrass.
The match was already McCormack’s to win, or so it seemed. But with half-time almost upon them, Andres Iniesta cut up Madrid’s defence and stabbed a finish into the net.
The trick was repeated by the same player at the start of the second half and McCormack wore the look of a beaten man when David Villa scored a third Barcelona goal shortly before full-time.
“Well done lad,” he told Snodgrass before informing the waiting press that he was beaten “fair and square”. “Mind you,” he added, “Snods was in here very early. He must have been changing the players’ attributes.”
Result: Snodgrass 3 McCormack 1.
Semi-final 2: Aidan White (Argentina) v Lloyd Sam (Barcelona)
Lloyd Sam did not like the idea of four-minute halves. How much damage can he do to Aidan White, the fourth semi-finalist, in so short a game? “It’s not long enough,” he said. “Not long enough at all.”
Sam, though, was still a heavy favourite. Before the use of Twitter was banned among the playing staff at Leeds, mentions of FIFA 12 were rife on his feed.
White declared himself the underdog but his chances quickly improved when it became clear that Sam’s players could not sprint. “Someone’s changed all the buttons,” Sam shouted, much to White’s amusement.
Handicapped or not, Sam found himself a goal adrift at half-time as White’s Argentina got on top of Barcelona. An upset was in the offing with 45 virtual minutes to play. The pair were quiet as the second half panned out, the silence broken eventually when a rash tackle gifted Barcelona a penalty on 72 minutes. As one Lionel Messi stood on the edge of the box, another placed a delicate finish into the net, with the help of a post.
“I’m not even celebrating,” Sam said. “I need more of that.” And so he did.
But three minutes from time, Ezequiel Lavezzi found himself in the clear and beat Valdes with a rising shot. So late in the game, the goal was all White needed to send Sam packing.
At the final whistle, Sam rose without a word and went to leave, turning at the last minute to shake hands with his team-mate.
He headed for the exit, only to choose the wrong door and found himself looking into a makeshift office. “How do I get out of here?” he asked.
Result: White 2 Sam 1.
Final: Aidan White (Argentina) v Robert Snodgrass (Barcelona)
At White’s insistence, he kept the controller that he used to beat Sam but it was doing him no good. The Pro Challenge final between his Argentina and Snodgrass’ Barcelona descended into a walkover from the first kick.
“Aidy, are you even on the same pitch as me?” Snodgrass asked after David Villa scored with Barca’s first chance in the eighth minute.
It was a fair question. White was struggling to kick his way out of his own half, unable to manipulate Snodgrass as he had Sam earlier.
Villa’s goal was followed by a flurry of shots on Argentina’s goal, all of which fall foul of poor finishing or offside flags.
A single goal to the good, despite his dominance, Snodgrass began to fear that White might steal an equaliser and held his breath when Sergio Aguero drove a sitter wide on 73 minutes.
The moment passed and White never threatened again. He was down to 10 players by full-time, deprived of Martín Demichelis after the defender incurred a red card for a vicious foul. It was doubtful whether White would have fared better with 12.
“You must have noticed that I’ve got a sore hand,” Snodgrass told the press. “If I’d had two good hands then you’d have seen a better scoreline.”
To Snodgrass, the EA Sports Trophy and serious bragging rights. “I think this set the record straight,” he said. “The trophy’s going on my mantelpiece for the lads to see every time they come round.”
Snodgrass now goes on to Manchester where, on December 14, players from several clubs – among them Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City – will lock horns in identical fashion.
The ultimate contest is against Rooney, who EA Sports has generously granted a bye to the final. “I’d say Snoddy’s got a chance,” said White. “Give him his due – he’s a good player at this level.”
Result: Snodgrass 1 White 0.