Paul Gascoigne cries in the company of England teammate Gary Lineker at the 1990 FIFA World Cup. Screencap via YouTube
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
It's like 11 at night and your friend turns up at your door with all of his things in a depressing duffle bag. It's raining and he's wearing all the extra clothes he can't quite stuff in there. It's grim. He's been dumped and you look into his blotchy face and tiny, red eyes and know that all he wants is to be silently passed a single bottle of beer and hear you say "FIFA?" in a nice, even voice. He'll always say yes.
Most men don't really know what the fuck to do with their feelings. They're either actively repressed to the point of extinction or they just sit there, docile and lumpy, synapses clumped together uselessly like a cerebral beanbag. This inability to get our shit together means that when emotions finally do decide to come out, they're all strained and weird and scary; overwhelming, impressionistic renderings of human feeling spat out with no real thought process, especially when it comes to talking to our friends.
A well deserved shout-out to all the alt-Twitter safe spots and endlessly loving and attentive significant others who're trying to help their idiot man-children through this, but we're still miles off. Not learning to accept our own emotions is not only really fucking aggravating for everyone involved, it can be really dangerous. And for millions of men, for whatever reason, that's where FIFA comes in.
For me, FIFA has always been a thankfully banter-free zone, refreshingly lacking the kind of lank chiding and casual racism you might usually associate with the game and its players, and it's also a place where you finally feel comfortable talking about your feelings with your mates. It's where my friendships were originally formed, for starters, having learnt that the answer to "Pro Evo or FIFA?" was one that worked better than any algorithm for swerving boring dickheads that you can think of.
My teenage years were about two things: isolation and football. Having moved from East London to Essex aged 11, I was lost. I felt like an outsider, having swapped my comfy hub in a council estate for the banality of leafy suburbia. I didn't know how to make friends anymore, was the thing. At my old gaff, it would usually involve going up to random kids kicking a ball around and asking if you could play, but now that was out. Prospective pals would look at me, mouth open, like I was crazy for daring to talk to someone I didn't know. After knock-backs reached double-figures, I started to go into my shell, eventually quite liking it there, and got quite good at playing FIFA.
And then, when I got really good at the game, things started changing. It still required me to butt in on conversations when I was not invited to, but making big claims about my ability to score, quote, "right good counter-attack goals with Martins and Adriano and that on FIFA 2005" seemed to do the trick. Once I proved I could back it up, it became that great equalizer: something brought the disparate lunch-table cliques together. The cool kids who smoked fags and fingered girls in the park and the rest of us, together at last. My social status didn't really matter as long as I was really fucking good with Inter Milan.
A tearful David Beckham leaves the field during his final professional appearance. Screencap via YouTube
In this vague era called adulthood, FIFA remains a safe spot, unencumbered by thought, where you can share feelings point-blank in amongst the crashing ones and zeroes onscreen without it all getting "too real." Eyes are transfixed on the screen as what you say beams directly from your unconscious mind, softly lulled into a meditative state by the amiable feedback loop of inane cliché presented by the Martin Tyler/Alan Smith aural tag-team. You go zen while dribbling towards goal with Andrés Iniesta, and now you can say whatever you like. Go nuts. Just say what you're thinking. Free at last.
Almost all of my professional achievements have been thanks to the pub—to the English, cheers!—and almost all of my deepest chats with my mates have somehow ended up spilling out over a game of FIFA. Under the guise of last-minute equalizers and mid-match tinkering apparently lies what's necessary for blokes—all "Leave emotion out of this," all "Just man up and be quiet"—to act like functioning adult human beings. While there might be a well-timed pause or a passive-aggressive screamer to really drive a point home, the game and the conversation flows freely. Plus there's something in the length of the game that seems perfectly suited for a short outburst of Hard Truth.
It's better this way. Unless you're the kind of sociopath who changes the game settings, you're in for a game that lasts about 20 minutes. Being stuck in a heartfelt conversation longer than that could make anyone want to fork out an eyeball, and the half-time break adds yet more much-needed rest. That halftime break is the "Fuck this, I'm going to have a fag outside" when things get a bit too heated, and thank god for that.
Over a beer and a testy game of Chelsea vs. Barcelona you finally speak on a level, air grievances, and share what you really think. Among all the emotional outpouring, points are clear; while you bang in three with Neymar, you sort all of that awkward personal shit out on autopilot. It's beautiful. You talk about how you became mates in the first place and why. How it ran aground and what needs to be done to set things right again. You fix it. It's the kind of thing that you'd usually attempt in a drunken embrace, slurring, "I fuckin' love you, mate" in their ear at last orders, but this is much better: a cheaper cognitive lubricant that harbors little risk of an ill-advised kebab on the way home.
"One more game?" is all you need to hear to make things right.
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