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NEW YORK – I’m an above average EA Sports FIFA player. When I play against my friends, I usually win.
Bored of repeatedly beating my roommate, I decide to test my ability against a rather superior opponent: a competitor at the 2016 FIFA Interactive World Cup Grand Final.
These 32 players had qualified for the Grand Final out of a field of more than two million. The finalists, who traveled to New York City from several continents, are the best FIFA players in the world.
I, on the other hand, am the best FIFA player in my apartment. So I have that going for me.
My opponent is Demetri Anastasiou. He’s built like he could be an actual soccer player, with an athletic physique and a fade haircut that would hardly look out of place in the Champions League. I later find out that I’m not entirely off–base: Anastasiou plays center back in a Sunday league, and he says he used to play semi-professionally for Welwyn Garden City Football Club, about 25 miles outside Central London.
He claims he’s better at actual football than FIFA, though I cannot confirm this is the case. (I point out that since he’s ostensibly one of the 32 best FIFA players in the world, his assertion that he’s better on the actual pitch means that, relatively speaking, he could be one of the best footballers in the world. In that case, Roy Hodgson needs to step up his scouting efforts.)
Anastasiou, 22, is from the Tottenham neighborhood of London, though he’s quick to point out he’s not a Spurs fan—he’s a West Ham season ticket holder. He works for the London Underground (the city’s rapid transit system), so playing FIFA isn’t a full–time job. In fact, the game bores him: He says it’s too repetitive, and he admitted to me that entering the Interactive World Cup, he hadn’t played since November.
“I tried to get back into it last week, but I got bored,” he told me. “It’s not interesting. It’s the same thing over and over.”
I laugh. Andre Agassi hated tennis, but I’m having a hard time believing that someone this good at FIFA isn’t obsessed with the game. Anastasiou shrugs.
Boring, he repeats.
Such little preparation is highly uncharacteristic for someone who has qualified for the FIFA Interactive World Cup Grand Final. Most serious gamers play every day, or almost every day, and they play for hours each day. Anastasiou, meanwhile, has barely played since he qualified for the event. It dawns on me that I’ve played more FIFA over the last couple months than he has. This is his first appearance in the Grand Final—which makes two of us—yet he’s completely nonchalant. Could North London’s finest FIFA player be in for a surprise?
In the group stage of the actual tournament—remember, Anastasiou didn’t fly to New York just to play against me—the Londoner is playing well. He draws his first game against Mexico’s Arturo Villasenor. I decide to watch Anastasiou’s second match, against Burkina Faso’s Arthur Dabilgou. After Dabilgou takes the lead, Anastasiou fights back for a 2–1 win. The score hardly reflects Anastasiou’s dominance: He controls the match, particularly in the second half, and probably deserves to win by a wider margin.
After Anastasiou scores a beautiful chip shot goal, one of my Sports Illustrated colleagues turns to me slowly.
“You’re going to get absolutely wrecked,” he says.
As I watch Anastasiou play, my ephemeral confidence evaporates.
“Yes,” I nod. “I know.”
It’s match time. I briefly consider selecting West Ham as my team, for the sake of gamesmanship. Instead, I choose Arsenal, which boasts the skill I’ll need to have any chance against a player of Anastasiou’s caliber.
He picks Manchester United. But from the opening kick, it’s more like I’m playing Barcelona and Real Madrid simultaneously. It feels like he has 22 players on the field, and I just have Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny. This is effectively true, because I can only manage to pass the ball around the back while trying to avoid Anastasiou’s relentless press.
In perfect Arsenal fashion, I somehow win the possession game but concede three times before Anastasiou is pulled away in the 70th minute to play his final group stage match. I was on the cusp of a comeback, I tell him.
Sure you were, he responds. Definitely.
After he secures a place in the knockout stage (Anastasiou ultimately fell in the round of 16 in a 1-0 heartbreaker), he returns for a rematch. I’ve decided to change my strategy completely. I’m going to park the bus from the start and basically try to get a lucky counterattack or play for penalties.
Naturally, I choose Chelsea to execute my Jose Mourinho–inspired strategy. He picks Real Madrid. So much for going easy on me.
Somewhat surprisingly, my strategy actually works. Anastasiou sets up a number of scoring chances, but my defending in the final third was impeccable. There are simply too many players crowding the box for even Real Madrid’s talented attackers to penetrate. When Anastasiou does manage a shot, Thibaut Courtois is up to the challenge.
Unfortunately, parking the bus makes it extraordinarily difficult to generate any chances of my own. I’m able to get the ball to Eden Hazard and Diego Costa a few times, but Anastasiou swarms me with Real Madrid defenders soon after I cross midfield. I can’t even get a shot on goal.
Finally, after holding Anastasiou without a goal for nearly 60 minutes of game time (just over five minutes of actual time), the dam breaks. He effortlessly moves the ball into the box and Gareth Bale buries a goal past the outstretched arms of Courtois. 1–0.
Now I face a dilemma: Should I continue to play defensively and hope for a quick counterattack? Or should I press forward and risk opening myself up to a barrage of scoring chances?
Neither option seems particularly enticing. So instead I decide to cheat. In order to level the playing field, I instruct Anastasiou to slide on a pair of thick, oversized gloves, which he is to wear while playing the rest of the game.
He had agreed to don the gloves before the match started, but he didn’t quite realize just how much they would obstruct his play. All of the sudden, I’m generating attack after attack. Hazard and Willian are flying up the wings. Diego Costa finds the ball in advantageous positions. I’m poised to equalize.
But somehow, Anastasiou figures out how to play with gloves on. I have no idea how he does this, but suddenly he is the second–best FIFA opponent I’ve ever faced. (The best is Anastasiou without gloves.) My initial advantage vanishes. Soon enough, I’m defending again, unable to advance the ball into the final third.
With my gloved opponent still up by a goal in stoppage time, I turn the ball over with my defenders wildly out of position. I try to move John Terry and Gary Cahill into position, a task comparable to corralling a herd of elephants, but my last–ditch tackle is too late. Penalty to Real Madrid.
And so in the first minute of stoppage time, Cristiano Ronaldo steps up to the penalty spot.
Despite the gloves that handicap my opponent, he converts with ease.
Final: Real Madrid 2, Chelsea 0. On aggregate: Demetri Anastasiou 5, Stanley Kay 0.
Smiling, he reaches out his hand and congratulates me on a good game. I had put up a good fight, he says.
Begrudgingly, I shake his glove.