Calum Henderson watches two Premier League stars battle it out on an Xbox for English football’s least celebrated prize, the FIFA 16 Celebrity Cup.
For a certain type of football person this is the biggest week of the year – the week FIFA 16, the latest instalment of the popular EA Sports gaming title, is released around the world.
The game’s official UK launch gathered a smattering of Premier League stars in the dimly-lit Gfinity Arena in London to compete for the Celebrity Cup, English football’s newest and least official piece of silverware. The event was streamed live on YouTube and by the time of the final was being watched by an audience of around 4,000 people.
The eight-player knockout tournament boiled down to a battle between Liverpool right-back Nathaniel Clyne, who played every game as Chelsea, and Crystal Palace midfielder Jason Puncheon, who settled on Manchester City after earlier playing as Real Madrid.
Between them they had overcome the likes of Swansea City’s Ashley Williams, Spurs’ Kyle Walker and retired Manchester United legend Rio Ferdinand to make it to English celebrity football gaming’s showcase event.
FIFA 16 is the first edition of the game to include women’s teams, but nobody played as one.
The franchise has become far more detailed and technical since the days you could happily persist with a simple strategy of sprinting down the wings and pumping crosses into the box all game. I haven’t played any FIFA since around FIFA 13, by which stage the gameplay was already beginning to exceed the limits of my coordination. I played in career mode as Stoke City, but despite spending the team’s entire budget signing gun striker Robinho to play off target man Peter Crouch, we failed to make even the Europa League.
Commentating me through those trying times – and indeed doing so since the dawn of EA Sports’ FIFA franchise – was the voice of the legendary Martin Tyler. My favourite piece of his in-game commentary was always the casual pre-match observation: “plenty of replica shirts in the crowd today.” As the game became more difficult I grew more accustomed to hearing his slightly exasperated sighs of “hit and hope…” and the terse “he’ll have to do much better than that to trouble this goalkeeper.”
Martin Tyler was at the Gfinity Arena to provide live commentary for the Celebrity Cup alongside his FIFA sidekick Alan Smith. Just before the final, the stream cut back from a break to find the pair of them sitting there eating little bags of crisps. While Smith sanely finished chewing his mouthful, Tyler panicked and inexplicably spat his out into his hand, before dissolving into laughter along with the rest of the room. It was a good-spirited event, and vaguely surreal as the pair earnestly got to work calling the game like it were a real live one. It was quite possibly one small step on the path towards the singularity.
Clyne’s Chelsea had Puncheon’s Manchester City under pressure from the whistle, playing a crisp passing game and capitalising on some careless ball control by the City midfield. There was an air of inevitability about the penalty which came in the 32nd minute when Aleksandar Kolarov clumsily brought down Nemanja Matic in the box. Eden Hazard duly slotted to make it 1-0. Jason Puncheon appeared to have forgotten what button to press to make the keeper dive. Joe Hart just stood there. “I thought he might have dived one way or the other but he didn’t,” called Alan Smith.
A powerful far-post header from a corner by John Terry (who else?) put the game out of reach on 65 minutes. Moments later Martin Tyler offhandedly delivered the line of the game, and perhaps his entire commentary career: “Frustration for Jason Puncheon, who needs a little bit more punch in his team here.”
He was gifted a small glimmer of hope in the game’s dying minutes when Sergio Aguero was brought down in the box by (who else?) John Terry. But unlike Puncheon, Clyne knew exactly what button to press. In the end, that may have been the difference. Thibaut Courtois dived full-length to his right to deny Aguero.
And so the FIFA 16 Celebrity Cup – actually more of a flat circular disc – went to Nathaniel Clyne, Liverpool’s recently-acquired £12.5 million right-back, playing as Chelsea.
Watch the final, starting from Martin Tyler’s crisp debacle, here: