How I won the World Cup (from the comfort of my sofa)

A nostalgic look back at sports games of the past.

I don't like to boast but, in my time, I've scored a goal in the World Cup Final, got a hole-in-one at St Andrews and beat Roger Federer on a grass court. That's because, in the virtual world, it doesn't matter if you have two left feet, so long as your thumbs are in tip-top condition.

Sports computer games have been around pretty much since the beginning of the medium and even though real-world sport completely passes me by, I've played a surprising amount of it from my sofa.

The first video game I ever played was a cricket simulator, its code lovingly typed from a computer magazine into my older brother's ZX Spectrum.
The gameplay was not thrilling: after spending what seemed like an age debating where to put your fielders -- what if I went crazy and just played everyone in the slips? -- you got to the match.

The bowler did his run-up, the ball-pixel whistled across the green-and-white screen and then the moment of truth came . . . "Run (Y/N)?" Edge-of-the-seat stuff.

In the early days of home computing, developers had a crack at making titles around some unlikely sports. World Games on the Commodore 64 allowed you to prove yourself at log-rolling and sumo wrestling (sadly not at the same time), while an entire generation ruined their wrists through the frantic waggling of the joystick required to triumph in Daley Thompson's Decathalon. (To this day, my house mate James claims to have invented a new and better way of playing this. He is unwilling to reveal his secret, save that it involved a sock.)

Daley's success kicked off a lucrative trend for popular sportsmen -- and, occasionally, women -- to lend their names to games. There was Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! (yes, with two exclamation marks) on the Nintendo, from the pre-ear-chomp era; it featured some pretty brisk racial stereotyping, although at least the Russian boxer called "Vodka Drunkenski" earlier in the Punch Out!! series had been changed to "Soda Popinski". He still did a Cossack dance, though. And sparred alongside a Spaniard called Don Flamenco and a German called Von Kaiser.

There was more innocent fun to be had in Graham Gooch's Cricket, which was followed by Brian Lara Cricket; while the modern era has Tiger Woods PGA Tour, released every year since 1998 with the grim inevitability of a tax return. You might ask if golf changes drastically enough in 12 months to justify EA trying to charge you £49.99 for an updated version. But that's why you'll never succeed as a games publisher -- because they sell extremely well, even since Tiger's unfortunate stumble in the rough. The latest version boasts a "sumptuous and flexible" control scheme, so there's that.

Champing at the bit

The most popular sport in video-game land, unsurprisingly, is football. And what is the best football game? The popular vote right now would go to Fifa, another EA mega-brand, which has overtaken Pro Evolution Soccer to sit on top of the charts like . . . well, Arsenal? (Or was it the other lot?)

Most gamers over 25, meanwhile, will have a special place in their heart for 1994's Sensible Soccer -- "Sensi" -- which was so good that it was placed in a canon of ten games worth preserving for posterity at Stanford University.

I've dabbled in both of these but they were a bit too footbally for my liking. My choice would be the magnificently epic Championship Manager series.

If you love statistics, you'll love "Champ Man", which puts you in charge of a team of low-grade layabouts and challenges you to skilfully navigate the transfer market to craft them into a world-beating force.

I discovered it during my final year at university, and -- given that the alternative to guiding Ibrahima Bakayoko and team-mates to European glory was translating Piers Plowman -- it might be that I can't make an objective assessment. But I have to tell you, in the closing seconds of the final, when the screen flashed "GOAL!", there was a moment when I thought: oh, this sport thing. This is what everyone sees in it.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 01 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the far right

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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