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

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era