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 World Cup you’ve never heard of, where the teams have no state

At the Conifa world cup – this year hosted by the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia – ethnic groups, diaspora communities and disputed territories will battle for footballing glory.

Football's European Championship and the Olympics are set to dominate the back pages over the next few months. How will Team GB fare in Rio? Will the zika virus stop the tournament even going ahead? Will the WAGS prove to be a distraction for the Three Lions? And can Roy Hodgson guide England to a long-awaited trophy?

But before the sprinters are in their blocks or a ball has been kicked, there's a world cup taking place.

Only this world cup is, well, a bit different. There's no Brazil, no damaged metatarsals to speak of, and no Germany to break hearts in a penalty shootout.  There’s been no sign of football’s rotten underbelly rearing its head at this world cup either. No murmurs of the ugly corruption which has plagued Fifa in recent years. Nor any suggestion that handbags have been exchanged for hosting rights.

This biennial, unsung world cup is not being overseen by Fifa however, but rather by Conifa (Confederation of Independent Football Associations), the governing body for those nations discredited by Fifa. Among its member nations are ethnic groups, diaspora communities or disputed territories with varying degrees of autonomy. Due to their contested status, many of the nations are unable to gain recognition from Fifa. As a consequence they cannot compete in tournaments sanctioned by the best-known footballing governing body, and that’s where Conifa provides a raison d’être.

“We give a voice to the unheard”, says Conifa’s General Secretary, Sascha Düerkop, whose world cup kicks off in the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia at the end of this week.

“We are proud to give our members a forum where they can put themselves on the map.

“From that we hope to give back in the long run and invest in the football infrastructure in our member nations to help them grow.”

The two week footballing celebration starts with an opening ceremony before Kurdistan and Székely Land kick off the tournament. It follows on from 2014’s maiden competition which saw The County of Nice avenging a group stage defeat to Ellan Vannin from the Isle of Man, to take the spoils in the final via a penalty shoot-out.  There were some blowout scores of note however, with South Ossetia smashing Darfur 20-0 and Kurdistan beating the Tamils 9-0 at the event which took place in Östersund, Sweden. Neither of the finalists will be returning to the tournament – throwing down the gauntlet to another twelve teams. 

This, the second Conifa world cup, is testament to the ever-expanding global footprint of the tournament. Abkhazia will welcome sides from four continents – including Western Armenia, the Chagos Islands, United Koreans in Japan and Somaliland.

Despite the “minor” status of the countries taking part, a smattering of professional talent lends credibility to the event. Panjab can call on the experience of ex-Accrington Stanley man Rikki Bains at the heart of their defence, and the coaching savoir-faire of former Tranmere star Reuben Hazell from the dugout. Morten Gamst Pedersen, who turned out for Blackburn Rovers over 300 times and was once a Norwegian international, will lead the Sapmi people. The hosts complete the list of teams to aiming to get their hands on silverware along with Padania, Northern Cyprus, and Raetia.

A quick glance down said list, and it’s hard to ignore the fact that most of the nations competing have strong political associations – be that through war, genocide, displacement or discrimination. The Chagos Islands is one such example. An archipelago in the Indian Ocean, Chagos’ indigenous population was uprooted by the British government in the 1960s to make way for one of the United States' most strategically important military bases – Diego Garcia.

Ever since, they've been campaigning for the right to return. Their side, based in Crawley, has crowdfunded the trip to the tournament. Yet most of its members have never stepped foot on the islands they call home, and which they will now represent. Kurdistan’s efforts to establish an independent state have been well-highlighted, even more so given the last few years of conflict in the Middle East. The hosts too, broke away from Georgia in the 1990s and depend on the financial clout of Russia to prop up their government.

Despite that, Düerkop insists that the event is one which focuses on action on the pitch rather than off it. 

“Many of the nations are politically interested, but we are non-political,” he says. 

“Some of our members are less well-known in the modern world. They have been forgotten, excluded from the global community or simply are ‘unpopular’ for their political positions.

“We are humanitarians and the sides play football to show their existence – nothing more, nothing less.”

The unknown and almost novel status of the tournament flatters to deceive as Conifa’s world cup boasts a broadcast deal, two large stadiums and a plush opening ceremony. Its aim in the long run, however, is to develop into a global competition, and one which is content to sit below Fifa.

“We are happy to be the second biggest football organisation,” admits Düerkop.

“In the future we hope to have women’s and youth tournaments as well as futsal and beach soccer.”

“Our aim is to advertise the beauty and uniqueness of each nation.”

“But the most important purpose is to give those nations that are not members of the global football community a home.”

George Weah, the first African winner of Fifa World Player of the Year award remarked how “football gives a suffering people joy”.

And after speaking to Düerkop there’s certainly a feeling that for those on the game’s periphery, Conifa’s world cup has an allure which offers a shared sense of belonging.

It certainly seems light years away from the glitz and glamour of WAGs and corruption scandals. And that's because it is.

But maybe in a small way, this little-known tournament might restore some of beauty lost by the once “beautiful game”.