Soccer connects people on a global scale, but when you play FIFA, it's easy to only use your favourite teams. As a Mexican from Chicago, my allegiances lie with Liga MX and MLS, respectively, with some UK Premier League thrown in. Lately, though, I've found myself largely playing with obscure teams, and it's made my FIFA experience so much better.
That's the beauty of FIFA: the glory of scoring a goal transcends everything else. When I play as Iceland's National Team and the goalie, Hannes Þór Halldórsson, leaps into the air for a game-saving stop I feel just as excited as when Guillermo Ochoa, the goalie for Mexico's National Team, makes a save in real life. For a moment I am Iceland.
Seeking to expand and further explore that fandom, I've been organising elaborate tournaments that help me appreciate the 700+ team FIFA roster.
These FIFA tournaments started because of karma. My brother is six years older than me and, in 2003, I pestered him endlessly about Super Smash Bros Melee and Mario Party 4. I asked him to play Smash or Mario Party with me literally every single day back then.
I've even re-discovered that my diary from that time had a signature sign-off that read, "gotta go, gonna ask Edwin to play Smash or Mario Party." Together, we memorised each Mario Party mini game and regularly did tournaments of Smash 64 without CPUs. It was wild.
In 2016, the tables turned. My brother fell in love with FIFA while I was floundering to make accurate passes, let alone score. I liked the game too, but not like him. Now he was the one pestering me about video games. I realised it was time to repay my gaming debt.
I was willing to put in the time, but I didn't like the stress of being nagged about when we'd play next. So, I came up with up with the idea of scheduled FIFA tournaments, which could give our matches some structure and meaning.
These tournaments meant everything was set: our matches were on Thursday and Saturday, the days that worked best for both of us. The teams had already been drawn. And after each tournament we'd take about a month off from playing each other. My brother, Edwin, was on board with the idea from the start but like any tournament, it needed parameters.
Some parameters were logistical, such as how to deal with a tied match. Penalty kicks felt too dependable on luck, so we decided that ties would be settled by restarting matches and seeing who scored first. Other parameters were more big picture, like having to play with leagues from around the world, or having to pick a theme.
For our first region-based tournament, we settled on Germany's Bundesliga, a great league that isn't nearly as popular as the UK's Premier League, or Spain's La Liga.
99 Luft Balloons
We threaded the theme of Germany and Bundesliga throughout the entire proceedings. Aside from using different leagues each tournament, we wanted each competition have its own "feel." We started with the bracket board itself, which featured the colours of the German flag:
During competition, we'd play German music over the muted audio. As Latinos, German music wasn't exactly our forte, but Spotify came to the rescue with a wide range of tunes, from folk to German house music.
We named the cup 99 Luft Balloons (99 Red Balloons) in honour of the hit 80's song from West Germany, which also found commercial success in the states. We're also big Scrubs fans and couldn't help but think of JD's fantasy of cheering up his German patient by bonding over this song:
As we continued to play, the skill gap between me and my brother started to close. It came down to Colone vs Hannover, a match that ended up tied at 0-0. We settled it over a golden goal. All of this culminated to the final match which featured a German beer (Ayinger's Bavarian Pilsner) and two dozen red balloons in our living room. Party City, sadly, did not have enough packets to blow up 99 balloons - but we made the most of it.
FIFA 17 added Japan to its roster, so naturally, the J-League fuelled one of our tournaments. For this one, we adorned our white poster board with a red circle in the center, making the entire board the Japanese flag. We dubbed it the Maneki-Neko Cup, for which we even bought a Maneki-Neko ("Lucky Cat") as mascot for the tournament.
This competition was probably my favourite: we played J-pop playlists some bubble gum synth by and some fast-paced guitar riffs from Yui Suzuki.
There were a lot of close games during this cup, plenty of fouls, and many instances of teams scoring on the 90th minute of the match. I still can't process how the match between Gamba Osaka and Urawa Reds tied 0-0, causing us to play an extra golden goal game that also resulted in 0-0. And then it happened again. And again. Talk about defence!
From the official site: "The tail of the squirrel stands upright to symbolise a formidable defence as well as balance."
The other stand-out memory from that tournament was a team named Omiya Ardija. I remember Cauê Cecilio da Silva, a Brazilian central midfielder who went from bench warmer to a a star player in every single game. And I'll never forget how Nobuhiro Kato consistently held it down as our goalie. I loved everything about that team: the speed and chemistry amongst the players, the strong defence, the vibrant colours of the jerseys. Best of all, they wore this logo.
My brother and I would refer to them as "the squirrels." I'm still heartbroken that they didn't win the whole thing, but I still love what they represented. I'm a first-generation Mexican American from Chicago, and here suddenly I was becoming a J-League fan.
That fandom is as random as it gets - and my love for it only blossomed thanks to FIFA. Without the game, even discovering Omiya seems impossible. I'd have to navigate a language barrier, find streams, and account for the time difference.
I've loved the experience so much that we've had all sorts of tournaments over the years. The Luxury Cup, for example, featured teams that had the biggest budgets and a playlist of baller rap songs (think Cash Machine by D.R.A.M.) For the final we drank from champagne glasses and wore our most expensive outfits.
The Started From The Bottom Cup featured teams that recently got promoted to the first division, so we blasted songs about coming up. At the end, we closed the tournament by playing a match in our graduation robes.
Another FIFA tournament, "Bitch Planet," only featured women's teams and music entertainers. The name hails straight from Kelly Sue Deconnick's feminist, dystopian, sci-fi comic in which "non-compliant" women are sent to an off-planet prison. We've done this tournament more than once, and it's become one of my favourite FIFA traditions thanks to how much it pushed me out of my comfort zone.
Like many soccer fans, I've been guilty of mostly focusing on the men's teams. I hate to admit it, but I rarely watched women's games even though the best Chicago and US soccer exists in the women's leagues.
Accordingly, our all women tournaments are aggressive and competitive.
Actually, Bitch Planet 2 was the first tournament I ever won - but it wasn't easy. I remember Edwin told me, "You probably thought I was lying but I wanted you to win almost as much as you wanted to win. But I had to give you my best."
For my brother, the tournaments are more than just appreciating more teams. He takes great pleasure are the smaller details. "What's so beautiful about FIFA and the sport, in general, is when you love soccer you love the moments," Edwin, my brother, told me.
"People are always asking "how do you still play [FIFA] it's [always] the same game?" I've watched soccer since I was 9, I've been playing FIFA for a few years, and you'd think I must've seen it all by now. But almost every single time I play I see something I haven't seen before."
What I love more than the competition is being excessive and over-the-top. For me, it's about designing all the nerdy nuances, making lasting memories, and playing with teams I wouldn't normally play with. What started out as a way to organise our matches became a way for us to expand our horizons, not just as soccer fans, but as citizens of the world.
As a result, with each annual release, I now find myself looking not just for improvements, but also inclusion, and more chances to get to know leagues I otherwise wouldn't.