FIFA: A Love Story

Dennis Mugaa

The first time I knew my mother loved me was when she bought me a PlayStation 3. I was 13, and there could have been no other sign of love greater than this for me at the time. The console came with FIFA – my favourite game. It was the only thing I had asked of her from her trip to London. Since I was in my final year of primary school as a boarding scholar, I had to wait until she came to visit.

She came on Sports Day. We had just participated in athletics and swimming competitions. “Come! Kuja!” I dragged my best friend, Frank, to the car with me. The day was cold, sprinkled with an undecided sun. When we both saw the console and FIFA 08, which featured Wayne Rooney and Ronaldinho on the cover, we were delighted.

“Wow!” Frank said, slapping my back. I revelled in his admiration of me. I felt I had arrived. I had reached the pinnacle of existence. My life was complete. There was nothing I would ever need again.

I was introduced to gaming around the year 2002 or 2003 when a PlayStation One arrived at our house. I say “arrived” because up to this day, I do not know who brought it. Initially, I didn’t know what it was; my mother also didn’t know. And none of my relatives, the ones who lived with us or visited us at the time bothered with it. It was a grey console. The disc tray opened up and it had two buttons: a power button and an eject button. It came with one controller. It remained unused for some weeks until, one day, my mother’s friend visited. Her son showed me how to connect it to the television. By serendipity, the only game I had was Winning Eleven, a football simulation video game by Konami. After we played that day, I was smitten and I never looked back.

We lived in Meru then. Our house was a bungalow at the top of a small hill. We had two neighbours, but I was not allowed to visit either one. I did not understand why, finding it irrational. But I suppose my mother worried about my safety. Hence, I grew up without neighbourhood friends. Instead, my friends were confined to school. At home, I played with my two younger sisters and my mother’s youngest brother who we lived with. Before the console, we spent our days wrestling on the couch, running around the house, and at the end of the day, self-reporting our wrong-doings to our mother. After the console, I spent my days at home gaming. The first reason was that I felt a different world was made available to me. The second, much worse and more heartbreaking, was that my greatest friend, a delightful girl I had spent time with, moved to Nairobi. This was devastating, as devastating as it could be for an eight-year-old. We were the same age, able to keep up with each other, unlike my sisters who were younger and my uncle who, being older, saw us as babies. My friend had existed as a possibility for unforgettable adventures. Together, we raced against the wind and then drank copious amounts of water. After she left, I sulked for days. I waited for her since her mother told me they would be back, but it would be another 10 years before I heard from her.

From then on, I was only to be found in front of the television. Our sitting room was arranged with the furniture pointing towards a cathode ray television. The controller’s wires were short, so I sat on a stool in front of the television. When it was sunny, I didn’t open the curtains so that I wouldn’t see the imprint of the window grills on the screen. Winning Eleven had a gaming mode called “Master League”. In this mode, a gamer started with a fictional team of default players. They were below average and when you played with them, there was always a chance the opposition would sweep you away. Nowadays, I only remember two players from this team, the central-attacking-midfielder, Miranda, and the striker, Castolo. The more games you won, the more you could buy players of a higher calibre, players who were real. Often, the first players I bought were Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo Nazário. Because it involved playing several games to get through seasons and I didn’t have a memory card, I resorted to playing “Master League” on the weekends. On Fridays when I got home from school at 4pm, I would put on the PlayStation. And when I was sent off to bed, I would place a cloth or book over the green indicator to conceal its light. On Saturdays, I woke up early before anyone else and played for twelve hours with intermittent breaks for food, the bathroom, and a longer one to take a bath. Sunday mornings were the most heartbreaking – I had to go to the cathedral with my family.

Obviously, I was disagreeable to my family because I played on my own (I only had one controller).

“You spend too much time there!” my mother would scream. “Utaharibika macho!”

And when she despaired, she would say, “Nuarogerwe.”

“Wacha tuwatch TV!” my youngest sister would say. I’d refuse and this would be followed by raging arguments over television time and my selfishness.

Also my mother: “I should throw away that thing!”

Looking back now, all those accusations were true. Still, I regret nothing. It was different back then, we didn’t have an internet connection at home in the way we do now. We didn’t have personal laptops either; they were too expensive and there was a good chance we had not heard of them when I was eight, nine, or 10. Our only other source of electronic entertainment for us children was a desktop computer on which we could play Dave, Mario, or Prince.

I was also torn apart from the game by forces beyond my control. Sometimes, we had power cuts. Monday was the scheduled power cut for Meru, it was my “free” day during school holidays. On these days, I taught my sisters how to throw stones up onto the corrugated iron sheets which formed the roofing of our garage, and how to make helicopter propellers from dried maize husks. Sometimes we had guests at home. When they came, I avoided the sitting room. Instead, I often rode a bicycle. And when I got bored of bicycles in 2004, I spent this time skateboarding down the stairs. Miraculously, I never fell. But that is another story.

*

As time went by, so did the gaming technology. The year 2005 marked my separation from Winning Eleven. I acquired an X-box and FIFA 05, which had Thierry Henry on the cover. Unfortunately, the X-box got spoilt a year later, and I got the PlayStation 2. The advantage was that it was chipped therefore I didn’t have to spend a fortune on the original games. I could buy pirated games which were about a tenth of the price of the original. Apart from FIFA, I had other games too: Grand Theft Auto (with cheat codes written on sacred paper), Driver 3, Sly Cooper, and Need for Speed.

However, I played FIFA more. I suppose I did so because of the influence of football at the time. The English Premier League was huge, and so were other European Leagues – La Liga, Serie A, the Bundesliga, and Ligue 1. It was the time of the Invincibles. Ronaldinho played as if he were dancing samba across the field. At school, we talked about games, rivalries, and derbies as if they were happening in our neighbourhoods and not on a different continent. Everyone I knew supported a team, had players they liked, and had bought bootleg merchandise from the teams they supported. Furthermore, a song was made about Arsenal and Manchester United and it swept us away like a tsunami. I watched Galactik Football on scheduled programming. My childhood also coincided with the rise of Supa Strikas, a Pan-African comic book series whose superstar, Shakes Makena, we all wanted to be. In school, football was the most popular sport and when I joined boarding school at the age of 12, we played whenever we could. In Geography class, I knew answers to questions about cities in the world because of FIFA. It also happened that in the computer lab, someone had installed FIFA 02 on the computer farthest from the teacher. Therefore, when the bell rang for computer classes, it was always a race for who would sit there. Unfortunately, I only won this race once or twice before the game was ultimately discovered and uninstalled. Almost everyone played as Manchester United. There was a bug in the game where Dwight Yorke could score with a bicycle kick from midfield. FIFA allowed us to be the players of our dreams. We could be Zidane, Ronaldinho, or Cristiano Ronaldo. We tried what we saw on FIFA on the playground and what we did on the playground on FIFA.

The true magic of FIFA lay in its soundtrack. FIFA allowed for a custom version, but the original soundtrack was always better. The inbuilt music is forever interlinked with the game. I recall some with absolute clarity: Young Folks by Peter Bjorn and John, Fall into Place by Apartment, Kids by MGMT, and Mercy by Duffy. The soundtracks are merged with my memory of reaching home from school on the closing days, the morning light still soft and slightly cool. I would drop my bag on the couch, put on the game, and sit before the television. The sound of flash photography when making team selections would be accompanied by one of the songs. When the game started, I heard: This is Martin Tyler and Allan Smith. That really was true happiness.

It surprises me, even now, as to how meticulous I was in the maintenance of my console and games. From time to time, I dusted the console, the wires and the spaces near them. For the CDs, I cleaned the underneath with methylated spirit and cotton. And if I noticed a scratch on them, my heart raced anxiously, fearing the game would never be playable again.

When I was 11, I spent my August holidays with Frank. He lived in Thika, in a beautiful house with a compound which sloped down to a river. But this was not important, what was important was that Frank had FIFA 06, he had FIFA Street – a version that allowed for impressive skill move manoeuvres and five-a-side games. He had two controllers for multiplayer and…drumroll, please…he had a memory card! If at all Frank’s house was not yet heaven, it attained this status when I discovered that his parents allowed him and his elder brother to stay up for as long as they liked. We spent our August in multiplayer duels. Sometimes his numerous cousins came along and we set up tournaments. It was the perfect holiday. And when it came time for me to leave, Frank, his brother and I were on the verge of tears.

*

High school brought with it a variety of interests and distance which took me, in my first year of school, further and farther from FIFA. My high school was in Kikuyu, 230 kilometres from home. In addition, I obtained a deep interest in sports other than football, like basketball and swimming. Because I was in an all-boys boarding school, the sending and receiving of mail to and from girls was a rather prestigious and much-anticipated event. During school holidays, I sought out the best-looking writing pads, bought stamps from the post office, and then sold them at school. It was a mildly lucrative business in my first year, but it collapsed after three terms. Therefore, I only played FIFA on school holidays. In that year, I was able to buy FIFA 09. I realised that the entire gaming structure had changed. It had evolved. The field on-screen was greener, the players’ features had improved immensely and so my holidays were spent with time divided between swimming, basketball, FIFA and the library.

Our high school allowed us to leave school and go to Kikuyu town every weekend in the afternoon as long as one returned by 5.40pm. In the year that Spain won the World Cup, my friends and I discovered a PlayStation café in Kikuyu. The café was called Chronixx, and so was the owner. I suppose there was someone who mentioned his real name to me, but I only remember him now as Chronixx. While other people went to cyber cafes, restaurants, supermarkets and barbershops, my friend and I spent our money at Chronixx. We ate lunch with pace; five minutes and we were gone. We didn’t want anyone to reach there before us. When we climbed up the steps of the establishment to the café, we held our breath praying we were the first ones. Everyone we met spoke to us in Kikuyu, except for Chronixx who spoke to us in Swahili. But sometimes even he forgot we didn’t understand Kikuyu well, and I could tell he was deeply wounded when he had to translate. At one point, we were such frequent customers that Chronixx reserved seats for us in our favourite corner. A 12-minute game was 20 shillings per person. With 200 shillings we could stay for three hours.

One day, the deputy principal, a feared disciplinarian who carried a whip around, found out about Chronixx. It was scandalous! In the assembly grounds, he stood on the raised platform and said, “Those who are playing Black Box and football in Kikuyu town we know you and you will be punished! You are wasting your lives!” We thought he meant us. Luckily, the suspects he had in mind were well-known troublemakers – they had been to places of greater ill-repute illegally, but they had nothing to do with playing FIFA. The deputy principal promised to make a surprise appearance and apprehend the culprits he found. He never did. I suppose he forgot, but it was said afterwards that he had placed informants to tell him who went to Chronixx. But being recalcitrant teenagers, we ignored this warning and, two weeks later, we resumed playing FIFA.

I heard a story which was hard to believe, until I confirmed with further sources. Once, a classmate went to Chronixx and played “loser pay.” He ended up losing so many games and had to pay all of them. When it was time to return to school, he realised he had also used up his fare. It was 10 minutes before the gates closed. He chose to run the whole way back. He ran three kilometres in under ten minutes. Our classmates in the last matatu to leave Kikuyu were left bemused when they saw him run past a moving car!

Sadly, in our final year of school, Chronixx obtained a visa to go to the United States. He closed the PlayStation café, and we never heard from him again.

*

When I was 16, my friend Bushy invited me to play FIFA at his house during the two school term exeats we had. He also invited another friend of ours, an easy-going boy from a different stream. Bushy lived in Buruburu. On those exeat days, we rose early. The bus operators in Kikuyu town, being enterprising, made the trip to our school gate. By the time we finished reciting the school anthem, they would be lined up underneath the trees which lead to our school. I remember those mornings were cold, sometimes misty and they smelt of excitement. The fare was unbelievably low. I had never boarded matatus to the city centre in Nairobi (my mother would never let me). Our mutual friend did not live in Nairobi. Therefore, when we arrived at the Odeon bus stop, Bushy was our unofficial leader. We stood out in our olive-green sweaters and dark grey trousers. I was not used to the hustle of the city or its chaos. I was constantly afraid of being hit by passing cars. I was afraid someone would steal from me, even though I was a student and did not have much. I marvelled at how people moved in a hurry despite it being a Sunday. Conductors banged on the side of matatus and pushcarts passed on the wrong side of the road with grave indifference. At the station opposite the National Archives, we boarded the bus to Buruburu. Half an hour later, we roused Mama Bushy from sleep with our excitement for FIFA.

Mama Bushy was a gem. She always made more than enough food and spoke to me as if I were her son. In the late afternoon, she drove us back to school and gave me her phone to call my mother. As she drove us back, Bushy pointed at the places he would have liked to show us in Buruburu if we had more time.

I never considered there was a time I would stop playing FIFA. To us, FIFA was more than a game. It was how we formed bonds, how we related. One day, a friend asked me: “What do you think FIFA will be like in twenty years? In fifty years?”

“I don’t know, but we will be grandfathers who play FIFA.”

*

After high school, I spent days in PlayStation cafés in the city centre; I did not know what I was doing with my life. By then my family had moved to Nairobi. My friends and I went to these two gaming cafés: Tric and Space. They were far better than Chronixx. As you entered, the sounds of the streets disappeared. Life acquired nonchalance: the guards who let you in didn’t even mind if you signed in with false names. The cafés had comfortable couch seats, with each seat before a 42-inch television. On the walls were graffiti portraits of football players and posters of available games. Although the music was loud, it never seemed to be a distraction during a game. If you got hungry, you could buy hotdogs and soda. They also doubled as movie lounges selling bootleg DVDs which were hugely popular before streaming networks took over the market. In addition, the cafés organised FIFA tournaments where if you won, you walked away with 10,000 shillings; I entered one, but I didn’t win.

Some of my friends had girlfriends who accompanied us to the cafés – almost none of the girls liked FIFA. And so when they came, we often played Dance Central, a music rhythm game for Kinect. If you went in the morning, the café wasn’t as crowded. In the afternoon, the air was stale and sometimes had the smell of old socks. We played all day. When we left the café and walked into the night, it felt as though all the stars in Nairobi were aligned in a mystical way.

I met so many people during this time: new friends who were pursuing music without having studied it at school; a former classmate who left his empty bag in the luggage counter of a supermarket in the morning to pick it up in the evening because he thought it was street smart to do so; protesters who marched near Mama Ngina Street on the way to City Hall demonstrating against one thing or another; the police behind them with tear gas canisters; people who waited outside the supreme court to hear the results of the presidential petition; Inama bookshops selling books about prosperity and religion; preachers who randomly emerged in matatus and streets and said the end was near; and girls who skipped classes so that we could walk down the street beside Jamia Mosque to buy mabuyu. My world was expanding, even though my sensibility was still confined to relationships between boys and girls and FIFA, and what degree course I would choose to do.

There was an element of cool attached to the whole affair. In our late teens, we thought we were au fait about the world. We wanted to be seen. It was the first time we had untethered freedom. The first time we could legally drink and go to nightclubs. The first time we realised the lie of academics which said we would forever be segregated by our school grades. We searched for a way to belong to each other. And so in those days, we wore ripped jeans, shambalas and Vazzi T-shirts and sweatshirts. When we wore out from FIFA, we went to other places to be cool: Alliance Française for half-attended French classes, Zaitoon and Asmara for shisha, Kenya Cinema for ice cream, and Nakumatt Lifestyle for dates. We had a similar map of the city back then and these places formed the dioramas etched into our souls.

However, by the time I joined university, I was only a social gamer, even though FIFA continuously outdid itself year after year. My personal collection of video games was dwindling, and I had lost the urgency to keep up with yearly editions of FIFA. When we got home internet connection and FIFA incorporated an online gaming technology on PlayStation Network, I did not feel the urge to play. At first, I suppose it was because of the expense of it all. The gaming console was in the next generation with PlayStation 4. It was too expensive for me to buy it and being in university, I felt I was too old to ask my mother to buy it for me.

This was how I justified it to myself. Now I realise, this was not the whole truth. I rediscovered a repressed love for reading Literature. By the time I was in the final year of my Financial Economics degree, I read everywhere. I was reading in my free time. I was reading during class time. I was skipping class to read, and I was reading during the period meant for exam revision.

The substitution of one lover for another is a painful and emotionally violent process. It is not that I stopped loving FIFA, only that reading was more fulfilling. I sometimes went back to play, but always with a sense of guilt. Aside from a brief relapse during an exchange programme in Cairo, I never played FIFA for a full day ever again.

One day as we rearranged things around the house, I forgot to reconnect my console to the television. The power cable got lost. I promised myself that I would get another, but I forgot to do so. Days turned into weeks, then months and now, it has been years. My console now lies abandoned, gathering dust somewhere in the house. I lost the controllers and gave away some of the games to a more aspiring friend.

These days, I rarely go to gaming cafés. But when I walk through the streets I once frequented, nostalgia colours my thoughts. I always see my former self outside of me, transfigured, drifting through the streets with friends and then climbing up the steps to the café. I see that self too as it moves back through time to those cold mornings in Meru when I arrived home from school, dropped my bag on the couch and put on FIFA to the whistling prelude of Young Folks and the flash photography of team selection. And as the game started, I heard: This is Martin Tyler and Allan Smith.

Dennis Mugaa is a writer from Meru, Kenya. He has been a Black Warrior Review Fiction Contest finalist, shortlisted for the K & L Prize for African Literature and is a former Ebedi-fellow. His previous work has appeared or is forthcoming in Jalada and The Anthology of East African Literature.

 

*Image by Mòje Ikpeme