After Wendell Silva Lira quit a career as a professional footballer to pick up the FIFA controller and compete electronically, Lee Davy wonders if there will be a day when eSports replaces physical sports. I am 10-years old and bored. I love football but don’t own a football. My parents can’t afford one. I roll up a pair of socks. The kitchen door is one goal. The front door is another goal. The hallway is Old Trafford. My 8-year old sister is the opposition. “Can we stop playing?” Moans my sister as I score my 10th goal without reply. “No.” “But it’s annoying.” She starts to cry. 30-years later and I am in the changing room as Aberkenfig U16s prepare to take on Bridgend. The coach is going to be late. I am in charge. I stand in the middle, observing. Things have changed since my day. None of them have played football with a pair of rolled up socks. They have never had to use books as shin pads. They have never seen a black pair of football boots. There is a debate between who should play CAM. They are talking about the EPL. “Who watched Match of the Day on Saturday night?” Nobody. I would have quit masturbating to be allowed to watch Match of the Day when I was a kid. It’s not that the kids aren’t allowed to stay up that late. They never sleep. But they aren’t watching Wayne Rooney smashing the ball into the back of the net on Match of the Day. They are controlling him as he does the same on FIFA 2016 on the PlayStation. My son knows more about football than I do, and yet he doesn’t watch football live or on TV. He doesn’t even have the patience to watch Match of the Day where all the boringness vanishes to leave bite size chunks of goodness. “It’s annoying.” He regularly tells me. And it’s this change in the way that our children view entertainment that leads me to believe the media moguls in sport are asking the wrong question. We shouldn’t be questioning if eSports is a legitimate sport. We should be questioning how long it will be before eSports replaces physical games. And before you think I am getting carried away because I watched Star Trek the other night, consider this little tale. Wendell Silva Lira was born in Goiânia, the capital of the Brazilian state of Goiâs. He loved football as a kid. But unlike me, rolled up socks wasn’t needed. He enjoyed kicking the real thing about the park with his mates, and he also enjoyed busting out the PlayStation controller for a spot of FIFA. He started playing youth football for Goiâs in 2006 before eventually joining the Senior squad a year later. He played 21 times, scoring two goals. Fortaleza took him on loan then Atletico Sorocaba, then Trindade, before finding his way to Goiânesia in 2013. He was hardly Pele, but he was doing what he loved both on and off the pitch. He loved his football physically and electronically. Like all young lads who choose the game as their religion, he couldn’t wait to one day take charge of his personal avatar on FIFA competing alongside the likes of Lionel Messi. And then in 2015 something special happened. He won the FIFA Puskás Award for scoring the ‘most beautiful’ goal of the year, beating Lionel Messi in a heads-up battle. Check it out. Lira received his award at the Ballon d’Or ceremony. He got to meet Lionel Messi. And then, as the melee of the awards ceremony subsided, he sat down to compete against the FIFA World Interactive Champion, Abdulaziz Alshehri, in a game of FIFA and thrashed him 6-1. It seems the young Brazilian had the world at his feet and his fingertips. And then disaster struck. Crippled by injuries, Lira only started four games for Vila Nova, the club who signed him on the back of that wonder goal. He was 27-years of age. A few days ago, he announced his retirement from professional football. He threw his kit bag in the trash. He had a different vision. He would start a YouTube channel, become a professional video gamer, and would one day win the FIFA World Interactive Championships. “I have always had football in my life,” Lira told Globo TV, “but before that I had video games.” And here’s the rub. Electronic gadgetry has replaced the football, tennis ball, and hockey puck. It’s more immersive, more entertaining, and provides more emotional feedback. As my son grew up in this environment, the elders would mock him for being antisocial. “You need to get out more son.” And yet playing FIFA online, for some children, is more of a social experience than playing down the park. It also levels the playing field. Those less physically capable of advancing in the game played between jumpers for goal posts, can now become the Lionel Messi of the electronic world. And I don’t see this ending. As parents, we are also thrust into the world of never ending instant gratification. Our choices of careers are evolving. For some of us, work never ends. Allowing your children to play video games all day is a respite. And it’s this combination of factors that will eventually lead to a future where kicking a football around a park seems archaic and insane. As I looked around that changing room I was confident had I given them the choice of playing physical football, or electronic football, they would have chosen the latter. My son has a few tricks up his sleeve, and he learned them all playing FIFA. The professional clubs know this. It won’t be long before Lira is a successful FIFA professional. He has a great story. An eSports team will sign him, and I guarantee you that it will be a team controlled by one of the biggest football teams in the world. As a child, Lira always dreamed of one day playing for a Barcelona or a Real Madrid, and I think he will get his wish without ever kicking a ball for either side.
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