FIFA 46 Club: We Meet the Lowest-Rated Players on FIFA 18

Robert O'Connor@@hoovesonfireContributing Football WriterJuly 26, 2018

FILE - In this Aug. 22, 2017, file photo, visitors play the latest FIFA 18 soccer game from EA Sports at the Gamescom fair for computer games in Cologne, Germany. The NHL is making its first foray into the world of esports that follows the lead of the NBA, NFL and FIFA. The league is launching the 2018 NHL Gaming World Championship on Friday, March 9, 2018, a tournament that will crown a champion in June in Las Vegas. League officials and esports experts say it’s a way to attract millennials to hockey and to find new ways to connect with current fans. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File)
Martin Meissner/Associated Press

It's a fear known to every player who has kicked a ball around a playground: The ignominy of being picked last, to be judged among your peers to be bottom of the talent pool.

For some, that unique stress that they may be the worst of the worst, never leaves. Football is competition, not just between teams but among team-mates. Professional pride is beyond value, especially in an age of personal gongs where individualism so often trumps the collective ethic.

Statistics matter, too. The great reams of data collected and stored by everyone from fans to an increasingly militarized performance-analysis industry are the modern game's lifeblood, in this time of mass consumption and total exposure. There is no hiding place, not even for those in the lower reaches of professional football.

The current installment in the FIFA series from EA Sports has, as it does each year, thrown a clutch of players under the bus. For an unlucky few, the number assigned to their skills is as rock bottom as the game's matrix for assessing the global talent pool allows.

They are the 46 Club: a collection of players who share that number, the worst overall rating in the current edition of the game. And they have a story to tell.

"I love it, really," says Grimsby Town's wide-eyed winger Max Wright. "The stats are wrong and the player doesn't look like me. But I'm in a virtual reality game.

"People think I must be upset because I've got a poor rating, but I've been playing these games for as long as I can remember. All my friends play it. People are looking me up on Twitter. Even the young kids at Scarborough will come up to me and say 'I've played as you on FIFA.'"

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Still learning his trade, Wright spent the 2017/18 season on loan at Scarborough Town, where he held down a regular place as a pacey wide man.

"It's very cool. You cannot be unhappy with it," he adds. "There's a guy down at Scarborough, he must be 45 or 50. He's there every week. He's always updating me with how he's getting on with me on career mode."

Wright is insistent that, as far as EA's appraisal of his talent goes, the numbers don't add up. A lithe and nippy wide forward, he believes his strength statistics have been overstated by the game engine, but he tears strips off full-backs in the Northern Premier League (NPL) with his acceleration and speed. He can dribble at pace, beat players and knows the game with the positional nous of a much older player.  

"I'm only small, so I have to go into tackles with aggression or else I'm going to get hurt," he says. "My passing's OK, but it's maybe not as good as most players on FIFA, and my heading isn't a big part of my game as a winger so that's fair."

His father, Dean, who is his son's most vocal publicist and most thoughtful critic, is more of a cynic. "Some arbitrary numbers they have to apply to entry level players" is all he sees, certainly no kind of a metric for his boy's skill or character.

"In the real world, his job as a winger is retiring full-backs, which he's been doing all season," he says of his son. "That's the kid that actually does exist in reality, playing in men's football with opposition players spending the whole game saying they're going to break his legs. Then when they get taken off at half-time because he's destroyed yet another one, we love that. It's what we live for."

"You're gone if you're not good enough," adds Max. Though still only 20, he has battled more in two seasons than most players will in 10; four managers, two broken ankles, a serious concussion that left him hospitalised and a suspension for striking the ball into the face of a supporter.

He trains, runs and harries tirelessly for 46 weeks a year. He abides by a strict conditioning program and travels the length of the country, returning home at all hours, all to convince and then reconvince the club of his worth.

To even get near a pro contract at a club in the bottom third of League Two takes guts. Despite what his FIFA card and some keyboard warriors might tell you, Wright has plenty.

Last year, he received a message from a FIFA fan in Norway on Twitter, out of the blue: "It just said ‘You and your mate Harry are s--t.'"

The Harry in question is Harry Clifton. With 10 appearances in League Two, this has been Clifton's breakthrough season at Grimsby. He lives only a mile apart from close friend and team-mate Wright. Yet among the near-20,000 players on FIFA 18, they share that iconic 46 rating.

Like Wright, he's Grimsby to the bone, a one-club player throughout his youth. He impressed the management enough to nail down a first professional contract at 17, skipping ahead from what should have been a second year as an apprentice.

Of the looming 46 that annotates his career, the 20-year-old striker is able to see the funny side. He says: "To be on a massive game like this, one that I've played since I was a child, it's overwhelming. For me, it's something to really be proud of.

"The developers haven't seen us play. They go down the league and look at a newly promoted team, and that's what they've come up with. You don't take it too literally, you just accept that they're trying to model the lower leagues, and so there's less detail gone into down there.

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"I don't think anybody on the game has been too worried about making out stats too accurate. They got my date of birth correct though so that's good."

It would be natural to assume Clifton's guess is correct, that the developers whip up their figures for the Football League's basement clubs via a wild stab in the dark.

Discouragingly for the 46 Club, someone has been paying more attention than some realise.

According to EA Sports developer Michael Mueller-Moehringwhose unenviable task it was to head up the assessment of all 18,000-plus players featured on FIFAa network of some 9,000 reviewers, including talent scouts and season-ticket holders, relay their opinions of each player back to EA's central data pool.

Next, 300 data editors collate this information into 300 different data pools, from which the game's 35 attribute categories are derived.

This "eye test" trumps what is available in hard data, simply because of the vast range of players recreated in the FIFA world. It also means that, for Clifton, Wright and any other player who takes umbrage with their score, there is no hiding place.

"If Messi were playing in the Irish League, his attributes would drop simply because he's not on the highest level anymore," Mueller-Moehring told Austin Lindberg of ESPN FC in 2016.

A player in League Two therefore is unlikely to exceed a certain attribute ceiling. There is also no metric for physical attributes since, as Mueller-Moehring concedes, "There are fast and strong players in every league in the world."

Something then for Wright and Clifton to throw at those YouTubers who spend their time mocking up videos of the worst teams that the game offers. It's a world neither player much understands.

For a youngster who has never strayed particularly far from his Cleethorpes home, the international attention doesn't sit too easily on Clifton's shoulders.  

"I've had three messages from people abroad about this," he says. "All three of them were commenting on how bad I was on the game. They've obviously looked up my name on social media and matched up the face with mine from the game to check that it's me. It's funny, I suppose, isn't it?"

Though he doesn't get carried away, there's a celebrity element that comes with the quirk of being one of FIFA 18's lowest-rated players which has left Wright and his family both puzzled and amused.

ESports and cyber-fame go arm-in-arm, increasingly so in a culture where different digital platforms are becoming ever more joined up. 

MattHDGamer, a popular YouTube with over 2 million subscribers, produced a video featuring Wright and Clifton dedicated to the "worst" team of FIFA 17 (their ratings were one notch lower at 45 in that edition). It has been viewed and commented on the world over by a huge audience.

"People are watching that video thinking 'this bunch must be terrible,'" says Wright. "I used to watch this guy's YouTube channel when I was a kid. Now he's using my name on here and all these people are thinking I'm terrible. But none of them have ever played football. A guy with millions of hits has set this up. It's bizarre." 

For some in the FIFA 46 Club, their moment in the spotlight has come at the end of their journey.

Barry Richardson was 48 when he called time on his playing career in December 2017, at the end of four years spent helping long-time friend Gareth Ainsworth run League Two side Wycombe Wanderers.

During that time, he played his final 90 minutes of professional football at the age of 46, the same number as his FIFA 18 rating. Today he looks after the goalkeepers at Hull City, but since he began the season still on Wycombe's books, he still shows up on the EA Sports roster.

His connection to the franchise is a colourful one.

While playing for Doncaster Rovers in 2003, he was approached by his former coach at Sunderland, Chris McMenemy—the son of Southampton's 1976 FA Cup-winning manager, Lawriewith a proposition.

McMenemy's brother ran a commercial company in London that had won the contract to provide the publicity for that year's edition of the EA simulation.

"We'd been knocked out of the cup so I had a free weekend," recalls Richardson of a surreal few days a decade-and-a-half ago. "Chris called me up and said, 'Look, I've been let down badly by someone. If you can get a few days off, would you come over to Spain with us for a shoot?'"

That "someone" was a young Iker Casillas, and the shoot was for the primary marketing material for the FIFA launch. For the next three days, Richardson shared a pitch with Steve McManaman, John Barnes and Roberto Carlos, facing free-kicks and penalties from world's most celebrated football personalities as the global press corps looked on.

"It was for all the EA Sports marketing material. I did a lot of training and coaching for the world media that came over. It was all done at Real Madrid's training ground," Richardson says.

Doncaster Rovers, it was not.

It seems a great quirk of fate that a few years after sharing a pitch with the cream of Real Madrid's Galacticos to promote the FIFA brand, he now registers the lowest rating of any player in the game.

"I knew I had one of the lowest," Richardson says. "It's funny because I've spent the last few years playing with Ade Akinfenwa, and he's obviously one of the highest in the lower leagues.

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"I've got about 400 Spanish guys who follow me and do YouTube videos, and they always stick me up front. They've got me scoring wonder goals and all sorts. They're always sending me tweets and asking for retweets. It's all very strange to me.

"[As a goalkeeper] you have to multitask. You have to be good with your feet, be able to catch, be able to communicate. But when it comes to playing these simulations, I just cannot do it. I can't look at the screen and move my fingers and thumbs at the same time."

Richardson is now a low-key, family man. He enjoys a quiet life after playing football for over 25 years, not for the notoriety, but for the game itself. It was the balancing act between those twin pillars that possessed him to spend four years commuting six hours a day between his family in Lincoln and work at Wycombe.

As far as retirement is concerned, he says: "I never really announced I'd retired. I mean, who'd be interested?"

Richardson probably won't be in the next edition of the game, while Wright and Clifton can dream of a ratings boost in future years depending on how their careers develop.

No matter what happens, though, just getting in the gameeven as a member of the 46 Clubensures a kind of immortality.

As Clifton reflects: "I've bought the game, so even if my career doesn't pan out the way I'd planned, that's something I'll always be able to keep.

"Something to show my grandkids."

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