Every other summer, my life is dominated with one thing: football. No, not that one. Anyway, two summers ago was a long, hot haze of delirium that seemed to last forever as, in the 2018 World Cup, England reached the furthest stage in an international competition for almost two decades. 2020 should be different in all sorts of ways, but for one, the 16th European Championships should be taking place in a couple of days.
Instead, with the coronavirus pandemic making thousands of fans congregating together in stadiums impossible, Euro 2020 will kick off in July 2021, and football fans like me have been anxiously working out what to do to pass the football-free months. I’ve tried a few things, like FIFA and Football Manager. I’ve started following FM YouTubers more avidly, like Lollujo and DoctorBenjy FM. I’ve even re-watched classic matches in full, but it’s just not the same.
Even when the Premier League returns on June 17, it won’t be quite right either. As German and Korean football has proved in recent weeks, real football feels empty without the fans packing the rafters around them. Matches feel like training games with only the shouts of players and coaches piercing the disarming silence. It feels so unsettling that EA Sports has even helped UK broadcaster Sky Sports give fans the option to hear simulated crowd noise.
Nevertheless, with the sort-of return of real-life football only a week away, I’ve found my favourite football replacement: Euro 2020 in this year’s PES. The June 4 update that includes a bespoke cup and local match mode, the official trophy, match ball, and 55 licensed teams was delayed along with the real competition, but it’s the next-best thing after the virtual finals that took place a few weeks ago—especially when I make sure England win.
Although the Saint Petersburg ground is included, too, for me the standout feature of the free update is London’s Wembley Stadium. It’s without doubt the finest virtual stadium I’ve ever seen. The fact that Konami has managed to even capture a flicker of the atmosphere this magnificent arena generates is seriously impressive. And I’m qualified as a Portsmouth fan to say that: With three cup finals, and four semi finals played beneath the gargantuan white arch, half its 90-thousand capacity emblazoned in south-coast blue, it’s essentially a second home for us.
But enough bragging—especially before you take the time to look at Portsmouth’s lowly league position today. Jumping into a Euro 2020 local match, I had some scores to settle: Following our disastrous defeat to the international minnows in Euro 2016, I chose to play as England—naturally—against Iceland. After battering them 5-1, I promise I’m over it now.
I may only have the disquieting vibe of German football to compare with it recently, but even this virtual atmosphere is electric. A game or even a TV broadcast can never hope to match being physically amid the sheer scale and size of Wembley, but I can see myself defaulting to starting a new virtual cup when the ache of international football’s absence re-emerges.
Of course, playing a football tournament that’s been cancelled in real life is bittersweet. It’s fun to imagine what might’ve been, but there’s the nagging reminder that perhaps football may never look quite like this again. It’s a fantasy that feels like it’s slipping away. Konami has essentially captured a better alternative timeline, one in which the nations of Europe can forget everything else and unite behind their elite players, England bow out heartbroken or embarrassed—often both—and then I correct our national pain virtually. At least, as I make Wembley my second home once again, I can skip straight to an England triumph.