Mundial FIFA Lockdown League: Nothing Can Stop Wabhi Khazri

Wabhi Khazri joined AS Saint-Étienne in 2018 from Sunderland. Photo source: AS Saint-Étienne

Words: Brady Frost

Photos: AS Saint-Étienne

Friday 10th April 4:30pm. I’m sat in a Zoom call sorting my handover, I’ve just been furloughed.

Friday 10th April 4:46pm. The MUNDIAL Magazine FIFA Lockdown League email pings into my inbox.

FIFA has been in my life ever since the first Christmas following my parent’s divorce when, perhaps as a consequence, I received the greatest present of all time. A PS2, with Simpsons Road Rage and FIFA 2002. I still remember opening the wrapping paper to see Thierry Henry in his baggy Arsenal shirt. I was hooked and have been ever since, spending hours of my time through school, university and work, mashing buttons to replace my lack of physical prowess with virtual success on the pitch.

The thing is, to this day I don’t know if I’m any good or not. My time is spent against the Computer’s difficulty, not Ultimate Team sides called ‘Inter Mi Nan’, so matches against people don’t happen for me too often. There are two main camps of FIFA, those who play Career Mode and those who play exclusively online. My bridges were burned with UT long ago, after too many thrashings from people who relied on Gabby Agbonlahor and Ashley Young outrunning any other virtual human in close proximity. I’m a Career Moder, preferring to take teams like Forest Green Rovers from League Two obscurity to Champions League nights against Lokomotiv Moscow and creating new legends, Ianis Hagi, I’m talking about you.

The Draw

My phone pings. ‘James @ MUNDIAL LOCKDOWN LEAGUE’. The draw for teams is being made today. 54 participants, five leagues, all four-star rated teams.

Another ping. ‘Teams and leagues are about to be unveiled, containing each person in that league’s gamertag and phone number.’ The FIFA gods (or James) bestow upon me AS Saint-Étienne. A team where if you google the words, ‘Saint Etienne,’ the first result is for the 90s London band of the same name. This doesn’t bode well but I do discover Nothing Can Stop Us, a great listen and the anthem that will surely rock us to victory. On closer inspection, it turns out Les Verts ‘The Greens’ have become a tribute to former mid-table Premier League sides. Mathieu Debuchy, Yohan Cabaye and Wabhi Khazri all start regularly for the side, proving that there’s something about ex-Newcastle and Sunderland players that the French team just can’t resist. The first match begins.

Day 1 (Saturday)

ASSE 2–4 West Ham

34-year-old Mathieu Debuchy is no match for West Ham winger Felipe Anderson, who exposes the Frenchman’s lack of pace in such critical fashion that I dread to think what Graeme Souness would say if Paul Pogba had put in that performance. Wabhi Khazri scores his first goals for the club, but it’s nothing more than a consolation in what was a spirited away performance from The Irons.

West Ham manager Alex admits he was feeling ‘ridiculously nervous about today’ and I agree. Although nerves didn’t get the better of him or Felipe, and so it’s a farewell to Mathieu in the Starting XI.

Day 2 (Sunday)

Wolves 6–3 ASSE

Another day, another Alex and another loss. In a cracking match at the Molineux, Raúl Jiménez dominated the ASSE defence so effectively that they’re still thinking about it back on the flight back to France. Despite ASSE taking an early 1–0 lead, they soon found themselves 5–1 down. Wolves’ Mexican striker proved unstoppable and Adama Traoré showed why he’s been linked with a move back to Barcelona. Two strikes against the post after getting it back to 5–3 offered hope for The Greens as they pushed for a comeback, but Raúl’s goal in the third minute of injury time rubs salt into the wound. Maybe I’m not good at FIFA.

Day 3 (Monday)

As Monaco 2–0 ASSE

I’m stuck in some horrible Groundhog Day nightmare. I’ve suffered defeat to another person called Alex, and this one was hard to stomach. Marred by connection issues, and conceding two sloppy goals, I’ve gone full Gattuso v Joe Jordan. I’m looking to take my frustration out on something, someone, Yohan Cabaye is my target. I’m not proud of it, and my misery is compounded further when during my expletive-laden rant towards Yohan, my girlfriend leaves the room with the line ‘well, this is unattractive.’ Yohan, if you’re reading this I’d like to apologise. It’s not your fault that Stevan Jovetić made you look a fool, the only fool here is me.

Three losses in a row and it appears I’m not the only one frustrated with their FIFA ability. A WhatsApp message pings, the Mainz 05 manager pops up. “Lads. I’m going to be the first to ask. I got to change this team. They’re the worst-rated 4* on the game and it’s frankly pointless.” I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t feel the same, I’m bitter, but you’ve got to style it out. Asking to change your team is like when your mate insists you give them the difference in change, because your pint in their round was more expensive. That said, I wait eagerly for the response.

WhatsApp Admin, James: ‘No swapping until the season is done.’

God, I hate playing FIFA online.

Day 4 (Tuesday)

RC Celta de Vigo P — P ASSE

Match postponed

The match is abandoned, the EA servers are down and no-one can get online today. Time for some revision. With growing desperation, I research FIFA tips online, real-life manager tactics and quotes, looking for something, anything, to inspire me. I look at interviews with Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp but it doesn’t come anywhere close to the advice I get from Tom, who I used to play five-a-side with down at Soccer City. “If someone is tricky and can do skill moves, don’t put in a tackle, stand off them. They won’t know what to do.” Sorry, Pep and Jurgen, Tom’s got a point.

Day 5 (Wednesday)

ASSE 1–1 RC Celta de Vigo

Can I just shock you? I like playing FIFA online, despite what I said earlier. My new formation 4–2–3–1, offered better attacking options. With Khazri in the CAM role pulling the strings, it was Les Verts at their finest. We’re tied 1–1 and in the 82nd minute, I win a stonewall penalty. Wabhi steps up. A seasoned UT friend once told me: ‘There’s a trick in FIFA to guess which way someone is going to go for a penalty. Watch their head, it looks in the direction they’ll shoot. I’m telling you mate.’

The run-up feels like an eternity, thoughts racing through my head. I opt for a shot hard and to the left. It’s the wrong decision, the ‘keeper pushes it out for a corner. Oh, Wabhi mate. Still, I’ve got a point on the board, things are looking up.

Day 6 (Thursday)

Getafe 4–1 ASSE

Things are not looking up. My phone pings, it’s that name again. These leagues must be ordered alphabetically, maybe if I was called Zack then I wouldn’t be in this mess. Three losses to Alex’s and now you can make that four.

My 4–2–3–1 formation and advice from Tom restricts him to five shots on target. He scores four goals. I dominated possession, but with a brother who supports Arsenal, I can assure you that dominating possession means nothing. Diony gets the consolation.

He messages me straight away to say it was a good match and a flattering scoreline. I’m still irked by his over-the-top skill moves when he’s 4–1 up though, so how do I reply? Like a 13-year-old child angry at losing a video game, or a 25-year-old child angry at losing a video game? ‘Cheers mate, you too.’ I reply through gritted teeth.

My phone pings, it’s a tweet my girlfriend has sent me. ‘If you think girls are dramatic, you’ve never seen a guy lose in a video game.’

Day 7 (Friday)

ASSE 7–2 Galatasary

Based on previous performances, you’d think I’d be bottom of the league, but no. AS Saint-Étienne are being propped up by Galatasary in 10th place. This makes today a huge six-pointer and will no doubt decide who finishes last in our division…

I’ve not practised. I feel the same nerves normally reserved for watching my team Huddersfield, as we look to avoid doing a Sunderland of back-to-back relegations.

GOAL. ASSE.

5’ A Nordin. Arnaud! I’ve taken an early lead. Let’s keep a cool head though, I scored first against Wolves and look what happened.

GOAL. ASSE.

13’ W Khazri. Oh god. 2–0 up. This hasn’t happened before. Come on Les Verts, you can do this.

GOAL. Galatasary.

17’ S. Feghouli. Bollocks. My hands begin to sweat…

GOAL. ASSE.

22’ W Khazri. Oh, Wabhi. My sweet, sweet, Tunisian prince.

GOAL. Galatasary.

24’ Falcao. He’s back in it with a classic finish from El Tigre.

HALFTIME. ASSE 3 -2 Galatasary. Half-time team talk. “Don’t get complacent, things can turn around very quickly in football, keep focused.” The squad seems impressed by my blindingly obvious statement.

GOAL. ASSE.

59’ A Nordin. My inspirational words of wisdom are working, the likes of which have not been heard since the 1992 classic, The Mighty Ducks.

GOAL. ASSE.

66’ W Khazri. HAT-TRICK! Even I can’t mess this up, surely?

GOAL. ASSE.

72’ W Khazri. It’s Khazri’s world and we’re all living in it.

GOAL. ASSE.

77’ L. Diony.

Cometh the hour, cometh Wahbi Khazri. Four goals and an assist. 18 shots, 11 on target, 7–2. This is wonderful. Should I check eBay for a Saint-Étienne shirt? Hang on though. I’ve got to message the guy. Just remember how you felt after all those losses. I steal a line from a fellow manager. ‘Good game mate, the scoreline was flattering to be honest.’ It wasn’t. 7–2’s a battering. I ran riot second half. The scenes.

He’s typing…

‘God, bring on next season 😂

‘Well in though mate’

I post the result in the group WhatsApp. He adds ‘Falcao needs the sack. I pray next season my CF has more than 68 pace.’ I can gloat, just a little right? As a treat? ‘Four goals for Wabhi Khazri, the only bright light in my team.” Another person replies. ‘A Sunderland legend. Big Sam had him playing like Payet.” The love for Khazri is strong.

It’s Friday night, I’ve finally beaten someone. The sun is shining. Life is good.

Day 8 (Saturday)

TSG Hoffenheim 2–0 ASSE

Hoffenheim are top of the league going into this game. It’s a free hit. I start well, have a few chances. Then BAM! His player slides straight into the back of mine. Red card. Definite red. My heart soars, it’s game on. I get to half-time, 0–0. Is it looking up? No.

Three minutes of carnage, two goals for him. In the 56th minute, my Debuchy replacement, Sergi Palencia has let me down. After initially intercepting, he passes straight to Brenet who is now one-on-one with the ‘keeper. He chips Stéphane Ruffier and scores.

It’s the 59th minute when he scores his second. My centre back William Saliba has just been sold by Andrej Kramaric. He’s fallen for a fake shot dummy, and before you know it, another chip over Ruffier’s head. It’s panic buying toilet roll sold. Messaging those hot, young women in your area sold. It’s Britney’s 100m world record sold.

Painful to watch, but considering this Hoffenheim team are running rampant, it could have been a lot worse.

Day 9 (Sunday)

Torino 2–0 ASSE

There are three types of FIFA players. Those who can’t do skill moves, those who can, and those who use 30-year-old Torino centre back Nicolas Nkoulou (who is under no pressure), to perform three stepovers in a row to waste time. There’s a separate circle of hell for the latter.

I lack the ability to do skill moves and that’s fine. If you can mash a controller stick and come out with a perfectly executed Cruyff turn then bloody well done. Maybe I’m a sore loser (seems unlikely but I’m willing to admit it’s a possibility) but there’s a way to execute skill moves. Initially, I took the lead, only to be crushed by a cruelly disallowed goal. I finish the match with no shots on target.

Five hours after our match I receive a message from the Torino manager. It’s a video of a photoshopped face over Stone Cold Steve Austin walking into the ring. I have no idea what it means. Is it his face? Why has he sent it? To taunt me further? I don’t reply but cannot stop thinking about it, it haunts me. I imagine myself as a withered old man lying in bed in a cold sweat, years from now still wondering what the hell this meant. I finally message him.

His response ‘LMFAO it’s not meant for you mate’

… I suspect this is a lie. Also, I have been bested by someone who says LMFAO. This is a low.

Day 10 (Monday)

Granada CF 5–0 ASSE

I’ve got the absolute banger I discovered earlier this week from Saint Etienne blasting on Spotify. I sit down for the last game of the season. Right, let’s just go for it. Blaze of glory. Nothing Can Stop Us.

I throw caution to the wind. 3–5–2. Two strikers. It’s game time.

1–0 to Mundial Commissioning Editor, Sam Diss.

‘I was tired, in love like a fool

But I know it’s gonna work out fine, yeah’

2–0.

‘I’ve never felt so good

I’ve never felt so strong’

3–0. Back to 4–2–3–1, this isn’t working.

‘Nothing can stop us now

No, no’

4–0.

‘I’ve heard some people say

So wrong, oh, so wrong’

5–0.

It’s over. Sam’s the only person who celebrated his goals against me too. No skipping the celebrations, just two arms spread wide running down to the corner flag. For. Every. Single. Goal.

A message from Sam. ‘Took me until literally the last game of the season to work out my Granada game plan.’ Despite the growing realisation that I am just not that good at this, my kneejerk reaction is to play another. Sam accepts but asks if we want to use different teams, my response, ‘No I will die with this ASSE team.’ Still not sure why I said that. I lose again, this time 3–1.

Final Standings

My league, Division One was tied going into the final game, with Wolves and Hoffenheim both on 22 points. The game was streamed on Twitch and was a cracker with Hoffenheim taking the title with a resounding 2–0 victory. My loss on Saturday doesn’t look so bad now.

My league position? 9th place. Relegated. Played nine. Won one. Drawn one. Lost seven. Goals scored, 14. Goals against, 28. Goal difference, -14. Ouch.

What did I learn? In short, I’m not good at FIFA. I think I’ll always have a special place in my heart for AS Saint-Étienne, and of course Wabhi Khazri. My only win brought me the same ecstatic feeling I felt seeing Thierry on the cover of FIFA 2002 all those years ago. Claude Puel may be the real manager, but we all know who the team really belongs to.

The second season is starting soon. A new start, and new teams. Am I going to get involved? Absolutely. Allons-y!

Writer and podcaster, based in Leeds.

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