At approximately 11 a.m. this morning, I caved. After years of denial, dismissal and stubborn refusal, I stopped fighting what I thought was the good fight and picked up the controller.

I finally played FIFA for the first time.

See, I’ve been an unapologetic Madden apologist since EA Sports ran my beloved NFL 2K series off the market. Nothing gets me more pumped — especially this time of year — than firing up the Xbox for a game. While everyone around me switched footballs over the last few years, I held firm. When someone would throw down a challenge, I would paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld: “I choose not to play.”

But I found myself in a shrinking minority. FIFA ’12 sold 10 million copies. Madden ’12 sold 5 million. The global impact of soccer across the world can’t be overstated, but soccer is already the second-most popular sport in this country for kids and adults 12-24. The success of the American womens’ soccer team in international play is genuinely compelling, and let’s face it: Despite the clichés, it’s exciting. The underdog wins 45 percent of the time. All of that adds to FIFA’s appeal.

“It’s a well-crafted game, to begin with,” said Jay Hanewald, University student and FIFA fan. “But, on top of that, it’s very free flowing. Unlike Madden, the action only breaks for a few seconds for throw-ins and set kicks. Also, there is a lot of depth. Tons of leagues, tons of game modes.”

The current iteration of Madden, with Calvin Johnson on the cover and doomed to suffer The Madden Curse (man, that’s a whole different column, right there), has a much-hyped physics engine that promises no two tackles will be the same. But in my experience with it, even though it feels more polished and sleek, there have been the obligatory glitches in collisions. It’s a great game, but it’s not revolutionary. And it’s fueled by football’s enormous American popularity. Can soccer ever compete with America’s Big Four sports?

“Hockey is the closest target,” Hanewald said. “The English league could work great as a one-a-week on Saturday and Sunday morning because it’s a good time-filler before the NFL or college football. But the MLS is going to struggle to make in-roads because it’s postseason occurs right in the heart of the football schedule. Without a regular cable or network showcase, MLS is going to struggle to make it big. Sadly, a lot of of American soccer fans ignore their hometown teams for the big talent of Europe. So the MLS will need either a Monday Night Football-style program on cable or network, or they need to increase the talent level.”
In his book “Fever Pitch,” author Nick Hornby wrote “the natural state of the football fan is bitter disappointment, no matter what the score.” When I read it, I felt validated in my ignorance of the sport. If even the fans are disappointed, why should I even care? But with the bloated amount of American sports teams to pick, true regional passion for a team is hard to find, and that’s exactly what Hornby is addressing. ESPN illustrated how social media is boosting soccer across the globe, and the results are staggering. Four out of the top five most-followed athletes play soccer. And Facebook is still dominated by America, with more than 163 million users and a 52 percent population penetration.
So, this morning, I played one of my roommates. An although I didn’t understand a single phrase the announcers said — “A beauty of a dispossession!” What? — I had a blast. When I made my first goal (Andres Iniesta on a breakaway), I felt like I’d won the Super Bowl World Cup. The second one (Xavi) was even better. Even though I lost 4-2, I had been converted to the Holy Church of Futbol.
Sorry, Madden, but I can get my NFL fix on Sundays.