TO people around my age the term 'computer simulation' in a soccer setting is more likely to suggest VAR and the dubious reconstruction of controversial incidents than anything remotely entertaining.
Yet for many hundreds of millions across the world, computer simulations of sport are as good as, if not better than, 'the real thing'.
There's been quite the transformation in video game technology since my teenage days on a ZX Spectrum, cassette player loading up the likes of Sabre Wulf and Underwurlde.
They seemed amazing to me, but almost four decades on the depth and quality in the multi-billion pound industry is many, many levels above what I experienced.
In terms of sports, I tried some football simulators, but found them far removed from the actual game. The likes of darts, snooker, and golf were more realistic, perhaps because those pastimes are much less physical than soccer – and are also mostly individual events.
I still find it unfathomable that anyone would watch anyone else playing a computer game, unless they were waiting for their turn, but some gamers are icons to today's youth – and as highly-paid as plenty of traditional sports people.
Despite having been bypassed by much of this technology since the 80s, it still fascinates me.
The level of skill, of hand to eye co-ordination, is incredible. When my son persuades me to be Bandana Waddle Dee to his Kirby on the Nintendo Switch my fighting 'technique' largely consists of flailing wildly around me, hoping to hit more than be hit, and then running away when the going gets too tough; much like in real life then.
As brilliant as I was on a soccer pitch before injuries took their toll (around the age of 17), and as much as I love the sport, playing football on any form of computer is way beyond me.
Yet the various football simulations are hugely popular, notably 'FIFA'.
FIFA 23 is due to be released, the final instalment in its incarnation from the EA Sports video game franchise, and it exhibits amazing 'crossover' between reality and virtual reality.
Modern footballers have grown up playing Fifa, and take great interest in their rankings on it – as well as in the game itself. Diogo Jota, then a Wolves player, beat his future Liverpool colleague Trent Alexander-Arnold in the final of an ePremier League invitational tournament in April 2020.
These particular Fifa rankings haven't been unveiled in full yet, but the top 23 in Fifa23 is out there, and makes for interesting reading.
That number should allow for a well-balanced squad, the type you'd take to an international finals tournament. Instead, it's better suited to playing attackers against goalkeepers.
On the positive side, the 23 does include no fewer than five goalkeepers – Manuel Neuer, Thibaut Courtois, Ederson, Jan Oblak, and Alisson. That's a reflection of the high standard of net-minding at present – although that is two fewer than last year, which also included Marc-Andre Ter Stegen and Gianluigi Donnarumma.
Yet, as so often with such selections, it is top-heavy with attackers, and way too light on defenders and midfielders.
It's impossible to construct a balanced defence from this 'squad', even with Virgil van Dijk on the left, because he's one of only two centre backs included, with the versatile Joshua Kimmich as the only full-back option; there's no one you could seriously use even as a wing-back.
Reflecting the financial power of the English Premier League, it has 11 of that top 23: three each from Liverpool and Manchester City, two apiece for Manchester United and Tottenham, and N'Golo Kante of Chelsea.
The rest almost all come from 'super-clubs': four for Paris Saint-Germain, three each for Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, and Barcelona's summer signing Lewandowski. Oblak of Atletico Madrid is the only exception and they have been European powerhouses in recent years anyway.
Lionel Messi is now 'only' rated the joint-best player in the world, alongside four others: Kylian Mbappe, Robert Lewandowski, Karim Benzema, and Kevin de Bruyne, all on 91. That's still kind to the little Argentinian; he's been the best player of this century, but he's also clearly past his best. Those other four have all been better over the past year.
Interestingly, EA have placed Benzema as first among equals, with Messi actually fifth on the list.
Rather farcically, Cristiano Ronaldo is rated eighth, on 90.
The Portuguese is somehow seen as at the same level as Mo Salah, Virgil van Dijk, Neuer and Courtois. Sure, the Liverpool duo's form has been below par lately, but CR7 is more CR77 than CR90.
The reality is that this is sports entertainment, not sports analysis.
Of course Cristiano Ronaldo is no longer among the top 23 players in the world, never mind the top 10.
Equally, Messi is not really in the current conversation for 'best player in the world', although Mbappe, Lewandowski, Benzema, and de Bruyne are, as is Erling Braut Haaland, Manchester City's new goal machine.
The Norwegian is one of only three changes to the top 23 from Fifa 22, the other being veteran Germany and Real Madrid midfielder Toni Kroos and Brazil and PSG centre half Marquinhos. Uruguay striker Luis Suarez is the other to drop out, along with Ter Stegen and Donnarumma.
However, 'Leo' and CR7 remain idols, attention-grabbers, heroes to billions
In the alternate reality of video games, their value as icons, as shirt-sellers, as poster boys, outweighs their (still considerable) ability on the pitch.
They do also reflect reality to some extent. Messi's crown is slipping, and he hasn't been nominated for the 2022 Ballon d'Or. Benzema is the most likely winner of that accolade, although Lewandowski, de Bruyne, and Mbappe will all have their backers.
There's no doubt that Haaland will climb the rankings and challenge for that 'Golden Ball' in years to come, perhaps as early as 2023. He'll surely quickly improve on his rating of 88. Indeed if he remains fit, he'll surely move clear at the top like the living, breathing 'cheat code' that he really is.
Fifa 23 ratings:
Benzema, Mbappe, Lewandowski, de Bruyne, Messi (all 91);
Salah, van Dijk, C Ronaldo, Courtois, Neuer (all 90);
Neymar Jr, Son, Mane, Kimmich, Casemiro, Alisson, Kane, Ederson, Kante, Oblak, (all 89),
Haaland, Kroos, Marquinhos (all 88).