The FIFA 17 Ultimate Team card it took me seven years to save up for

Have you ever chased something for seven years? A sporting dream, a professional ambition, an unrequited love? This isn’t the intro to a clever riddle, or a Hugh Grant soliloquy to kick off the latest Richard Curtis schmalz-‘em-up, but rather a genuine question. If your answer is ‘yes’, you know exactly how I’ve felt throughout my seemingly interminable hunt for ‘Black Messi’.

Messi is, as you surely know, football’s most famous Lionel; ‘black’ refers not to the colour of his skin, but that of his ‘in-form’ FIFA Ultimate Team card. In March 2012, while editor of Official PlayStation Magazine, I wrote about my painstaking 18-month chase for this most elusive of ‘FUT’ items. “I need to work the auction system for 1.9million,” scribbled 32-year-old me. “So I log in 15 minutes after waking up. And last thing at night. And about 20 times a day, through the web app. In the last four weeks I’ve spent two hours playing matches, and ten times that working the markets. But once Black Messi is leading the line, I’ll go back to playing FIFA 12 regularly.”

37-year-old me can report that neither of those two things happened. 

The piece garnered positive feedback from the OPM audience, even if I was never quite sure whether it was laughing with me, or at me. Every so often a reader would enquire as to how the hunt was going, and each time I’d reply in an upbeat manner. “Nearly there.” “Only a few hundred (thousand) coins to go.” “Close. So very close. Close like the gap between Earth and Pluto…”

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FIFAs 13, 14, 15 and 16 passed. Each year at the review stage I’d swear he would be mine, and each year by the end of the real football season I’d be a shell of a man, driven insane by this Rosarian fish I just could not ensnare. Away from FIFA I had actual, proper, amazing children. I earned the accolade of longest-serving OPM editor ever, before stepping down in February 2014 to look after those amazing children. I should have been complete, settled, happy. But that card, that stupid, incredible card… it was forever there, haunting me, teasing me, the carrot pressed to my lips and then whipped away as soon as I was close enough to bite.

Not for FIFA 17 though. FIFA 17, I knew almost from the outset, would be the year.

I’ve always had a mind for numbers, and made reasonable FIFA coinage annually via daily Del-Boy-style dealings. But thanks to Squad Building Challenges, the ability to reap megabucks in FIFA 17 is easier than ever – as detailed in a tips piece I wrote back in March. At the end of this football season, with 11 million profit made, I knew the happy hour was close to hand. My golden – alright, bleach-blonde – chalice would finally be grasped.

This was certain to be such a triumphant moment that, like the modern real-life hybrid of footballer and prima donna, I had to make a grotesque occasion out of it. In mid-June I took my family to Cornwall on holiday and waited for the opportune moment. On Tuesday, the midpoint of the vacation, both wife and kids turned in for an early night. At precisely 10pm, a cold Doombar exited the fridge. Pringles were popped – not standard salty flavour, but the magico prawn cocktail ones that disappear within eight seconds at parties. And, three minutes later, the magic button on the FIFA 17 web app was pressed. For a cool 1,356,000 coins, Black Messi was finally mine. 

A good holiday was now rendered a fantastic one, although I didn’t dare tell the wife my exact reasons for spending the second half of the week grinning like a Madame Tussauds prototype. At random intervals, when the mood took me, I’d sneakily open the app and inspect my perfect digital prize. Wife: “what are you so happy about?” Me: “Just… uhh… there’s nothing so wondrously, quintessentially English as summer rain on Trevone Bay is there, honey?”

On return, the plan was that Saturday night would be spent plugging Messi into my La Liga squad and frothing at the mouth as he cannoned shots into the top corner, and produced perfect through-balls for my Suarez-Griezmann strike partnership. Sure enough, we got home, unpacked in record time, and on debut he did everything I’d dreamed off for close to a decade. 

Ultimate Difficulty, against the current Team Of The Week? No problem for Lionel Flair. 

4 minutes in, left-foot peach curled into the far bottom corner. 1-0.

19 minutes in, near-post header under the keeper from a whipped Iborra cross. 2-0.

32 minutes in, goalscorer turned supplier, fizzing a low ball into the six-yard-box which Suarez crashed high into the net. 3-0.

This was the stuff I’d waited seven years for!

39 minutes in, late tackle from the opposition left-back. Uh-oh. The game immediately cut to the tactics screen, with a little ambulance symbol by Messi’s face. No. No! My Argentine wizard was crocked and, inevitably, the end of the game confirmed the worst news: a foot injury would put him out for five matches. Never mind, I resolved: fix him up with a gold Healing card and all would be well once more.

Yet back in my control, Messi felt subdued in his return fixture. Mysteriously so, given his fully-restored 99-Fitness rating. And from there, the downtrend in awful form only grew steeper. 

Maybe I was force-feeding my new talisman the ball too much; maybe my direct, cross-heavy tactics were a poor fit; maybe my indecision in switching him from his 'RF' position doomed Leo from the outset. Whatever the issue, Messi and me slowly turned from uncomfortable to incompatible. One fallow game, two, three. Deployed up front I couldn’t get him in position to take shots on goal; played out wide he just didn’t mesh with that star strike force in the same way as right-flank incumbent Gareth Bale.

Another barren game as the most expensive super-sub in football gaming history followed. And another. I knew a tough call had to be made. FIFA, much like time itself, waits for no man. With limited coins left to upgrade my squad, it was time to leave Leo’s future in the lap of the gods. One more match. A goal or assist and I’d keep him on the books for another fortnight. Anything less and he’d be straight on the transfer list.

The gods answered as promptly as the first tackle of the game. Late, hard, resulting in my man being left in a heap… and that very same jumpcut to the tactics screen. Another injury! To Leo’s digitised ligaments, and my once-resilient pride. I’d waited seven years to get it on with Black Messi. The love affair was over after seven games. 

Have you ever chased something for seven years? A sporting dream, a professional ambition, an unrequited love? I guess my hunt was a little bit of all three. And while it didn’t climax like Richard Curtis movies usually do, it’s led me to seek a whole new conquest once I’ve added another million-or-so coins to my FIFA bank account. Farewell, Black Messi. Hello, Blue Ronaldo.

Done with FIFA 17 and already have sights set on next year’s game? Then be sure to check out our extensive answers to all your questions regarding FIFA 18.

Ben Wilson

I'm GamesRadar's sports editor, and obsessed with NFL, WWE, MLB, AEW, and occasionally things that don't have a three-letter acronym – such as Chvrches, Bill Bryson, and Streets Of Rage 4. (All the Streets Of Rage games, actually.) Even after three decades I still have a soft spot for Euro Boss on the Amstrad CPC 464+.