World Tour Soccer ’06
Sony Computer Entertainment of America
$39.99; Rated E

2006 FIFA World Cup
Playstation 2, Xbox
Electronic Arts
$29.99; Rated E

Now that the Azzurri have PKed Zinedine “Taste Forehead, Swine!” Zidane and Les Bleus into also-ran oblivion, the soccer faithful have retreated into international hibernation for another four years.

Not me, baby. The Cup may be sitting in Rome and America’s attention now focused on whether Ozzie Guillen hurls a slur at the All-Star game, but I say play on. Why let the party stop now?

It starts with World Tour Soccer ’06, which scores for being a soccer sim that recognizes that while the game may be beautiful, it can also be, how shall we put it, boring as hell in certain stretches. Like much of regulation time, for instance.

Goals make the highlight reels, but World Tour smartly puts the focus on the little things, awarding points (and eventually medals and unlockables) for crisp passes and solid defensive stops, docking points for red cards and Portugal-eque in-the-box dives. Suddenly, orchestrating a well-crafted passing attack matters more than sending David Beckham coast-to-coast, and that’s a good thing.

And as you play through international matches in clever game modes like All Rounder, in which all 11 players have to touch the ball before you can shoot, you realize that the game is subtly forcing you to hone your basic soccer skills. Frankly, the Time Attack mode, in which your squad has 15 seconds to get off a shot or give up a free kick, may be just the thing Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s unfortunately named president, is looking for in his quest to spice up the game. Imagine if every game could feature the same spark and sizzle as the final overtime minutes of this year’s Germany-Italy semifinal match. Soccer’s popularity might even overtake the RiverDogs. Or at least the SandSharks.

Electronic Arts has to love World Cup summers, as they’re the perfect opportunity for the company to double-dip on its storied FIFA franchise. (FIFA ’06 came out in March; 2006 FIFA World Cup in June) The latter’s biggest contribution to gamers’ appreciation of the beautiful game isn’t the play, but the way the designers have deftly captured the Cup’s Carnivale-esque spectacle. Even the opening games of the regional qualifiers — even in a match between a pair of international lightweights like Chile and Peru — the game atmosphere is electric. As the streamers and confetti whirl across the pitch and the painted-face crowd roars for blood and penalty kicks, you can almost feel the tension, the life-and-death pressure. Suddenly, a match of videogame soccer has never felt so, well, important.

And if the actual pass-and–shoot play feels slightly less refined and accurate than it does in Konami’s sublime Winning Eleven series, that’s okay. Sometimes — when it comes to the U.S. and soccer, at least — international pageantry is more than enough to get you by.

Aaron R. Conklin wishes he could flash a yellow card to book that guy who cut in front of him in line at Borders yesterday.

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