He played for Spain

The smell of Horlicks drifting down from the brewery as we walk through China Town at night is one of those sense memory things that will be with me forever. My brain has romanticised night matches at St. James’ Park to something out of Blade Runner, steam rising from the drains, neon lights fizz under a steady downpour, and feeling more chipper than we should thanks to Andy Hunt’s 90th minute equaliser at home to high flying Cambridge. This was Blade Runner in all but name.

But whilst the brain continues to shape my memories to make them more interesting, there’s also those moments that exist as is, pure, unaltered memories that don’t need a filter.

His name was Frutos.

Our story begins in 1995, I was 13, and I’d had my Super Nintendo for 2 years, life was good. With two older brothers I was raised on Amiga as Syndicate, Cannon Fodder and Super Cars 2 occupied my time. Yet despite the ability to copy games and have an almost complete collection for the machine, I was yet to find a football game that would reflect what I’d watched through countless Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons as Football Italia showed us a world we didn’t know. Except this was 1995 and now we did know. Newcastle United were fucking brilliant. We’d seen Barry Venison become a centre midfielder for England, Consecutive Number 9s scored 98 goals between them in three years and the subsequent wearer of that top was even better, we got to watch Peter Beardsley, and our wingers took the piss out of league winners and Neil Cox. Life was good, and it was about to get even better.

I never really fell in love with Sensible Soccer, I enjoyed it but I think burnout from Kick off and Striker meant that top-down football lacked a certain credibility I longed for at the time. Excellent though it was, I needed more.

And then Konami delivered with the release of International Superstar Soccer. ISS was to become a part of my life from that day in 95 to about 2007 with what it subsequently became in the form of Pro Evolution Soccer. We played it, a lot.

Not only was the game visually better than anything we’d seen before, but it felt different. Overlapping fullbacks, creative number 10s, sweepers, 3 at the back, hairstyles. The game had character.

The brilliance of what Konami did with ISS was to create a morale based system whereby a player may or may not be in form. A happy green face for being in the zone, and an angry red face that implied they’d been on the hoy with Alan Brazil. What this did was create situations where your star man might not be as good as usual, or elevate a nobody to a somebody. It made each game different each time. I know his left back is having an off day so I’ll focus my attacks down the right, or my third choice striker appears to have taken all the steroids so let’s get him the ball. It added a whole new level to what had previously been rigid systems that could be worked out by essentially learning the code.

For a decade Konami’s version of football was our game of choice. Sure, there was a few dissenters in the crowd that over the years would claim FIFA to be superior, with an argument based on Ronny Rosenthal being called Ronny Rosenthal, when we all knew he was shite compared to Brazil’s Allejo. Of course if the game was terrible then ISS wouldn’t have worked, but by not only being excellent it allowed bonds to be created with these fictitious characters because they were individuals with appearances and traits.

It was here, in our imagination, that Frutos was born.

I was playing as my adopted footballing nation of choice, Italy. Led by the Baggio inspired Galfano, complete with ponytail, the flirt. Whilst Maldini’s flowing locks sat perfectly on the head of Premoli. They were strong at the back with genuine brilliance up front.

My opponent and long time footballing nemesis, Adam, was Spain. They were a somewhat inferior side that had the old-school Spanish hallmarks as they flattered to deceive whilst looking both furious and sultry. Led by Camacho, Ortega and Perez in midfield, if they were to win the game, it was here.

I was winning 2–1 with about 20 minutes to go. Confident, playing my high possession tactic whilst the Spanish, as their eyebrows suggested, began to lose their cool.

They had few options on the bench, majority of them had been dropped due to the San Miguel effect on their low morale, and all that remained was Frutos, their lowest ranked midfielder who’s only redeeming stat was “curl skill”.

“Fresh blood is coming in” stated the commentator, a man that referred to headers as “fights for aerial domination” which implied that he had never spent any time around the sport or its fans, he was more Partridge than Motson.

Frutos entered on the right wing. Truth be told, neither of us had ever seen him play but his stats implied that was indeed, shit. Curl skill twat up against the might of Premoli, you’re having a laugh mate.

Frutos was also sporting a fairly substantial moustache, clearly a now unkempt leftover from his days as a pirate. This is him in his younger days on the cover of Sid Meier’s Pirates, great times.

Frutos

Within seconds he’d snapped through Premoli, almost annoyed with himself that the tackle was clean. He got up and raced towards goal, looking considerably slower than he looked, but that didn’t stop him going untouched as Pabi, the assured Italian centre-half rushed to the aid of a now dismembered Premoli and Frutos saw the goal open up. He drilled it top corner. A star was born. I’m certain this wasn’t in the final code for the game but I’m convinced I heard him shout, “Vamos, Cunts”.

Still ten minutes to go and the Spanish started to swagger, the Italians nervous. Tackles become de rigueur as passing became a thing of the past. I could no longer retain possession as Frutos in particular played more like Liu Kang from Mortal Kombat. The aptly named Injury Time approached.

Premoli and Pabi still shell shocked at the assault carried out by Frutos they backed off as the Spanish midfield cruised forward, time slowed down, Camacho played a one-two with Ortega and slid a through-ball past the petrified defence. Out of nowhere on the right Frutos sprints into the box and latches onto the perfectly weighted pass, silence…. “BLOOT”….he hits it past the hapless Pagani and writes himself into history books that don’t exist. The man with two moustaches had won it at the death, though death would have been his way to go out.

Had the morale of others been better, had Frutos not been able to hold his liqueur, had Spain not been behind, then none of this would have happened. He would have remained unknown in the depths of a Spanish subs bench on a video game in the mid 90s. Even the decision to give him a fuck off moustache had shaped the way he played, it was only natural to make him aggressive, constrained by a lack of ability he more than made up for it in passion and lunacy.

As the years went by other joypad based footballing memories have been created. I took part in an 8 game marathon on the Greek island of Kos as I fought for over two hours in the corner of an empty bar, this time on Pro Evolution Soccer. It was the Adriano years, a player so highly rated that being Inter Milan was consider cheating, like the Oddjob of Goldeneye. As I sat alongside another long-term rival, we’ll called him Johnny, as that was his name, we ignored the rest of our group. Enjoying table service, a shot of something that may have been ribena and a beer for every one of those games, taking a drink with each stoppage of play. We were hammered. An excuse I would later use for losing the contest, choosing to ignore the exact same conditions my rival was working under. But those two hours were some of the best hours of my life.

Contrast that with an all day session during the World Cup in 2006 as we buddied up and had two on two competitions all day. It was here that I changed as a man, disgusted with what was about to unfold. Me and my Frutos loving companion faced a rival duo that lacked experience and expertise, but more than made up for it in effort. A real David and Goliath showdown that sounds as cocksure as I’m making out. We lost.

At least we would have lost had I not done the classic fall off the settee and press the power button as the game headed into injury time trick, managing not only to lose the match, but my dignity in the process. Genuinely my biggest regret in life.

These memories are more about mates rather than any video game character we’d fallen in love with, and the fact I lost in all of them is arguably a sign that losing was so uncommon that they are the stand out moments in my gaming legacy, selflessly giving my friends something to cherish forever. What a guy!

The difference with Frutos is that he transcended mere mortality, this wasn’t some human v human matchup. This was a computer generated character that showed us a side of him not coded by the lads at Konami. Frutos had shown himself to us, he had become self aware.

Unfortunately his career trajectory didn’t reach the heights his Italian slaughter would have you believe. Consumed by rage he would be brought on to save games, only to find himself getting sent off within minutes of entering the field of play. A loose cannon who got the job done once, yet we’ll always have Italy.

I recently got back from Majorca, and despite accidentally getting afternoon hammered watching the playoff final with two Arsenal fans approaching 70, most of it was spent with family, and most of it was spent with my camera. I’d wander off filming shit for no real purpose until I saw a bow-legged gentleman walking down the street. Slight limp, possibly pissed, definitely Spanish. I hit record on the camera as he passed on the other side of the road, slightly out of focus to not be too weird, but his moustache was as clear as the sky above us. Cars passed as he got smaller in frame, approaching the horizon as the heat haze rose from the road, and with his limp still prominent, he was gone.

My girlfriend appeared from the beach below to ask what I was doing, in particular why I was filming old men on the sly. “I think that was Frutos” I said. “Who the hell is Frutos?” she replied.

“He played for Spain”

One man’s search for a man that never existed.