Have we not all been faced, at one point or another, with the unbearable question, “how can you like this game?” There comes a point at which a connection is so intense and so pure that it simply cannot be explained to a non-player. Should we even try? If, after a time, one still cannot understand why I play this game for eight hours without breaking for water, then an explanation may be nothing short of impossible. Would I be lying if I said that a FIFA marathon has ended with me on a drip in the ER? Maybe. But make no mistake; The FIFA Diaries is an extended love letter to the great game of virtual football (or soccer, if you so wish). I am no poet on the page: my lyrical voice flutters most seamlessly across the joysticks.

This is, therefore, a letter for anyone who has ever been questioned for playing the game that they love. This is a letter for anyone who has ever been asked, “why don’t you just actually watch a game?” (Note: the two are not mutually exclusive). This is a letter for anyone who has ever been told, “I think it’s time to stop for a while.” And to those who have been pushed rudely aside for a Division One clinching online match, I have but one thing to say: just know that it’s not you, it’s the FIFA.

 This week, in The FIFA Diaries’ inaugural column, I will tackle the age-old question: Real Madrid or Barcelona? Of course, Messi versus Ronaldo is just one facet of this debate, but it is nonetheless a fine starting point. In previous years, Ronaldo has almost undeniably been the pick. Messi’s dribbling has always outstripped Ronaldo’s, but it is Cristiano’s pace and power, arguably the two most important stats in attacking play, that have made him consistently the most deadly player in the game. However, FIFA 16 has been effective in narrowing this gap.

Ronaldo’s pace is less dominant in the game than in previous years —possibly because pace in general is not as effective as it was in, say, FIFA 12—and Messi, particularly cutting in from the right onto his left and releasing a finesse shot into the top corner, is at times almost unstoppable. This year, these two players are, in my journalistic opinion, neck and neck.

Where Real and Barca really separate is, therefore, in the other twenty players on the pitch. Historically, as a counter-attacking player, I have always chosen Madrid without giving the Catalonians the time of day. But this year is different. And while this might be painfully obvious, for me, the difference is Messi, Suarez, Neymar. These three up front, even in older incarnations of the game, would have been lethal, and FIFA 16’s seeming desire to move away from pace and towards passing, finishing and skill makes this trio even more desirable. Playing Iniesta in the CAM pocket, with Suarez as the spearhead, and Messi and Neymar on the right and left respectively, easily beats any permutation or combination of this year’s Real Madrid team.

You can nod to Bale and Ronaldo out wide with Benzema up top and say, “what is the difference?” But even if one argues that these three are equivalent to MSN, Real Madrid’s team simply does not lend itself to such a wide formation—these players would be forced too narrow, especially considering Real Madrid’s current lack of quality FIFA defenders. Where Barcelona have a good balance between proper central defenders (Pique, Matthieu) and balanced wingbacks (Alba, Alves), Real Madrid’s defenders, with the exception of Pepe (and possibly Varane) are all what I would deem to be “attacking-minded.” So if you are to play Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema up front together, you will end up with a team pushed too narrow and too far up the pitch–perfect for exploitation by Barcelona’s deadly and immaculately balanced team.

Having said all of this, splitting hairs between two fine teams can only get you so far. If you leave it all out on the pitch, team selection is in my opinion one of the least important decisions to be made at the start of a game. Certain playing styles are undoubtedly suited to certain teams, but a good FIFA player should be able to adapt to what they are given. 

Nick Benson is a member of the class of 2017.