- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 9, 2006

The World Cup might be ending today, and your team might not be — in fact, it probably isn’t — in the final. But there’s no reason you can’t change that and perhaps continue to enjoy the tournament until qualifying begins anew for South Africa 2010 in a few years.

EA Sports’ 2006 FIFA World Cup allows you to take a team all the way to today’s World Cup final. And not just one of the 32 teams that made this year’s field. The game spans all six international zones and both rounds of qualifying, meaning you can use any of the 120 or so teams that tried to make it to Germany.

It also allows you to pick your active roster from a pool of about 40 players; the United States, for instance, includes D.C. United’s Freddy Adu.

That’s a major difference from past World Cup games like EA Sports’ 2002 version or last year’s walkup game, neither of which featured more than 32 teams. And luckily it’s not the only change from many of EA’s soccer efforts, which have tended to be both sluggish and frustrating. Soccer isn’t a sport of much scoring, but at least it has to be a possibility.

And FIFA World Cup makes it so with surprisingly fluid and realistic play. You can slowly build your attack through precision passes, or one of your players can try a solo run at net. Or, for those with less patience, a quick counterattack started with a through pass often can spring a speedy striker.

Better yet, when you do get a prime scoring chance, you actually can finish it.

Whereas holding down the shoot button still will put the ball high and hard over the net, a simple tap won’t produce a squib as it does in some soccer games. That means you still can get some power when you need to get off a quick shot. In other words, more often than not your opponent won’t wind up with a clean sheet.

There’s only one major negative here as far as game play, and it can be aggravating: switching players when you don’t have the ball. As is the case in many soccer games, the game itself at times will change the player you are controlling, even if you don’t command it. More often than not, you will wind up using the player who stands between your opponent and the net rather than the closest player, even if there’s another member of your squad near enough to attempt a tackle. And when that happens close to your net, it can cause you to move out of position and put your keeper in danger.

Not that your keeper isn’t facing danger often anyway against the greatest players on the greatest stage. EA does a great job of portraying the grandeur of the event, from the flags and confetti in the stands to the wonderfully recreated stadiums throughout Germany and around the world. One qualification game in Mexico’s three-ringed Azteca Stadium and you never wonder again why the United States has had so little success there.

However, the game’s biggest asset also is its biggest limitation. By virtue of a strict focus on the tournament, 2006 FIFA World Cup doesn’t have incredible replay value.

And unlike many sports games, there’s no franchise-type mode; once this World Cup ends, you can’t build toward the next one. Still, for anyone who can’t wait for South Africa 2010, this might help tide you over.

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