Looking back on my life, there is one very good reason I wish I had been a professional footballer. I can live without the fame and fortune, it turns out, and while it saddens me that I will never appear on Dancing on Ice, I have learned to bear that pain as well. No, the real reason I wish I'd been a professional footballer is so that someday, way down the line, EA Canada would give me a one-of-a-kind player card in FIFA Ultimate Team.
EA Canada uses a range of colours that will be well known to players to determine each footballer's quality, rarity and value in Ultimate Team, its Panini sticker-inspired trading game mode for the FIFA series (although the sticker/card stuff is apparently last-gen thinking - EA Canada tells me cards are now known as "items"). Colours run through bronze, silver, gold, black (in-form), red (Man of the Match), blue (Team of the Year) and more recently white (the Xbox-exclusive FUT Legends). For those who achieve professional footballer status in the real world, however, there is one more rung to climb. They alone qualify for a teal card.
Little knowledge of these teal-coloured trinkets exists online. Professional football players have occasionally tweeted about their upgraded item and chatter on the official forum periodically turns to a topic that has gone largely unacknowledged by EA. The company is normally quick to highlight the popularity of its game with sports stars, but for whatever reason it has remained tight-lipped about simple stuff like who is eligible, which stars have a teal item and how they got them. After much harrying and digging, though, we finally have some answers.
"The process varies from player to player," an EA Sports representative tells me, somewhat reluctantly after I turn up on the local touchline in a sheepskin jacket and start waving a microphone at him. "But usually it's either that the player has reached out to us asking for one to enjoy in his FIFA Ultimate Team, or that we have an existing relationship with that player and we offer it to them knowing that they play FUT, of which Luke Shaw and Gareth Bale are two great examples."
Liverpool's Jose Enrique was the first player to cause a stir when his advanced item was spotted in the wild by an extremely confused opponent back in the days of FIFA 12. Instead of teal, the Spaniard owned a heavily improved black card that appeared similar to a Team of the Week release. Those cards are generally known as "in-forms" and have slightly boosted stats, but Enrique's had near-perfect stats instead. Eagle-eyed PlayStation 3 players found the Enrique card for sale at 10 million coins - an absolute fortune in the game's currency.
Something similar then happened when Joey Barton's teal card, again with near-perfect stats, was put onto the market by his dissatisfied brother - as revealed by football's very own Friedrich Nietzsche with a sweary announcement on Twitter. Barton's unwanted item sold for 15 million coins, likely the highest total in Ultimate Team history. The enhanced version appeared in a YouTube review by prominent FIFA user Curtis Gooners, who revealed that coin-trading outfit FIFA Coins Online snapped up the teal monster and lent him out especially for the video.
Far more notoriously, a Gareth Bale pro-player item was put up for auction after a regular FIFA player whose account had been hacked supposedly received the item for free, presumably in error, from EA customer support. If this story is true, the world's costliest Welshman is the only known example of a teal item being gestated away from the real-life player's game account. He was sold at a modest price of 4.6 million coins in May 2013, three months before the player joined Real Madrid. The story of this bizarre transaction is told by bateson87 in his video review unveiled at the time.
While such exchanges could take place in previous iterations of the game, these items are "non-transferable" in FIFA 14 according to EA Sports. They usually have a 95 overall rating, and to put that in perspective, bear in mind there are only four regular gold player cards rated 90 or above in the whole of FUT. Cristiano Ronaldo, for example, was rated 92 when the game shipped. EA insists that the teal cards are generally only provided to real-life footballers who dabble in FIFA Ultimate Team.
"The only exception to that process was last year when we had a bit of banter on Twitter with Rio Ferdinand," an EA Sports spokesperson told me. "He didn't like some of his attributes so we had a teal item created for him. We didn't end up sending it to him, but it's always fun to hear players' thoughts on their stats."
One individual who needn't worry about creaking legs affecting his rating is Lionel Messi, who is deemed too majestic to receive a 95-rated item. Despite starring on the series' cover since FIFA 13, the four-time Ballon d'Or winner's ridiculous Team of the Year variation, which arrived at 98 overall and draws a price of around eight million coins on the PC version, ensures he "doesn't really need" a teal upgrade.
A definitive list of pro-player items is one thing EA won't provide - I'm simply told they are "very rare one-offs" - but I have learned that Everton full-back Seamus Coleman is among those who possess a luxury version of themselves in FIFA 14. The marauding Toffees right-back is just the second Premier League professional known to own a teal item in this year's game. The other is Southampton's World Cup hopeful Jay Rodriguez, whose card was flaunted by YouTube user W2S, who accessed the treat via the England international's brother.
The fact that we still know so little about teal cards is part of their charm and mystique, and EA's decision to play it cool serves as a reminder of the series' stature. Football stars must show an active loyalty if they are to receive their reward, a rare example of celebrities hankering after a developer's recognition rather than the other way round. Virtual football is already part of many pros' routine, but the exclusivity of teal items bridges the boundary into reality, rewarding those who have achieved sporting greatness away from the comfort of their living room.
Ultimate Team's pro-player users boast reputations powerful enough to land such opportunities, then, but the rest of us will only encounter the paragons of FIFA 14 during an online match. Considering the online arena is filled with thousands of players at any one moment, though, meeting a teal item in competitive multiplayer is about as likely as Barry from Eastenders leading the Three Lions to World Cup glory in Brazil. (Or indeed any Englishman leading the Three Lions to glory ever.)
I quite like that though. It means that only a tiny percentage of FIFA's millions of players will ever experience that moment of playing against a real footballer, and thanks to EA's discretion even fewer will realise what's happening. For those that do, however, it will be the pinnacle of their Ultimate Team adventure.