Since the 1930s, Harlem’s Apollo Theater has hosted some of the most unforgettable nights in music and culture. Its auditorium has been filled with the sounds of Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet, Jimi Hendrix’s electric guitar and the haunting vocals of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, to name just a shining few.
On 22 March 2016, however, a strange and unfamiliar chorus - even by the Apollo’s standards - travelled down the aisles and swirled around the stage. “illa, illa, illa... Villa Maravilla,” sang the packed and electric Apollo crowd attending the final day of the FIWC 2016 Grand Final – the virtual equivalent of the FIFA World Cup™.
The Spanish celebration song – which has morphed from a 1980 version used by Real Madrid fans to celebrate Juanito into the Villareal version first adopted in 2005 for David Villa - was perhaps surprising to the Apollo staff. For David Villa standing on stage, however, it was a soothing lyric reminiscent of his football-crazed homeland some 6,000km across the Atlantic, where the 2010 FIFA World Cup champion is beloved from the mountains of Asturias in the north to the cities dotted across the Orange Blossom Coast in Spain’s southeast.
“Of course it’s emotional, it’s football,” Villa told FIFA.com backstage at the Apollo shortly after handing new champion Mohamad Al-Bacha the FIWC trophy while devastated runner-up Sean Allen stood to the side of the stage still in shock. “I understand the players emotions perfectly. Playing at the best tournament in the world, defending your country, defending your team. I’ve been so lucky to play in three World Cups. Becoming a world champion was one of the greatest experiences of my life.”
“What these guys can do in the video game is amazing,” Villa said of the gold medal match. "Sean and Mohamad played very well. It was competitive until the last minute.
“Obviously when I was a kid I played, right now I still play video games. To become a professional player, and then to see myself in the game. I was so happy... so happy,” said the 34-year-old, who first featured on the cover of the EA SPORTS™ series in FIFA 07.
No more Messi
As for his EA SPORTS™ FIFA 16 habits, Villa presents the atypical striker mentality – the blend of self-belief and single-mindedness that has made him Spain’s all-time leading goal scorer with 59 goals in 97 appearances. “Playing FIFA, always, I pick the Spanish national team. Always, I play with me up front, and I make my team-mates give me the ball all the time,” said the Spaniard with a grin.
An unexpected perk of Villa’s move to New York has been that he no longer needs to face Lionel Messi on the Xbox or PlayStation. "Messi is the best,” he said, “at FIFA and in real life.”
“Here at New York City, in the locker room we have a console. We play there sometimes,” said the club's captain. Asked who the best FIFA player is on any given day in the New York locker room, Villa answered without hesitation, “it’s me.”
In keeping with recent tradition, one which started at the 2014 Grand Final with Ronaldo, FIFA.com asked the Spain No7 what goal from his career he would most like to see immortalised in the video game. “The goal in the final of the Champions League for Barcelona in 2011 against Manchester United. That’s the most important goal of my career”, said the former La Roja striker.
Villa still remembers the 60th-minute strike in vivid detail. London. Wembley. A pass from Sergio Busquets received outside the box. One touch to trap it, and a second to curl it around a charging Rio Ferdinand and beyond the long reach of Edwin van der Sar. The goal sealed a 3-1 victory, delivering Barcelona their fourth Champions League trophy and David Villa his first. “That’s the one I’d like to see people scoring in the game,” he said.