Barcelona’s 3-1 victory over Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League final was probably the high point of Pep Guardiola’s reign at the Camp Nou. Afterwards, the team flew from London back to Barcelona. While his teammates celebrated on the plane, giddily drinking and singing, Lionel Messi sat in his seat fiddling on a PlayStation. He may well have been playing himself playing virtual football. 

It is well known how popular video games are among professional footballers. They’re a useful distraction during careers that have long periods of downtime spent on aeroplanes, in training camps and foreign hotels. As well as helping with idleness, they can diffuse stress. Andrea Pirlo, who reckons PlayStation to be the world’s best invention after the wheel, passed the hours before winning the 2006 World Cup final with Italy playing video games and sleeping. 

There is anecdotal evidence that players find video games useful for study. Neymar says he adopted moves from football video games and assimilated them into his play with an old teammate at Santos, Ganso. Bafétimbi Gomis, the Swansea City striker, used Football Manager as a research tool before joining the club this summer from France, boning up on his future teammates’ attributes. 

Gaming, of course, is essentially a sedentary pastime, but it is possible that the skills required to play video games might be useful for nurturing certain parts of footballers’ bodies and brains, according to a paper published in 2013 by Professor Jocelyn Faubert, a psychophysicist at the University of Montreal. 

Faubert trained 308 observers, including 51 English Premier League players, as part of a motion perception study, which tested the ability of professional footballers, ice hockey players and rugby union players from France’s Top 14 league against two other test groups – elite amateurs, including athletes from Europe’s Olympic training centre, and 33 university students who weren’t athletes. 

Faubert wanted to find out what makes sportspeople special. He devised a computer game, a type of graphical simulation machine, called a NeuroTracker. It has no end goal. No story. No sporting context. Players don’t have to find a treasure or kill people along the way. They have to index a number of spheres floating in 3D space, which means they have to track them mentally. Each task goes on for about six to eight seconds. If players are logging well, the device speeds up and if they log badly it slows down. The exercise lasts for 15 minutes at the most. What Faubert discovered was interesting. Professional footballers scored better than university students and top amateur athletes. 

“I kind of expected they would be better at the start,” says Faubert. “I designed the task so it would focus on the mechanisms that I thought were necessary for good reading of the play and so on, but what really blew me away is that they learnt so much faster for this task that really had no specific sports element. There’s movement, but then there’s movement in real life, too. 

“Their brain is really wired in certain ways – it’s plastic, as we say. Their ability to adapt quickly to something like this is a form of intelligence that’s not measurable by IQ or mathematical skills. To get to the top in sport, you have to have extra mental ability. That’s why it’s extraordinary when we watch players in the field, and we say, ‘Oh, my God, how did he see that coming? How did he process that?’ It’s a certain type of intelligence.”

There are several curious findings in Faubert’s perception study besides the fact that a professional footballer can “hyper-focus” better than an undergraduate student. He discovered people scored better sitting down than standing up. This indicates a link between balance, which is a hallmark of the best footballers, and cognitive ability. 

Faubert cites a scientific paper that shows high-level athletes have increased cortical thickness in certain areas of their brains when compared with test groups. One of these chunkier areas in the athlete’s brain is the superior temporal sulcus (STS). 

The STS is used by people for two critical functions – for joint attention, where a person guides the gaze of another person, like the way a mother might draw a toddler’s attention to a colouring book, or a footballer might instinctively alert a teammate to a moment of danger near their goalmouth, and for biological motion perception. This is the capacity, for example, to recognise jagged human movements when they’re shown as a few dots jumping around or, in the case of a frenetic football match, to anticipate an opponent’s movements. 

Faubert also references a study that found athletes might be able to process crowd scenes, like a busy pedestrian crossing, faster than non-athletes, and draws the comparison with a goalkeeper rushing out to gather a cross in a crowded box. 

The conclusion he draws from the NeuroTracker, which has been used as a training device by Manchester United, is that it can arguably improve players’ concentration during a game. 

“We show by cause and effect. We separated the soccer players into three groups. We did the NeuroTracker training and measured (pre and post) their ability to do passing and decision-making on the pitch, and they improved while the other groups did not improve.”

Is it possible to train a footballer’s brain? Professor Ian Robertson, a neuroscientist at Trinity College, Dublin and the author of The Winner Effect: How Power Affects Your Brain, makes the point that the brain is like a muscle. Use it or lose it. If you sit on the couch for too long passively watching television, say, or you don’t make demands on the brain, it atrophies – the connections in the brain reduce, which leads to a loss of cognitive function. Alternatively, playing a video game can be stimulating.

“The evidence is that the brain circuits people exercise when they are playing demanding perceptual motor skills games actually improve the function that you require to play them,” says Robertson. “I know that if you play games like Medal of Honor, for instance, then your capacity for spatial thinking improves. 

Medal of Honor is a game about shooting, but you have to navigate yourself through a three-dimensional environment. You have to do computations in your brain to work out where you are in this building that you can only see part of, which is important because you see another figure coming with a gun so you have to be able to do the computation about when that person is going to come around the corner and shoot you. Do you want to survive in the game? These are incredibly complex computations and they improve that aspect of your thinking – your ability to think spatially. 

“Similarly, your speed of perceptual motor coordination will improve. To the extent, for example, that soccer involves fast-moving computations of where you are in space in relation to other people, and in making very fine-grained perceptual discriminations, then it is theoretically possible that your spatial awareness as a soccer player might be improved by playing that kind of video game. We know, for instance, that surgeons who play a lot of video games, which make demands on their perceptual motor system, perform better and have better accuracy; they show slightly better surgical technique.”

Faubert concurs with Robertson’s thinking. He explains that a footballer’s working memory is used in the same manner for playing video games as it is for making decisions on a football pitch – the ability to focus intensely, to track multiple elements, to anticipate things that are out of sight and that come back into sight, to make calculations and predictions. That innate ability of football’s finest playmakers to read a game, to end up in the right place at the right time, is a function of good visual memory. 

“The video games that have shown some transfer,” says Faubert, “are mostly shooter-type video games. Games where you’re a soldier or something killing beasts, entities are coming from different directions, and you have to focus on your task and at the same time you could be struck by something else on the side or behind you. You can’t just focus on the centre; you have to distribute your attention. I know that I saw a tank two minutes ago that is probably closer to me. Your brain is working. It’s manipulating these things online and that is where there could be common circuits in the actual game of soccer where play action is dealing with all of these events coming from different directions – your teammates, your opponents, the ball.”

Picture for a second one of the most famous tackles in football history. On 7 June 1970, England played Brazil under blazing noonday sun in Guadalajara, Mexico. The reigning world champions faced the winners of the previous World Cup. In the second half, Carlos Alberto hoofed the ball skywards from his box. Jairzinho trapped the clearance by the touchline, close to the halfway line, and bore down on England’s goal. Bobby Moore and Brian Labone were the only two outfield defenders left guarding England’s half of the pitch. 

Moore had to judge the distance between himself, Labone, the oncoming Jairzinho and the position of his own goal. Should he shepherd Jairzinho away from goal or infield towards Labone? He had to seize up Jairzinho’s body language. Would the Brazilian feint and try to send him the wrong way? Would Jairzinho pass left to his onrushing teammate, Tostão? Might he try a wall pass? Should Moore feign a tackle? Should he wait and give Alan Mullery, who was tracking back from midfield, enough time to make an interception? Moore had to juggle all these permutations in his head while back-pedalling furiously towards his own goal. Just as Jairzinho entered England’s box, Moore pounced and stole the ball. Crisis averted. 

“It is very similar to what you would have to do in a video game,” says David G Kirschen, an optometrist at UCLA’s medical school, “where you see the play developing and you have a couple of choices and you have to react, to do something. In this case, you have to push a button. From the visual perspective, the gamer and the soccer player are both looking at something, which allows them to become visually aware, and they make a decision for a motor action based on what they are seeing.”

Kirschen and his colleague Daniel M Laby, who works as an ophthalmologist, studied US Olympians from the 2008 Beijing Games. They discovered that some visual functions are more important than others. Archers’ binocular vision – the way their two eyes work together – is very poor. Why? Because they only use one eye. Boxers’ vision is poorest of any group tested, which follows since their targets are big and close-up. 

Kirschen and Laby found that soccer players, who track flying objects at a distance, scored well on contrast sensitivity, which is a feature of action-based video games such as Call of Duty. Contrast sensitivity is the ability to pick a target out of a background – for instance, the ability quickly to identify a ball, which might have multiple colours similar to the opposition team’s jerseys, which is rolling on the green grass or flying in the air amidst the flashing lights of pitch-side advertising hoardings. “If you have poor vision, your contrast sensitivity goes down,” says Kirschen. 

One of the defining traits of elite athletes is their excellent eyesight – with a few notable exceptions like the blurred vision Paul Scholes suffered during his Manchester United career. For example, in a four-year study of 387 players from the LA Dodgers baseball franchise, about 2% of its players registered vision below 20/9, which is the theoretical upper limit of the human eye. In 30 years studying people’s eyesight, Kirschen has only come across a handful of non-athletes with 20/9 vision. 

It is not that top athletes have superior reaction times to the rest of the population, as David Epstein noted in his book, The Sports Gene: What Makes the Perfect Athlete, it’s that they have better eyesight than the average Joe. Good vision helps them better to pick up on visual clues so they can make better decisions, like choosing the right instance to pinch a ball from the feet of the marauding Jairzinho. Sir Clive Woodward, who coached England’s rugby union players to a World Cup win in 2003 and who, in his role as the British Olympic Association’s director of elite performance, employed a visual skills expert for Britain’s Olympic team, put it succinctly: “nothing happens in sport until the eye tells the body what to do.”

The danger with playing video games, however, is that they can take over your life. Zlatan Ibrahimović has written in his autobiography that he could go 10 hours at a stretch playing football video games. He had an anonymous gamertag online. So does Messi. There were times when Ibrahimović played with Internazionale that he’d arrive goggle-eyed at training after only two or three hours of sleep. His fingers used to dance over the controls of his Xbox. It was like a fever. “I couldn’t stop,” he said, “and I’d often sit with [his son] little Maxi on my lap and play.” He has since replaced the hobby with hunting. He puts his years of gaming frenzy down to an addictive personality. 

David James, who played 53 times in goal for England, got in a pickle in 1997 when he mentioned during a newspaper interview that his obsession with playing video games was affecting his concentration. He said the night before he let in three goals while playing for Liverpool against Newcastle United he had been up late hammering away on his PlayStation. 

“I’m a very competitive person,” he says. “For example, there was a game called Final Fantasy, and the rumour was that someone had completed all three CDs in 60 hours of game play so that was like a red rag to a bull – I just dedicated myself to try to beat that target.”

James, who is player-manager with Kerala Blasters FC in India, hasn’t bought a video game in over a decade. Since 2000, he’s “traded an acute focus” on gaming for an interest in sports psychology. He says the problem was that he ate up time in the hours before a match playing video games like Final Fantasy and Tekken (he used to find football games unrealistic: “if anything they were annoying”) instead of bracing himself for the job in hand. 

“I remember I had a conversation with Colin Jackson, the Olympic athlete, back in the 90s and he said his coach banned him from playing on consoles before competition because of the nervous energy that it took out of you. That’s the thing – anything done in excess, I would argue, is detrimental to performance. There are so many key factors – awareness, reflexes, responsiveness, especially in football, which are a massive part of the game. If you’re numbing all those senses in overuse – and I would go as far as to include reading books, to a point – you can lose yourself. 

“I’ve learnt through sports psychology, you have to spend an appropriate amount of time focusing on the task ahead, doing imagery work. None of my managers banned consoles. Today, it’s interesting because consoles have been overtaken by phone apps that are very addictive, the likes of Candy Crush, Bubble Explode, which players can get lost in.”

James makes a distinction between addiction and obsession. “With an addiction, you could argue that you don’t have a choice. As someone who smoked for 15 years, and found it very difficult to get off the habit, that was an addiction. When I wasn’t doing it I was in a bad mood and yearning for nicotine. I knew I was addicted to cigarettes whereas I was obsessive about video games until I got another focus.”

James reckons that top-class footballers share the same obsessive drive that defines train-spotters and stalkers. How normal is it to kick a football a thousand times a day? He had a hunch, for example, that David Beckham was an obsessive when the winger first joined the England training camp, staying about after training endlessly to practise his kicking. It was no surprise when he later discovered Becks, who would arrange his Pepsi cans so they faced the same way in his fridge door, admitted to having Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. 

“I don’t think elite athletes get there by being normal – that obsessive nature to be able to commit yourself to so many hours of dedication beyond the norm. Even within the football fraternity, there is a level of normality with addiction, competitiveness. You’ll find the same environments with video games as you would with other leisure pursuits. If you get two footballers playing golf it becomes a competition. Is it golf they’re addicted to or the competition? I’m not sure.

“The problem we have as sportsmen, especially if you’re involved in things like the English Premier League and international matches, when you’ve got athletes that are at the top end of the spectrum, you have to be obsessive. Normal people can’t cope with the amount of focus required and the long hours of preparation and rehearsal in order to get to the top of the pile. The danger is that when someone obsessive about things like myself puts that focus on video games – or loads of other things in my life that I give the utmost attention to – instead of football.”

It is a question of balance. Douglas Gentile, an associate professor at Iowa State University’s Department of Psychology, likes to quote an old line from the conductor Leopold Stokowski: “If I don’t practise for one day, I notice it; if I don’t practise for two days, the audience notices.” If used sensibly, though, there are aspects about playing video games, especially action-based ones, which recommend themselves to professional footballers. 

Does playing video games help to make Messi a better footballer? It could be that gaming – apart from being a preferred leisure pursuit – becomes an integral part of footballers’ training-and-fitness regime; another counter-intuitive way to get an edge like doing yoga or ballet, one which appeals to their obsessive, competitive nature and draws on keen eyesight, spatial awareness and a greater ability to “hyper-focus”. The game has come a long way since Fred Pentland, one of football’s revolutionary thinkers at the start of the last century, used to school his players at Athletic of Bilbao on how best to tie their bootlaces.