Have you ever noticed how some of the beautiful game's finest players are less than gorgeous themselves? When the mighty Pele coined the phrase in the late '70s, we suspect he wasn't considering Nobby Stiles' gaping gums, Peter Beardsley's gurning chin, or even the excess of teeth that would grace his fellow Brazilian legends Ronaldo and Ronaldinho.
Of course, had you pulled Pele up on the point, he, like any true football fan, would reply that it wasn't about whether these players could turn milk with a smile – but rather whether they could turn an opponent on the pitch. And this sentiment is directly relevant to FIFA 2006, although possibly not in the way hardened digital footie fans would expect.
Whereas previous incarnations of the series (there have been around 500 including FIFA Soccer on PSP) are known for putting presentation above playability, things are different here. Perhaps inspired by its sour-faced cover stars Rooney and Ronaldinho, FIFA 2006 has truly buck-toothed the trend, and turned out both the most entertaining but also possibly the ugliest soccer sim available on PSP.
FIFA 2006's menu screens are more slickly made up than the average clubbing babe (and backed by the same chart-topping tunes) and the match commentary could leave Sky executives weeping (Ray Stubbs is particularly good). But once you get out under the floodlights, the blemishes begin to appear. Right from the close-up kick off, the players look rough-edged and are troubled by a pronounced ghosting effect when they move. Switch to one of many wider angles (essential to see sufficient of the pitch to play) and the resulting polygonal matchstick men, though well-animated, are reduced to eye-straining dimensions. Special effects like moving streams of sunlight hardly help, nor does the yellow ball used for Premiership matches, while the crowd textures couldn't look more ropey if they were tied in a reef knot.
You can almost feel the PSP's processor straining to replicate effects designed for its chunkier home console cousins. In truth, it's hard not be disappointed.
Trust us though, that won't last. After a few games, you'll hardly notice these glitches. You'll be too busy constructing flowing passing moves, triggering off the ball runs, and trying to slot one past the keeper using the most responsive control system yet seen in a handheld football game. Gone are the gimmicks of previous editions, the tediously limiting set pieces, and the over-complicated 'off the ball' controls. In their place is a wonderfully slick control system that pips even the mighty Pro Evolution Soccer series for power and ease of use. Everything from sprints and skill moves to tackles and through-balls is at your finger tips, including a new tactics system mapped onto the D-pad that enables you to rapidly switch focus behind counter attacks and wing play.
Add a wide tactical range (albeit still not quite as extensive as Pro Evolution Soccer 5) and you really can play your own style of game here, be it long balls to the big front men, quick counter attacks, or a slow build-up through the midfield. There's space for individual brilliance too, thanks to some smart skill moves, and even defensive approaches are tenable for once, courtesy of a well-implemented tackle button that enables you to crowd out attackers and call in covering defenders. Games run along at a frantic pace whatever your style, especially since you can skip through the close-up replays and other animations that pepper the game (are you watching Konami?)
True, there are annoying moments: when repeated button presses trigger unwanted passes, or when your AI teammates seem slow to grasp your thinking. But you rarely feel cheated by the game, regardless of which of the four difficulty levels you choose.
Longevity is assured too, both by the presence of every major domestic team and tournament in the world (although the home console's Career mode is absent) as well as a superlative multiplayer system. Adhoc wi-fi with up to three friends is impressive, but the full-on Internet experience is the real highlight, giving you easy access to opponents via EA's Nation server. Then again, if you just want to drop in for a quick five minutes, there are challenge matches (rescue a match or trounce an opponent) and a smart ball-juggling mini-game, where your PSP is turned on its end and you time button presses to keep the ball airborne.
FIFA 2006 is by no means perfect, even if you excuse its visual shortcomings. The goalkeepers vary seemingly randomly between super human and annoyingly fallible, too many shots strike the post, the through-ball is excessively powerful, and too crowded midfields can result in a frantic tackle fest. However, it's by far the most beautiful and fun football experience yet on PSP. Pele would be proud.FIFA Football 2006 is on sale now.