Adebayo Akinfenwa talks FIFA fame, combating racism and Beast Mode State of Mind
Ahead of high-flying Wycombe Wanderers' League One clash against Tranmere Rovers on Sunday, the Chairboys' Anglo-Nigerian striker Adebayo "Beast" Akinfenwa discusses how being the strongest player on FIFA has changed his career, and why combating racism as a youngster in Lithuania transformed the course of his life.
The 37-year-old is still enjoying the Indian summer of a career in which he's become one of the most recognisable faces in English football's lower leagues due to his status as the "strongest player in the world" according to the FIFA video game series, which has consistently awarded Akinfenwa with the highest "strength" since 2005.
"I don't like the FIFA celebrity status thing," he tells ESPN. "But I didn't realise how big FIFA, or the gaming community is. What that has done for me as an individual and for my profile is mind-boggling, it's hard to put into words.
"[People] can't watch our games on Match of the Day, so FIFA has got me into places in the world I never would have touched. I'm talking even about players I've come across, who I've never played against, but who know who I am just from playing the game."
However, Akinfenwa has achieved more in football than those who know him exclusively for his FIFA fame may know; he's been Player of the Year at Torquay United, Northampton Town, AFC Wimbledon and Wycombe over the last 14 years, and was also named in the League Two Team of the Year -- at 35 -- when the Blues were promoted in 2017-18.
The striker reached a new level of prominence in 2015 when he equalised for Wimbledon against Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool, the club he supported as a boy, in an FA Cup third round clash. Steven Gerrard may have scored twice to send the Reds through, but it remains one of Akinfenwa's career highlights.
"On a personal note, scoring is always a beautiful thing, but what stays with me is playing against the team I supported, lining up against players I watched week in, week out, and I still talk to some of the Liverpool players on the back of that game," he said.
"I think it did thrust me into the limelight, and people are still talking about that game now. That 100 percent stands up there as one of the highlights of my career."
Despite being born in Islington, and a proud Londoner, Akinfenwa has supported Liverpool since his youth, with one particular England star playing a big part in his decision.
"John Barnes was the connection growing up, he was my footballing idol. My brother also supported Liverpool, but [Barnes] was the connection ever since I was a youngster, it was the way he played, he just glided," Akinfenwa said.
"As a youngster I emulated Barnes. I could do a couple of step-overs, I had some skills, I tried to glide past players, but as I got older that went out of my game!
"He was just an exciting player to watch, that goal for England against Brazil was amazing, the goals he scored for Liverpool, the assists, the way he played. [He was] one of the best to do it."
Like Barnes, who endured racism as a player, Akinfenwa has had to combat abuse during his career, notably at the start of his life as a professional, during a spell in Lithuania, where he'd moved to seek a change in fortunes after struggling to make his mark in the England.
"When I went through racism, of course it made me feel like this is what Barnes had to overcome," he said.
"He's said some stuff recently which I haven't agreed with to be honest, but back then, he was something special."
Barnes has been trenchant in his views on racism in the modern game, and how players ought to deal with abuse from the terraces, but Akinfenwa believes that sportsmen have the right to respond in a way which feels right for them individually when faced with such insults and slurs.
"The correct reaction is whatever you feel at the time," he noted. "When [Mario] Balotelli walked of the pitch, you could say that's right, but if you look at Bulgaria, the England team wanted to stay on, which they did, and smashed them 6-0. That's also right.
"When you put the word 'football' in front of [racism], it's almost as though people think it should be handled differently. If someone came to your place of work and started shouting racist abuse, you would refuse to take it and go home, but because it's football, it's [as though] it's part and parcel and comes with the job, but it shouldn't just come with the territory.
"It's a Catch-22; if you stay on, then your mindset is not to let [racist supporters] come and make me feel a certain way, but then to leave the pitch, to not give them the power over me, I'm also cool with that."
Akinfenwa believes that his own experiences combating racism in Lithuania with FK Atlantas gave him the strength to enjoy a long career in the game, and hone the Beast Mode State of Mind -- a mindset which encourages one to believe in themselves and escape limitations that others place upon them.
It's become the underpinning philosophy -- and the name -- of a charity he is set to launch officially in 2020.
"If I hadn't gone through my Lithuania journey, then I wouldn't be doing this charity now, even though my mindset has always been my mindset -- I've always been pretty driven," he said.
"I knew when I was 17, 18 realising that it wasn't working [in England] so I needed to go and play football, to do whatever it takes for me to be a footballer. At 18, you're vulnerable, but you're also fearless as well.
"What that experience did for me was realise that there's not much you can't achieve once you believe; I'd overcame what I perceived was my darkest moment, and everything else should be a breeze.
"I stayed in Lithuania, scoring goals, not letting their ignorance and their racist mindsets get me out of the country or put me into my shell.
"I didn't do it to prove them wrong, I did it to prove myself right."
Akinfenwa hopes that Beast Mode State of Mind mentality can help other players who endure similar racist abuse and who suffer mental health issues as a consequence.
"The Beast Mode State of Mind is something that's been with me for years, and it's the state of mind I've been able to use to get me where I am today," he said. "As I got older, I'm meeting and talking to more people, and this was the right time to try and get [the charity] up and running.
"It's probably been the hardest thing, because it's so dear to me so I wanted it to be right. I want [the charity] to be a vehicle where people are comfortable with being themselves. In today's day and age, people focus on the negatives, but [people mustn't] let life get them down.
"My journey helped me get to where I am as a person today, and that's why the charity is so important for me."
Akinfenwa, who has also written an autobiography and launched a clothing range, had the mindset and inner strength to combat significant obstacles and tribulations to forge a career in which he enjoys greater visibility and recognition than his Football League peers.
Now it's the time for this player, who has always been more than just a footballer, to pass that wisdom on and use the lessons learned to help others contend with the same problems that he once faced.