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Football Fanatics

Another quiet Saturday afternoon in England.

There are few things quite as absurd as the idea of a sports fan.

Think about it.

Forming a connection with a team or individual – often picked at random – who you root for simply because you’re watching it? Celebrating when he/she/they succeed, slumping into despair come the inevitable defeat?

We all do this. Our brain will pick sides based on unimportant information like hairstyle or gait.

Take the Olympics for example. I was extremely suspicious of the tournament before it began thinking it a bloated refuge for second tier athletes and sports (which may still be true…). However,  like pretty much everyone else in the world, it tricked me into caring about people and events I’d never heard of. After an hours viewing, I was cheering for a woman shooting at a tiny target and felt let down when she lost by 0.2 of a millimetre.

In football, year upon year, you gather memories of your team, associate these with moments in your life – a shared history forged through time until you become part of that massive organ. A fan.

Some don’t even get that choice. These are born into fandom, attending games at Celtic Park before their speech is sufficiently developed to yell abuse.  Like religion, you can be a part of it before you know it.

It’s pretty clichéd when writing something to include the dictionary definition of a word, but I’ll do that anyway:

Fan (noun) – Americanism – Short for fanatic: a person with an extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal, as in religion or politics.

As a fan, you must:

  • Be biased, dispute every 50/50 call against your side and roar with righteous indignation should your opponent get one in their favour.
  • Find at least one team to hate with a ferocity which mirrors your affection for your own side.
  • Neglect your family, career and actual important things.
  • Eat unhealthily.
  • Find which item of clothing in your wardrobe causes your team to lose and burn it.

There are different types of fan of course, but one of the most vocal and difficult to respect are the busybody supporters-group fan.

You know when an athlete or Justin Bieber or someone says, “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for my fans…”? 

Well, these are the types of people who actually believe that.

Similar to the fact that human extinction would result if insects were somehow removed from the planet, some supporters believe their club would perish without them. Using this imagined leverage, these fans will often issue demands or express criticism to their beloved club.

Famously, a section of the Man Utd fans unhappy with new owners set up a non-league club to support instead. Some wore green and yellow scarves for the same reason but still attended games.

One of the most well-known and self-important of  supporters groups in England is Liverpool’s Spirit of Shankly group. I’ve pasted a letter they sent to Fenway Sports Group suggesting that the US owners move to Liverpool for the good of the club. They also manage to use the word ‘commensurate’:

Ø

Following yet another summer where off the pitch activities at Liverpool Football Club have dominated the headlines, we once again find the club ownership attempting to explain away business decisions that have overshadowed footballing matters.
Spirit of Shankly reiterates its stance that the position of manager at Liverpool Football Club should be supported with all of the resources at the club’s disposal.
However, events of last Friday and the subsequent “open letter” from the club’s Principal Owner, John W Henry, indicate that almost two years into FSG’s ownership of the club this is not yet the case.
As pointed out by the union in May, there remains no ownership presence on this side of the Atlantic. It is our opinion that this situation has led directly to the “mistakes” alluded to in Mr Henry’s open letter.
Should the club’s absentee owners not wish to establish a full-time base in Liverpool, it remains imperative that they appoint a Chief Executive of a calibre commensurate with the club’s global status, to act with the full authority of the owners in their absence.
 

Ø

Clubs will always look to placate such groups as they can often sway public opinion, but it is purely a lesson in PR .

Spirit of Shankly’s ultimate aim is supporter ownership of Liverpool FC. A worthy cause in theory but then again, can it be a good idea have the sort of easily distracted, blinkered characters I describe in charge of what is basically a business?

In Italy, fan groups can become far more menacing. A Genoa game was halted towards the end of last season as the home ‘Ultras’, unhappy with the teams efforts, demanded their shirts. Genoa were losing 4-0 in the 53rd minute when the Marassi crowd stopped the match by throwing fireworks and climbing on top of the tunnel. With tears in their eyes, the players bar one were forced to comply. Players, managers and owners will come and go, the Ultras consider themselves the eternal guardians of the football club.

There’s something insane and wonderful about the idea of thousands of people cheering as 11 strangers play 11 other strangers on a Saturday afternoon. There’s a mad innocence and a genuine sense of something human to that.

If only we can avoid the misplaced sense of entitlement which slips into our mindset.

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Football Manager

I was addicted to it like it was cocaine. I didn’t come out of my house. My friends would ring up and I’d ignore their calls. They’d knock at my door and I’d say I was really ill just so I could play my game and have no interruptions. I’d miss days of college to play that damn game.”

– Rapper Plan B

Sports Interactive’s Football Manager for the uninitiated is a PC game which simulates the world of football and allows you to become a manager within it. The franchise has sold over 7 million copies since 2004.

You buy/sell players, pester your board for funding, insult other managers and gradually build your team into your own capable outfit (provided the board doesn’t sack you first).

An ordinary person (generally a man) will sit down and stare at this spreadsheet of indecipherable numbers and emerge weeks later to find he’s missed work and his wife has left him. For this reason, the game has been allegedly cited in numerous divorce cases in the UK.

The game (formerly Championship Manager) is at it’s simplest, a massive database of all the worlds’ players and teams. Each of the 400,000 plus players have been scouted and rated by Sports Interactive own scouts, the expectations of your clubs board will be based on the real life expectations of your club.

In fact, Everton FC have signed a deal with Sports Interactive for full and exclusive access to the Football Manager database to give them the edge in finding talented youngsters.

Studio Director and creator Miles Jacobson was delighted: “We’ve known for a while that teams use the game to research certain players, whether to buy or to check out the opposition, but this formal recognition by a premiership team is fantastic and we are sure it will prove a fruitful one for the Everton FC.”

There is a social aspect to this game. Players feel compelled to tell each other about their solo adventures. They’ll laugh about the player they have fallen out with or boast about the league they won regardless of whether the other person is interested, almost as if recounting a dream.

One courageous manager submitted his Football Manager CV to Middlesbrough Chairman Steve Gibson in 2006. He was graciously rejected.

Researching this article I spoke with Daire, a theology graduate who had once famously worn a suit for a Football Manager cup final in his bedroom. He began listing objects he’d broken while playing the game:

Anything within reach really: Mugs, plates, lots of computer mice, a keyboard…actually I remember how I broke my keyboard!”

He then began on a story that chilled my very soul:

I had just been sacked by the board at Middlesbrough after an indifferent spell and the only job available at the time was Ross County in one of the lower Scottish leagues. I signed for them and proceeded to gradually get them promoted through the divisions.

After many [game] years, we reached the Scottish Premier league and then qualified for the Champions league.

A few seasons after that, Ross County met Barcelona in the final and were losing 2-1 going into the second half. Heroically, we brought it back to 2-2, and were soon winning 3-2 with seven minutes to go when suddenly all the lights went off and the screen went blank.

A fuse had blown in the house. Not only that, but when the power came back on it sent a surge through the old PC. It never worked again, I lost that file and never finished that game.”

To those who have never played, this may seem absurd, but that Champions League final was the culmination of perhaps 300 hours of gameplay for Daire.

It was common for players of Football Manager to break the game disks ahead of important exams or to give them to a friend for safekeeping. Now there is no need for disks at all and the game sits there on your hard drive tempting you.

The game is proud of it’s ‘addictiveness’, and when it’s loaded up it shows the amount of time you have played divided into hours, days and weeks.

Since 2004, the game greets you with a message which alters depending on that time, messages from, ‘Turning your underwear inside out saves on washing’ to ‘your relationship has now expired’

Although not formally recognised, some organisations have been set up to treat those who feel they have an unhealthy dependence on games. Online Gamers Anonymous treats it as an addiction like any other, even going so far as to produce a 12-step program to aid recovery.

Singer Robbie Williams, no stranger to addiction himself, has also struggled with a dependence on Football Manager, tweeting:

Got addicted to Football Manager AGAIN. They warned Ayda (his girlfriend Ayda Field) what would happen but I don’t think she was quite prepared for what was to come. Been on it day and night and the other day I decided to snap the disc because it all got too much. However, two days later I re-ordered it on Amazon.”

Founder of Gaming Addiction.net, Jerry Banfield battled games addiction along with alcohol abuse while working as a state police officer.

Jerry played video games while he drank ‘because drinking alone was inherently boring’ and his alcohol addiction became intertwined with his gaming.

However Football Manager creator Miles Jacobson rejects the idea that these games can be addictive.

“The game is not addictive, ‘addictive’ is an incredibly strong word, which tends to be used for things that are physically addictive.

We’re purely making an entertainment product,” he said. “People who play the game a lot play it because they really enjoy it; it’s an escape for people.

Everyone should enjoy the game responsibly, as they should enjoy everything responsibly.”

Doctor Will Meek of Vancouver agrees, stating:

This type of behavior is an impulse control disorder like pathological gambling not an “addiction” per se.”

This ‘addictiveness’ or ‘impulse control disorder’ is something that certain games boast about. The rise of Massive Multiplayer Online Games (MMO) such as Everquest or Warcraft over the last 10 years has drawn most of the flack on this issue.

These MMO’s have brought worrying reports of players dying after playing for 3 days straight or horrific cases of child neglect as both parents pursue tasks in a virtual realm.

It’s a disturbing new level of immersion that, for now Football Manager cannot compete with.

Further reading: Football Manager Stole My Life by Iain Macintosh and others is published by Back Stage Press and will be released later this year.

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