Sunday, 26 January 2014

Does Fantasy Football ruin actual football?

"Shite, why didn't I captain Suarez this week?"

Before Christmas I was sitting in a pub in Tralee watching a football match. It was Arsenal vs Chelsea. These two are titans of the Premier League and between them possess some of the finest attackers on the planet; Hazard, Ozil, Cazorla, Walcott, Willian, Oscar, just to name the main cast. Arsenal play a wonderfully fluid style of football, their players float across the pitch with the grace of Njinsky in his pomp (Not the horse) and play with such a deft touch that they sometimes make David Ginola look like Razor Ruddock after half a pack of Lucky Strike. Chelsea, on the other hand, are certainly the more pragmatic of the two though in Oscar, Hazard and Willian, they have players who are capable of breathtaking moments of quality.

With all this in mind, isn’t it odd that I had a grin as wide as the Thames etched across my face as the game ambled, scoreless, to its denouement? Nah, because I had Terry and Koscielny in my fantasy football team and a scoreless draw was worth at least 8 points to me with the further possibility of bonus points for one of my defensive duo.

I’ll give you another example. I’m sitting in a bar in Ghana watching the Merseyside derby November last. A cracking game it was, as those who watched it will attest to, and I cheered so passionately when Romelu Lukaku knocked in a brace in the second half that it’s wonder I didn’t receive a smack in the gob from one of the Liverpool supporters sitting there next to me, glum and mute. I’m a Manchester United fan so it’s always nice to see Liverpool drop a couple of points but was this the source of my outpouring of ecstasy? Nah, as you may have guessed, I had Lukaku sitting in my fantasy team, hoovering up a tasty 8 points for his goals with three bonus points almost certainly guaranteed. And when Daniel Sturridge equalised for Liverpool in the dying moments to rescue a point for the Reds, my jovial mood was not perturbed in the slightest. I had my points and that’s all that matters.

This is the life of a Fantasy Football follower. For the uninitiated, fantasy football is a game where you select 11 active Premier League players and the number of points you accrue each week is based on the real-life performances of the players. So if one of your strikers scores a goal you get 4 points and if one of your midfielders scores you get 5 and if a defender keeps a clean sheet you get 4 and so on.

Yes, at the start of the season, every man and his dog has a fantasy football team but it takes dedication, perseverance and mental strength to last the whole season. It’s a strenuous task, taking minutes and then hours out of your day as you deliberate on who’s a better bet; Whittingham at home to West Ham or Ki-Seung Yeung away to Fulham?

But does it suck the fun out of football? When there’s a thrilling game on the telly, say a 3-3 draw or one of those mad high scoring victories like Liverpool’s 5-3 win over Stoke the other week, commentators often remark on how “the neutrals sitting at home will be loving this”. But oh, there is a paucity of games every weekend where I am actually a neutral. In the majority of games I usually have a vested interest. Or two. In the aforementioned Liverpool-Stoke game, I had Simon Mignolet in goal in my fantasy team. So I was not exactly thrilled by his less than proficient performance. At the same time, I had the honourable Uruguayan gentleman Luis Suarez captained so his two goals and one assist were much appreciated.

But that game is another example of my, perhaps, unhealthy obsession with fantasy football. When Liverpool raced into a two goal lead early in the first half, all I wanted was a nice, dour 60 minutes of scoreless football. Suarez had got his goal and Mignolet would get his clean sheet. This wish was dashed just before half-time as part-time beanpole Peter Crouch pulled one back for Stoke and then, the oldest looking 27 year old in the world, Charlie Adam, equalised for the Potters. The first goal was galling but after the initial disgruntlement I suppose there is a smidgen of liberation. After that goal flew in I thought, “Fuck it, score as many goals as you bastards want now”. I reverted back to being a proper, neutral football fan and genuinely enjoyed watching the two defences trying to outdo each other in incompetence.

So being a fantasy football nut makes neutrality downright unfeasible. But at the other end of the spectrum, it also makes supporting a team difficult. As I mentioned above I am a Manchester United fan and a very loyal and erudite one too, I would argue. While naturally I would never cheer a United loss or wish for them to drop points for the good of my fantasy football team, there have been times this season, a season which for United has been a puddle of shit might I add, where I have secretly been wishing for United to concede the odd tactical goal to add to my weekly fantasy score.

A case in point would be United’s match against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last Sunday. I, like most mentally sound United fans, did not expect much from the game. At the same time, I am still a fan so I dearly, dearly yearned for a point or three. By half-time it was clear United had about as much chance of getting something out of the game as I have in becoming the pope’s meth dealer. So I did what any rational fantasy football manager would do, I mentally urged Oscar to get his name on the scoresheet as I had the baby-faced Brazilian in my fantasy team. “Well fuck it”, I thought, “If we’re going to lose does it make a difference if it’s 2-0, 3-0 or 4-0.”

United lost 3-1 in the end with Samuel “I’m worth more than the GDP of my country” Eto’o netting all three goals in what must surely rank as the worst ever hat-trick scored against United, narrowly edging out that time when Dirk Kuyt knocked three past Edwin Van Der Sar in Anfield from the accumulative distance of three yards.

So these are the things fantasy football does to you. It makes football a very artificial experience, one could argue. A cynic might add that it crystallises everything that is wrong with modern culture; intensely giving a shit about something which is entirely fatuous and that does nothing to advance you mentally, physically or even metaphysically. A philosophical cynic, maybe. And then someone else might point out that following an actual football team produces the exact same experience. I ain’t saying nuffink.  

Perhaps it’s a case of overegging the pudding. The Premier League is already a supreme dish which has nourished and satisfied me for two decades now. Fantasy Football is such a genius idea (Which we have the Americans to thank for) and in this digital age so instantly accessible that it’s irresistible. But maybe it’s too much. Two great things are not always compatible. One could say it’s a bit like drenching a sirloin steak in maple syrup. It is to my own personal relationship with the Premier League what the inclusion of Chachi was to Happy Days.

But fuck it, Lukaku at home to West Brom or Remy away to Crystal Palace?

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