When I first started to get serious about watching football a few years back, Sandra warned me about getting into Football Manager, because she knew that with my tendency to get somewhat …obsessive… about my current interest I could get addicted to this fast. I’ve always liked simulation games, from Sim City to Civilisation and Football Manager certainly is a hardcore football management simulation game, up to the point where Everton uses it in real life to scout players with; this may say more about Everton than the game itself though.
But it does show the nerdy side of football, as for a certain kind of fan it satisfiess both the itch to get really deep into the statistics and the desire to build up grand narratives around their favourite teams. That metanarrative which transforms a loose collective of mercenary multimillionaires into “your team” is what makes football spectators into football fans, who wouldn’t dream over supporting Arsenal over Spurs, or Feijenoord over Ajax, through good times and bad. And nowhere is this desire better shown than in Brian Phillips’ series of posts about Pro Vercelli and how he guided them from the lowest rung of Italian professional football to be the best team in the world.
Pro Vercelli does actually exist, one of those football clubs who did well in the early days of the game, winning the Italian championships seven times between 1908 and 1922, only to slowly slide down as football professionalised and the big city teams got all the money and talent. It’s the ideal choice to use in the game if you want to produce a heroic tale of epic proportions and that’s just what Phillips did. In the process he nailed down just what attracts people to the game and football both:
What the game is astonishingly good at is creating the feeling of realism, dropping you into a world that behaves both consistently and surprisingly, that’s small enough that it’s roughly comprehensible but large enough that it always seems to be vanishing at the edges. And within that world, if you pay attention and play with a little imagination, there is an endlessly unfolding narrative which you are capable of influencing but not of controlling, a story whose fantastic twists and high-stakes conflicts are more engrossing because the outcome hasn’t been planned in advance. And that, I suspect, more than the fact that it gets all of Tottenham’s roster moves down right, is why this series is so beloved. That probably tells us something about the appeal of football, too, though in another sense, the appeal of the game really isn’t about football at all.