The game is gone

Teenagers playing football | soccer in the rain in Brazil with game icon on desktop
‘Teenagers playing soccer in the rain’ by user Marlon Dias

I’m one of those bores who still plays Championship Manager 01/02, a football management sim that came out in 2001, as you’ve probably guessed. There’s a few thousand of us around the world, all orbiting around the website, where volunteers faithfully update the game data in line with each new season — data we then mostly ignore in favour of the original databases (3.9.68 for a smoother game experience and the Super Greeks, the roguish 3.9.60 for crashes and bugs like an Australian season that repeats forever and the cheat player Tó Madeira).

The main reason I continue to play is inertia. I loved the game back then, it has continued to run on all systems I’ve had since, and it’s been available as freeware for at least the last ten years, with the added bonus of pro bono updates from the champman0102 team. But what I really love about it is the potential for romance you’d never see in the real world, short of Leicester’s fairytale Premier League win in 2016. Right now, I’m managing Queens Park Rangers (real life: perennial second- and third-tier battlers, recently sponsored by failed gambling/fraud enterprise Football Index) in a tilt at a second consecutive Premier League title. I got Q.P.R. promoted from Division Two (then the third tier of English football) all the way to the Premiership and now have them as the upstarts of Europe. I have former Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldinho up front alongside Luke Beckett, whose real-world career peaked at Stockport County. All this on a shoestring budget, with most players bought for less than £2million and a wage bill a fraction of Man United’s or Chelsea’s.

That’s what’s really fun about Championship Manager 01/02: taking a small team and leading them to glory over a long period. I’ve tried managing Liverpool or Barcelona; you can sign whoever you want and win the league right off the bat. Boring. Back in school, I created an absurdly talented team based on my 2nd XI teammates, then watched as we won every game at a canter. No challenge, no fun. But I still remember taking over German minnows TSV Aindling, with no money and not even any players (how do you have a football club without players?), then dragging them to the top of the Bundesliga. Likewise Izarra, a tiny Basque club, who I took through the ranks to ultimately disrupt the Barca-Real Madrid duopoly in Spain.

The impossibility of these scenarios is what makes them so intoxicating. Except it did happen in real life, more or less, with Leicester City. A League One (new name for the third tier, in case you hadn’t yet realised the absurdity of all the rebranding and tinkering with the football ‘product’) club in 2009, Leicester’s Premiership victory a mere seven years later came on a millions-strong wave of goodwill from across the globe. They were 5000-1 outsiders; who doesn’t love a genuine underdog? Never mind that they were got there on the back of Asia Football Investments money, which is pumped in by King Power International Group, which has a duty-free monopoly in Thailand thanks to its close ties with the Thai government, which took power in a military coup and has messed about freely with democracy and freedom in Thailand. Still a fairytale, damn it.

The fact that Leicester, with all that money and the soft power of a foreign state, could still be a beloved football underdog shows how messed up football has become. They were nothing next to Manchester City (plaything of UAE monarchy) and Manchester United (got big by winning everything, got bigger by prioritising shareholders over football). Or Chelsea, or Arsenal, or even Spurs.

And they were nothing next to Liverpool — my beloved Liverpool, who had their own plucky underdog success in the Champions League in 2005 and finally claimed a long-desired Premier League crown in 2020; a fandom I inherited from a football-mad stepfather. Despite not winning much for a long time, Liverpool remained a ‘big club’ because of the fandom of people like us, most of which originated in a period of extraordinary English and European dominance in the 1970s and 1980s. All of us with pound symbols above our heads. So in came the American investors — first Hicks and Gillett, Jr., then Fenway Sports Group — to tap the brand. THIS MEANS MORE, bellows Liverpool’s slogan of today: “more than win or lose, more than going to football, getting together in the pub and going home”. But also more money.

Today, those six clubs — Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, and Spurs — joined six more from Spain and Italy to announce a breakaway super league to commence next season, with a few others to be announced. They’ve been threatening it for years; it seems the time has come. There will be no promotion or relegation; just the moneyed elite, duking it out in perpetuity, although they say they will still deign to grace their domestic competitions. The Premier League, La Liga, and Serie A have some questions about that.

Also today, I join many other fans of these clubs from around the world to say: good riddance. Go and roll about in your banknotes while your bored princelings follow the script on the pitch. For it will have to descend into WWE-style plots to maintain any interest. Yes, Liverpool too. Football will be improved by your absence. Without the distraction of your constant agitating for more money and power, football will lose the outlandish transfer fees, the relentless packing in of fixtures, the Instagram beefs, the laughable branding and merchandising. Imagine! It might actually be about football again. I’ll do as I’ve intended to do for years and follow Cambridge United as they yo-yo between League Two and League One on a single-camera stream with jerky highlights. Or go to watch Stop Out in a blustery July southerly next to that brown industrial creek in Seaview.

I know that isn’t how it’ll go. The breakaway league will be more powerful, more visible, and a lot richer. It’ll poison the rest of the game with diminished resources and a new, power-hungry elite, among which Leicester might well be at the forefront. In which case I’ll go back to Championship Manager 01/02 and pretend there is still some romance in football.