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How Football Manager gave me a leg to stand on

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SEPTEMBER 18, 2023

Where football goes, Football Manager, or FM, follows. Gamers love the simulation series more than they love their wives — FM’s been cited in 35 British divorce cases.

And the game is exactly what it says on the tin. Players take the role of a soccer team’s head coach, creating tactics, directing training and sorting out signings.

For most people, including many soccer fans, this doesn’t sound too compelling. I could spend hours staring at my scouting shortlists, but to my friends they look like glorified spreadsheets.

But I’m an Excel expert, and damn proud of it.

I’ve written ad nauseam about why I love soccer. Soccer isn’t just a game of speed, strength and skill. It’s the high drama of rivalry, the raging crowds and the tragedy — or ecstasy — of a last-minute goal. In short, it’s lightning in a bottle.

But electricity is no match for irony.

I love soccer, but I’ve never kicked a ball in my life. The holes in my brain saw to that. But I watch Tottenham Hotspur religiously — who needs to sleep, study or socialize?

That means I know the squad like the back of my hand, and none better than Spurs captain Son Heung-min. Though he starts wide-left, he’s best as a pseudo-striker. Despite standing at six feet, he’s poor in the air, and while he shoots with both feet, he prefers to dribble with his right.

But for all that I know about him, Sonny feels like an alien. When I watched him slalom through Burnley’s defense for that Puskás winner, or score a North London Derby screamer, I beamed with joy.

But after the initial high, I only had one thought.

I could never do that.

It’s the right of every soccer fan to see themselves in their heroes. Everyone at recess thought they were Lionel Messi as they dribbled past their classmates. Now, they might’ve had less talent than “La Pulga” does in his pinky toe, but for 30 minutes a day — they were him.

I didn’t have that luxury. Rather than experiencing the sport I loved, the best I could do was observe it. Soccer was like riding a bike or climbing a staircase — or a first dance.

Intimately familiar, but agonizingly out of reach.

Whenever I hit these roadblocks, my first instinct is to sulk. Fire up “The Queen is Dead” on Spotify and you’ve got an evening that could be worse.

I discovered Football Manager on a night like this. Spurs were slumping in the league as per usual, so I booted up a new game with the Lilywhites — surely I couldn’t do any worse in-game than Nuno Espírito Santo had done in real life.

I was no tactician, but I did know the Spurs squad inside and out. I shoehorned our players into the roles I thought would suit them best: Harry Kane was the archetypal deep-lying striker, and Son an ideal inside forward.

After I picked a lineup, matches would play out in dated 3D graphics. I could make subtle changes: pushing up the defensive line or telling my players to pass into space. Nothing revolutionary.

And yet, it scratched an itch.

I was in charge of a soccer team. Granted, the players were pixels on a screen, and results suggested I wasn’t doing a great job. But in some small sense, I was participating in the beautiful game.

Son Heung-min wasn’t just the superstar forward whose lightning pace reminded me that I was sitting still. He was the guy who scored the winning goal for my Spurs in the 2025 Champions League final.

You can call it parasocial. I call it progress.

That feeling sent me down the rabbit hole. I started watching bootleg streams to find the latest talent out of Brazil, and studying real-world tactics to give my team every possible edge. I pride myself on knowing ball, and I owe much of that knowledge to Football Manager.

I was hooked. As head coach, I was a chessmaster — constantly scheming to stay two steps ahead.

If that sounds grandiose, that’s because it is. I’m crippled. Let me have a little power fantasy.

The stars of soccer are its players. It’s Messi and Kane who sell shirts and grace billboards, not Pep Guardiola or Mikel Arteta. I can’t measure up to these idols, and Football Manager hasn’t magically changed that.

Yet it has shown me that I’ve looked for my heroes in the wrong place. I’ll never be the warrior on the pitch.

But I can be the general on the touchline.

Contact Daniel Gamboa at 


SEPTEMBER 17, 2023