As Alex crashed a freekick beyond Manuel Almunia a month or so back to assure Chelsea of yet another victory over Arsenal, I was left with a variety of emotions. There was distress at the naivety of allowing Malouda to stand in the wall and create a gap for the free-kick, resignation to what at the time seemed like another season of playing catch-up to the league leaders but also a feeling of relief. This might seem strange but up till then my fantasy football team had had a dreadful week and with that one kick Alex dragged it back into the realms of respectability.
For those of you who are uninitiated, there are a number of fantasy football competitions that run while the football season is in action. You pick a squad of players who earn you points depending on whether they score, provide an assist, gain a clean sheet etc. You can then transfer players midweek to try and maintain the optimum team. At present on the most popular competition, the Premier League’s own fantasy football game, there are over 2 million users participating.
A friend of mine once told me, as I tried to harass him into joining our league at the beginning of one season, that he would never play fantasy football because it leads you to support teams that are not your own and teams that ordinarily you would not want to win.
I now have a certain sympathy with that view.
It takes an extreme pragmatism to be good at fantasy football. Things have to be looked at objectively with stats and quantifiable facts reigning supreme. There are players who, however much you may dislike them, will consistently score you points and cannot be left out. I met a girl recently who only picked players who had not cheated on their wives or conducted themselves badly. Needless to say, although her morals are intact, her team is doing terribly. Fantasy football is a game for the Mourinhos; the ends justify the means of doing anything to outscore the opposition.
And so you find yourself with Alex and Ashley Cole propping up your defence, incessantly accumulating points. This, however, leads you to quiet celebration every time Chelsea notch up another clean sheet when the response from every other part of your footballing brain is to groan in disappointment. This might sound like my friend was completely right as the contradictions involved are usually impossible to resolve.
Fantasy football does have it’s benefits though. For starters there’s the glory if you win. A successful season shows that you have not only the tactical acumen but the longevity to last a whole season of tinkering every week.
The real benefit though is to those of us who watch far too much football each weekend. It adds a whole extra dimension to games that you might have usually only watched if you were keeping yourself up to date with some of the other teams in the league, couldn’t think of anything else to do or wanted to avoid having to go outside. Sunderland versus Blackburn loses its tag as an inevitable nil nil draw and becomes an exciting proposition of whether Gyan might continue his scoring run or whether Givet might keep him out to gain you the extra four points for a clean sheet.
Each game also becomes a scouting opportunity to see who might go on the next hot streak. Success at fantasy football is all about managing to judge when players are coming into form and buying them before everyone else has the same idea. The satisfaction of getting it right, added to by the virtual, grudging nods of acknowledgement from your compatriots who add the player the next week, wishing that they had thought of it first, makes fantasy football a must-do for me every August despite the questionable allegiances it brings about.