Football by the numbers

Statto, Statto!

Football is the global sport: a phenomenon that crosses all borders. Its exact origins are lost in time, but the modern game was born in 1863 with the rules of England’s new Football Association. The English are, of course, better known for bureaucracy than humility, so I think it rather fits that their claim of having invented football rests on having come up with the rules.

This goes hand-in-hand with another trait of the English football fan, a love of statistics that goes far beyond attention to detail. A fan of any team can reel off their triumphs and worst years. But there is a part of the English that delights in historical form, possession bars and completion percentages. I remember growing up and watching Statto on Fantasy Football League. Here was a character that was originally written as a joke part and instead became a cult hero, probably the most enduring part of the show’s appeal.

The English love statistics. After England’s defeat in Euro 2012, the national post-mortem focused on passes completed. Shots, corners, tackles. Players were ranked, compared, analysed like racehorses. But England’s greatest contribution to the modern game, for me at least, has nothing to do with Wayne Rooney. Instead, it’s the amazing world of Football Manager. It’s not just a videogame. It’s far more important than that. 

“I think it is important to win a match, but I think what is even more important is the manner in which you win.” – Jock Stein

Created by Sports Interactive, Football Manager is the pinnacle of statistical simulations – and I’ve lately come to think that its obsession with minutiae reflects its cultural origins. And the numbers suggest a story: roughly half the series’ 15 million lifetime sales have been in the UK.

Football Manager is a game of numbers and pattern-spotting, a world where every player is broken down into a dizzying number of individual statistics. In the 1990s the details were convincing and accurate. But recently they’ve become incredible. It blew my mind to find out that Everton now pay Sports Interactive for access to its scouting data, and I bet they’re not the only Premier League club.

Why? Football Manager has something incredible behind it: an invisible army of researchers criss-crossing the professional leagues of the world and feeding back information. Each region is headed up by researchers that employ others, so in total there are more than a thousand scouts reporting to Sports Interactive. One of my mates worked for them a few years ago reporting on lower division Welsh league games. Think about that level of passion for a minute. I can’t even name three Welsh teams.

It is a scouting network unique in games, and more thorough than much of what’s in actual football. Such quantity of data might seem excessive, but it is the entire point of Football Manager. The mental pleasure of football is in directing players, comparing stats, and playing out what-if scenarios. The match is everything, but the context creates it.

Football Manager is for football fans obsessed with stats – in other words, it’s not for everyone. But anyone can see its player database is one of gaming’s great wonders, a visionary intersection with the sport that has no parallel. You can tell Football Manager is made by an English developer, I think, because its fascination with football goes so far beyond a mere enjoyment of the physical sport. The England football team rarely live up to the expectations and pride of their fans. But from every one of Football Manager’s endless and accurate statistics, the nation’s obsession shines forth.

This is an edited version of a piece originally published on sportbox.ru 

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