Offside, 3 August
Fantasy football is not just unsophisticated - it is morally wrong.
‘Should I splash out on David Beckham, or settle for the more economical Gus Poyet option?’
This is a question thousands of football fans throughout Britain are asking themselves right now, as they assemble their fantasy football team. However, although I kiss football (as they say), as well as being partial to a bit of fantasy (ahem), I won’t be entering a fantasy league this year.
Fantasy football appeals to our latent managerial tendencies. You get a fixed transfer kitty to spend on a squad of players whose values are fixed by the league. Every week points are awarded for goals scored, goals assisted (‘assists’), and clean sheets, or else deducted for goals conceded. The winner is the manager who has amassed the most points over a season.
Fantasy leagues are a US invention (as you might have guessed from the neologism ‘assist’). The first fantasy league was formed in 1980 by New York writer Dan Okrent, together with fellow baseball fans who used to meet in a Manhattan restaurant, La Rotisserie Francaise. This informal gathering spawned the Rotisserie League Baseball Association. Today it is estimated that 15million Americans participate in fantasy leagues – many of which are called ‘rotisserie leagues’.
The popularity of British fantasy sport took off with David Baddiel and Frank Skinner’s Fantasy Football League TV show in the mid-1990s. As an unadulterated discussion about football statistics would have been extremely tedious to watch, the programme concentrated almost entirely on comedy and chat. Ironically, resident number-cruncher ‘Statto’, who personified fantasy football, was presented as an object of ridicule on the programme. We all laughed at Statto, oblivious to our own Statto-isation.
I enjoyed the TV series – mainly because Frank Skinner is very funny – but I grew to hate playing fantasy football itself. For a start, an assessment of individual performance that is based primarily around goals is far too crude. I accept that goals scored and clean sheets are the measures of a successful team. However, individual performance cannot be measured in the same way.
Where are the points for movement off the ball, tight marking, patient possession football, or niggling fouls that unnerve your opponents? A number of players may contribute to a goal, yet points are only awarded to the goalscorer and the provider of the final ball – the so-called ‘assist’. Similarly, a tough tackling midfielder, who denies time and space to the opposition, will protect his defence, yet only the defenders and goalkeepers are credited with stopping goals.
But even if fantasy leagues were to employ a more sophisticated method of assessing player performance, I would still refuse to partake. The real perversity of fantasy football is that you find yourself backing teams you ought to despise. If you’ve selected Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink as a striker, you secretly start wanting Chelsea to score more goals. How can that be right? You start poring over the Sunday match reports to work out who contributed an assist, and which defenders helped keep a clean sheet. Your team might have lost on Saturday, but your disappointment is tempered by the fact that Muzzy Izzet chipped in with a couple of assists for Leicester – a team you should not care about whatsoever.
Fantasy football is morally wrong. It divides your loyalties and turns you into a footballing slapper who would support anybody as long as there are a few fantasy points in it. So, next time a workmate invites you to join a fantasy league – just say no!
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