wsc302The best antidote to the money ruining football is a litle retail therapy spent on your fantasy league team, argues Ashley Clark

As Wikipedia no doubt reliably informs me, fantasy football was created in 1990 by an Italian technology writer, Riccardo Albini, as a casually interactive, just-for-fun gaming experience. Albini was clearly onto something. The game has proved wildly popular, lurching through a variety of vaguely unwieldy mail and print iterations (as well as David Baddiel and Frank Skinner's 1990s TV show Fantasy Football League) to blossom into the slick, ubiquitous web-based beast it is today.

Though there are currently a number of versions of the game on offer, the official Barclays Premier League edition has strode ahead of the competition to become the most widely played. With over 2.7 million active participants worldwide, it is an industry in itself. If this sounds dangerously like propaganda, that is because I have bought wholesale into its slick (and free) world of easy tinkering, wildcards, pithy insider punditry and accurate, up-to-date player data. Unlike other versions of the game (including the Sun's), it does not offer a massive cash prize. But it is rich, compelling and fun.

For five years now, I have engaged compulsively in the Saturday morning ritual of picking the players for my team before the strict 11:30am "gameweek deadline". Sometimes this event can be riven with tension – if, say, my alarm clock does not go off when it should, or my internet connection is playing up – but that is nothing compared to the white-knuckle trepidation of crouching, André Villas-Boas style, in front of Jeff Stelling and the boys at 4.53pm to see if Newcastle's Danny Simpson and Ryan Taylor can just hang on and get me those eight extra points for two clean sheets. It is top-level management, living-room style.

I have started to question just why I love the game so much. I am not quite enduring an existential crisis, but I have had to admit that, while it is one thing to be plunged into a state of despair because your real-life team is losing, it is another entirely to have your evening ruined because, say, Gary Caldwell's putting the ball in his own net in the 89th minute, even though you do not support Wigan.

Some of the reasons are obvious. Firstly, the element of friendly competition – as grasped in the early days by Albini – is a winner, especially when twinned with sport. A fantasy football title race can stay alive long after the real thing is done and dusted. Form, statistics and player histories are the kinds of things that make football fans tick. They are endemic to the game and tell us how good we are at it.

The game is also free and straightforward. The scoring system (points for goals, assists and clean sheets; minus points for cards and concessions) is pleasingly simple – the polar opposite of some of the impenetrable versions offered for American sports. Fantasy football embraces simplicity while making a mockery of the tactical complexities of the sport. Who cares if Adam Johnson's turned in another shiftless performance and refused to track back? He scored and picked up an assist. That is eight points in the bag, thank you very much.

The game creates curious and amusing cases of divided fan loyalty. Suddenly it is perfectly reasonable to actively welcome the concession of a consolation goal from an opposing player against your team, simply because it will bring you a few extra points. In the fundamentally tribal world of football fandom, this is noteworthy.

Less seriously, there is always the panoply of witty team names to tickle you. A cursory search of my own leagues throws up such Wildean delights as "Gyan-et Street Porter", "Lucre Mod-rich" and the somewhat less edifying "Fred West Ham".

Conceptually speaking, fantasy football satisfies our managerial God complexes without the potential social kryptonite inherent in the likes of the dangerously addictive Football Manager series, or the sweatily grasping, occasionally financially devastating connotations of the betting shop. Though dubbed "fantasy", it is based in a tangible reality – if Robin van Persie is in your team, you will do well. The game is geared toward social interaction. You can chat about it in a way that does not apply to bedroom-based fictive simulation. It also offers a gateway to those not necessarily familiar with the game.

That said, there is no lack of a nerd contingent. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of crudely drawn unofficial websites available should you require midweek advice on whether you would be better off with Steve Morison or Grant Holt as your first-choice substitute.  

Fantasy Premier League has become absolutely central to my enjoyment of Premier League football. Ever since my team, Wimbledon FC, vanished from view in 2003 (my beloved AFC Wimbledon are a few years away from Fantasy Premier status yet) my connection to The Best League In The World has been somewhat tangential. Yet with fantasy football, I have something to care about – not just admire from a distance. I also have a good reason to put up with Alan Hansen constantly interrupting an increasingly distraught Lee Dixon with languidly sarcastic aphorisms, and watch Match of the Day until the end. The game has furnished me with a level of broader interest that simply was not there before.

The simple pleasure I experience from choosing how to spend my imaginary budget in the close-season, from picking my team or checking the league tables, is a refreshing and necessary antidote to the relentless media and money-driven sound and fury that has engulfed the game at the top level.

The conspiracy theorist in me cannot help but surmise that the Barclays Premier League has developed its own game so furiously and at such great expense (the interface went through its first major overhaul in August 2011) not only because it is a fantastic, expansive global promotional opportunity, but because it fosters an attractive, interactive illusion of democracy and competitiveness at a time when the game is less competitive and more polarised between the "haves" and "have nots".

Fantasy football has become more than an adjunctive sideshow. For many, myself included, it is an essential part of the deal. If it went away for some reason – and I pray that it does not – I am not entirely sure where it would leave my relationship with Premier League football.

From WSC 302 April 2012

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