Obsessed by fantasy football

To enter a Fantasy Football season is to be as one with Donald Rumsfeld prior to the Iraq War, but with less insight

This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

I’m not a football fan. I’ll watch it if it happens to be on in the pub, and I can appreciate a raking 70-yard pass as much as the next man, but the enjoyment of the game I developed in my teens dissipated when leveraged buyouts and foreign owners came to the fore. Not for me the heart-on-sleeve infatuation with businesses that bear closer resemblance to private equity firms than the fan-serving institutions of yore. But football remains an obsession; because I’m one of the 8 million or so fools who religiously track every weekend’s Premier League results, as I wait to see how my Fantasy Football team is doing.

No false optimism that on Saturday my plucky team might somehow overcome the latest northern behemoth powered by an oligarch’s endless supply of money; instead a purer, deeper connection with the fate of 15 players who make up my squad; and the beautiful reams of data their performances provide.

I’m one of the 8 million or so fools who religiously track every weekend’s Premier League results

To enter a Fantasy Football season is to be as one with Donald Rumsfeld prior to the Iraq War, albeit with even less insight into just what you are taking on. There is an infinite number of known knowns for each player. The most obvious question is simple, but easily forgotten in the wake of the deliberations to come: is he any good?

Come to a conclusion on that front, and the deliberation begins in earnest. This player’s not that good, but is he playing a bad team? Is he due a goal? Is he a left-sided midfielder playing a team with a right back who’s just been exposed in some tabloid scandal and is mentally fragile? Is he a striker who hasn’t scored for three weeks, but just rinsed the government with a free school meals campaign and is surely due good karma for both of you?

Next the known unknowns. A player might get an undeserved red card. Should you have factored in the fact the referee is a known jerk? Undoubtedly. But it’s the unknown unknowns that kill you. In 2017 I remember expending points on a star striker who was immediately ruled out after breaking his rib in a car crash (unusually for a footballer, he wasn’t even driving, let alone doing 120mph in a Ferrari).

How to respond to such ill-fortune? The game can feel more like one of luck than judgement, but the horrifying truth for obsessives is that it was ever thus. Consider the question of form. This player has scored three goals in four games — is that the start of an unstoppable hot streak, or a momentary flash in the pan? Sod’s law dictates that having spent points to bring them in, the latter will be the case — or they will immediately tear a hamstring and be out for six to eight weeks. The player for whom you swapped them out will inevitably celebrate their liberation from your team with a hat trick. So you’ll then spend even more points bringing back the player you had in the first place.

Every decision you make is fraught with an infinite number of variable factors. To do well, you need to stick the obvious choices and take a few — very well informed — risks. But it takes an enormous amount of mental energy to do nothing when the opposite — the possibility of a reward for a risk taken — is just a click, and a cost of four points, away.

This balance is what makes it great. If it was just about luck, only lunatics would play it for 38 (!) game weeks. That’s every weekend for the best part of a year wondering whether Brighton’s left back is going to be subbed off in the 60th or 65th minute. There’s a good chance Brighton’s left back himself is less invested in his fate than you are.

Every decision you make is fraught with an infinite number of variable factors

Like all top sport, there comes a point where you can’t compete at an elite level. One year my mini-league came down to myself in second, and my friend Dave in first. There were 10 minutes to go in the final game of the season. Barely a few points separated us.

Prior to the game, I had a good feeling about Patrick Van Aanholt of Crystal Palace. I wanted to bring him in. I deemed it not worth the risk. I lost by a few points. Van Aanholt, obviously, scored. And that’s why I hate Patrick van Aanholt. Or at least, I hate the abstract concept of Patrick van Aanholt’s shooting statistics: I could barely pick the man himself from a line-up.

So I worked harder, and for two years won all of my leagues, finishing in the top 70,000 or so players. Alexander the Great is wrongly said to have wept when there were no more worlds to conquer; so I was left bereft by my emphatic victories. What shall it profit a man to win his mini-leagues, and lose his soul?

Utter hell. April is the kindest month, breeding us respite with cricket, a game where one can happily pour over beautiful sporting data without one’s life depending on it. Oh, what’s that? There’s a fantasy tournament for the European Championship? Can’t hurt, can it … ?

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