Tonton Zola Moukoko. Cherno Samba. Carlos Fierro. Tó Madeira. In reality, these rather obscure footballers have played for the likes of Atletico Morelia, Carlstad United and FC Haka – Madeira, it turned out, didn’t even exist – but for many fans of the Football Manager series, they’re better known for their in-game exploits.
Millions of copies of Football Manager are sold every year, and for those that play, it’s less of a hobby and more a way of life. A glimpse online shows just how big the fan communities are: the FM subreddit has 230,000 members, while the Out of Context Football Manager Twitter and Football Manager Memes Instagram accounts have almost 170,000 and 100,000 respectively. Liam Bond, who runs the latter, started playing back in 2001 when it was still Championship Manager, and occasionally still enjoys the 01/02 version.
He set up his account during the first lockdown, when he was ‘managing’ in Gibraltar: “I knew people would be crying out for a page like FM Memes, because I was. I set it up, paid for some promotions, and it took off and got a life of its own. Now there’s a community of 100,000 people, who share their stories, engage with each other, play online with each other – it’s great.”
Perhaps the reason Football Manager seems to attract this sense of online community is that it’s not as popular with the digital native cohort as games like FIFA are, forcing fans to look online for kindred spirits. As FM fan Jordan Martin – who for a time ran one of the biggest pages, Rejecting Your Offer From Barcelona Because You’re Happy At Barcelona – says that the rise of Football Manager pages in the early 2010s “started with hardcore FM fans who looked online because all of your pals played FIFA – it was rarer to find pals playing Football Manager as a young teen.”
While there have long been FM forums, for teens who wanted to find an online community, Facebook would have been a much more natural habitat. As far as these young fans in the early 2010s were concerned, the admins (often with names like Soap and Potatohead) were almost internet celebrities; Jordan admits that he even got recognised on a couple of nights out.
Though Football Manager might be niche, particularly among the FIFA demographic, “the pages grew further because they posted about general football too”, Jordan explains. “The thing that kept people was football in general.”
Perhaps the biggest moment was Putting Your Football Manager Achievements On Your CV, or FMCV, which would influence myriad other FM-inspired pages. An FM challenge undertaken by one of the admins with Gangneung City FC of South Korea lead to a regen – a player generated by the game, which happens as the more recognisable players retire over years-long campaigns – called Wang Haibo becoming a cult hero, and even the subject of a transfer rumour that gained some traction on Twitter.
The best part of a decade on, Bond’s adventures as manager of Malaysian sides Sarawak United and Polis Diraja Malaysia have captured the imagination of his page’s followers, with one of Sarawak’s IRL players – Uche Agba – even keeping up with the virtual exploits. It feels almost like a spiritual successor to the adventures in Gangneung.
Rich Goodwin, manager of South Yorkshire indie quartet The Reytons, set up his own page after being inspired by FMCV and Rejecting Your Offer From Barcelona. He’s been playing since FM 2011: “As a 14-year-old, it was great to be able to tell Harry Redknapp to ‘fuck off’ in a press conference,” he explains. “The novelty of the expletives has worn off by now, but you begin to enjoy different parts of the game as you get older – a testament to its versatility.”
These pages were very much a product of their time, combining Football Manager with Inbetweeners-esque humour and early meme culture, and after the mid-2010s they began to fade away. “The golden era of FM social media seemed to grind to a standstill as everyone hit 16 and other priorities began to take over,” adds Rich, paving the way for the new generation of pages a few years later.
— Out of Context Football Manager (@nocontextfm1) January 10, 2022
“Putting Your Football Manager Achievements on your CV” might sound tongue-in-cheek, but some fans have actually done just that. Sometimes, it works: 22-year-old Vugar Huseynzade landed the job as manager of FC Baku in his native Azerbaijan back in 2012, over the likes of former Ballon d’Or winner and French international Jean-Pierre Papin.
However, he’s very much the exception. After parting ways with their manager in 2016, non-league side Altrincham’s social media team tweeted that CVs sent over weren’t to be “based on FM or CM achievements.”
Jack Jolly was running the club’s socials at the time with a friend. “Not being in the mood for the onslaught of DMs and notifications around the game, we decided to tweet it hoping for strong engagement on an emotive topic,” he says.
However, the club then changed tack and put an advert out for a “first team manager”, or a Football Manager manager to take the reins on YouTube: “After a brief call with our current chairman, we felt there was an opportunity for good PR if we flipped the issue and offered proper interviews for a real role,” explains Jack, who’s an FM fan himself.
Then there’s John Davies, who after playing a lot of FM during lockdown decided to go into the real thing and now works at Sutton United as Head of Analysis: “It’s definitely something I want to stay in. Once you’re in, you realise how a lot of what happens on Football Manager does actually transfer across, which is quite funny!” he explains.
The appeal of Football Manager, differing from the likes of FIFA in that you don’t play matches yourself, can be tricky to understand if you’re not a fan – what makes it so alluring?
Certainly, FM might not sound as fun as games like FIFA – even a seasoned fan like Rich admits that by playing he’s just “replacing real-world emails with fictional emails”, but he first started playing because of the customisable aspect and sheer number of playable teams available.
Fellow fan Sam Cross concurs: “I like how in-depth it goes,” he explains. “I could spend £40 million on a player who comes in with a shit personality and then wrecks my team? What a gamble!”
But is there more to it, deep down? “Whilst [it’s] certainly fun to pass the time, I suspect [FIFA] doesn’t give the same achievement in continuity as Football Manager, nor the “reality” it gives by allowing it to truly integrate into one’s life as a sense of achievement that can be returned to day after day,” says award-winning counsellor and mental health expert Ruth Micallef.
She describes FM as offering escapism and the chance to “practice ‘failure’ and ‘risk’”, but warns against the game becoming too big a part with our identities: “Video games need to be used as part of a balanced lifestyle. Without real accomplishment or contentment in our real lives, it’s very easy to turn to games like Football Manager for the synthetic version.”
Regardless of why people play, it’s well and truly entered the cultural zeitgeist. People are flying across the world to see a team they’ve managed play, they’re going into football careers in the real world, and forming lifelong friendships because of Football Manager and the connections they’ve made online. Of course, for others, it’s just a great way to spend an hour or two after work or school, which is okay too.