FEATURES INTERVIEWS

FOOTBALL MANAGER: THE SECRETS BEHIND ONE OF THE MOST PLAYED SIMULATION GAMES

In line with the release of Fooball Manager, we learn the secrets behind the simulation game that has captured the minds of football fanatics worldwide.

Another year, another Football Manager game. The stalwart simulation series has been going on for a while now but is now as accurate as ever, simulating teams and matches the world over.

But behind the game is a hardcore group of over 1,000 dedicated researchers, crunching numbers and scouting players to make sure that Football Manager is as accurate as possible. Is it a demanding job?

“It’s become a year-round job,” says Daniel Bochmann, head researcher for Germany. “You need to watch football every week and follow the media daily. In this day and age, football has become so fast paced that you can hardly afford to take a break for a month or more. After extremely busy times I take 1-2 weeks off, but that’s the maximum.”

“We always need to see how players perform and evaluate the next starlet that could break through, but we only work with our database for a few months,” says Oliver Zesiger, head researcher for Switzerland.

The workload often depends on the team size. While Bochmann has over 40 assistants in Germany – and hopefully more to come as this is the first year the game is available there – Zesiger only has a team of six.

“I pretty much do everything,” he says. “First priority are the Super League clubs, then we move onto the U21s, and finally the U18s. I have to update the profile of every player playing the Swiss Super League. Switzerland is very irrelevant to world football and that’s maybe the hardest part of recruiting researchers because usually you can find someone who speaks one language, but the interest in Swiss football has to be there and that’s the hard part. ”

In the experience of Ovidiu Gavrila, head researcher for Romania, keeping hold of members of his team is the hardest part.

He says: “These people need to have a passion for the game and work as a volunteer – this isn’t a paid job. First it’s hard to find them, and then it’s harder keeping them in the team because, if you find them at 19 or 20, they’re more available for this job, but after two or three years they’re starting their studies and after that they’re finishing their studies and starting a job.

“In our team in Romania we have active football players, retired players, sports journalists, and we’re in touch with a lot of people from football. Also, we talk to scouts, but in Romania there isn’t a dedicated scout job. I also work as a part-time scout for a club in the first league.”

Mateusz Gietz, head researcher for Poland, says: “As a head researcher you’re managing assistant researchers and also filling the gaps, so if you have no possibility of finding someone to provide research for a club, you’ll watch their games and become your own assistant researcher for that specific club.”

With so many differing opinions, coming to a consensus must be hard, but all four head researchers seem confident that it’s easy enough to agree on player ratings – even when researchers’ club allegiances clash. “There are very few arguments,” says Zesiger. “I mean, I’m the boss!

“Biel is my hometown club but I also support Basel, and when I started out with Basel I think I was a bit biased, I didn’t know how to right it. As soon as I moved on to other clubs I learned to be unbiased and neutral – as a Swiss it’s not a problem anyway!”

“I’m surprised, but it works!” adds Gietz. “We’ve had only a few assistant researchers who aren’t able to hide their biases and keep them from affecting their research, and they’re not with us right now.”

Bochmann says: “We’ve developed guidelines which basically make it impossible to heavily overrate your favourite team. Back in the old days we didn’t have so much experience and also didn’t have clear guidelines. There were some cases when researchers overrated their own players, but I can’t even remember the last time that happened.

“According to the people I have met from the real life football world there are many parallels with our research work and scouting for a real-life club. One scout of a German professional club told me the way we’re collecting our data and rating players is basically the same what they do.”

Of course, even when differences are settled between researchers, there’s still the opinions of the Football Manager fanbase to contend with – and sometimes even journalists.

“Last year, a journalist wrote a bad article about us,” says Gavrila. “He said that we were paid by a minor club from the first division to overrate players from the club. Who wants to pay to look nicer in a game but in reality be in last place? I asked him to put me into contact with the director from that club if he thought that he would pay us for overrating him!”

Thanks to his scouting job at a top Romanian team, Gavrila has also been jokingly confronted by the very players and staff he rates.

He says: “The manager of the club that I scout for, when we met for the first time, the first question he asked me was ‘Why don’t you make the best manager in the league?’ I told him ‘You’re in the top three after Gheorghe Hagi and Dan Petrescu!’ and he replied ‘Yes, but I’m the best one, I should be in first place!’”

Still, all four researchers agree that feedback is massively helpful in keeping their ratings accurate. “I’m always more than happy to listen to the analysis of someone who has deep knowledge about his favourite club or who just knows a lot because he’s into football.” says Bochmann. “Actually, we’ve often hired our sharpest critics as assistant researchers.”

Zesiger agrees: “The Swiss Football Manager community is pretty big – plus a lot of people play with Grasshoppers just because of the name! – but I would like to get more feedback, it would help us.”

Of course, the biggest draw that Football Manager has is the wonderkids that its researchers unearth. Who are this year’s up-and-comers?

In Switzerland, Zesiger says: “Take a look at Jan Kronig from Youngs Boys and Noah Okafor from FC Basel. One very good player that I expect to leave soon is Kevin Mbabu, probably known in the Premier League for his time at Newcastle. He’s too good for the league, he has to leave now.”

Bochmann has two hidden gems he’s excited about. “Josha Vagnoman of Hamburger SV has been called the new Kyle Walker by some scouts. He’s an attacking fullback who is almost completely two-footed, so he can play on the left or the right. He’s just turned 18 but has the physical attributes of a veteran player.

“Oliver Batista Meier of Bayern Munich is an extremely agile winger with great dribbling skills and good vision – he’s also dangerous from set-pieces. It’s difficult to make it into Bayern’s senior squad so he might get loaned out.”

Gietz says: “In terms of those playing in the Ekstraklasa we have Szymon Żurkowski – he often puts in twice the amount of challenges as other players on the pitch, he’s really hardworking and he could maybe move to a better league soon as he’s not playing for the top team. There’s also Robert Gumny, who is the main right-back for Lech Poznan. He was about to move to Borussia Monchengladbach in the winter but had a slight injury which stopped the transfer.

“From those who are less-known, there’s Hubert Turski, who is 15 and playing well for the youth national team and the Pogoń Szczecin youth team and should make a move soon. There are a few impressive players who have already moved like Lukasz Begjer, who moved to Manchester United, or Szymon Czyz, who moved to Lazio.”

Gavrila is a little more cryptic, but still claims to have seen an exciting talent. “We had some news that Juventus watched a 14 year-old player so we’re taking notice: who he is, where he’s playing now, where he’s played in the past, and why Juventus are looking at him.”

But one final question remains: could an experienced Football Manager player do the job for a real team? There are plenty of stories of that happening, from one who tried to apply for the Middlesbrough job in 2006 to another who successfully got the job at FC Baku in Azerbaijan at the age of 22. But what do the head researchers think?

“Absolutely not!” says Gietz. “You can only model some aspects of football with a game.”

Others are little more optimistic. Bochmann says: “I’m confident to say that it is the closest a fan can get to the data that real-life managers and scouts use. The game is a great tool to educate yourself about football. I’ve learned so much from it in the past 10+ years.”

“To transition into a manager in the real world you need to learn more about the game and get hands-on experience. So it’s a good start but there’s so much more to learn to make it in the real game. Always try to deepen your knowledge about football, meet new people from the real-life football world and get some experience.”

So taking a Conference club to the Champions League might not be enough to land a Premier League job, then, but it’s a certainly a start.

BY SAM BROOKE