It’s a Saturday during the Premier League season, and you’ve settled down before the television to watch some soccer. Liverpool is playing. As Luis Suarez embarks on another of his trademark mazy runs, leaving two opposition defenders for dead, you watch in dazed admiration. He twists, turns, nutmegs a defender; before unleashing a rasping drive — only to rattle the crossbar violently.
You punch the cushion almost as hard. Then you tell yourself, “It’s okay, it’s normal” — but it really isn’t. After all, as a Manchester United fan, the last thing you should want to see is Liverpool score. And certainly not that Suarez, of all people. But you’re kind of helpless — after all, you chose to pick Suarez in your fantasy football team, and you captained him too (the blasphemy). “He should score” — you had reasoned with yourself when picking him — “And why should I miss out on the points, eh?” And here you are, silently egging him on to score, having a mini heart-attack each time he gets a shot away.
That is what fantasy football has brought us to. From a harmless game of picking eleven players who you thought would score the most points in a given week, to something which forces us to grudgingly and silently cheer on our greatest rivals in quest for mini-league glory and bragging rights for a year. It starts with defiance (I hate Suarez; I won’t pick him, period).Then you see the fixture list — some juicy home games — and it suddenly changes into affected pragmatism (Suarez should score well, surely, whether I like it or not). And then, when at the end of the day, your captain strikes the woodwork for the umpteenth time, desperation sets in.
But this was not the case, not nearly so. There were times when we used to watch games together, cheer on our teams, curse at the television when a rival team scores; and when the game was over, regale ourselves with our rival’s failings, defeats and misfortunes. A lot of hearty banter would ensue where each person present would seek to defend his club – a Manchester United fan would point to their recent successes, while Liverpool fans religiously chanted “We won it five times”; Arsenal fans would repeatedly bug you about their invincible season, but not before Chelsea fans pointed fingers at their trophy cabinet, which had not received a new addition for many years.
Not to say all this doesn’t occur nowadays; of course people indulge in light-hearted banter – such a thing is too enjoyable to give up altogether. But it has definitely changed, because while cursing Liverpool and their erstwhile ‘perch’, you are painfully aware of the fact that you have Suarez up front; and you are secretly hoping that he smashes some goals in, thereby putting you a step ahead in your office mini-league. A Spurs fan grudgingly captains Robin van Persie and cheers him on desperately as he puts Wolves to the sword. Even a Liverpool fan, whose motto in life was, until now, to cheer for anyone but Manchester United; that person also has Rooney up front and Valencia as a budget midfielder. What’s more, dig deeper and you might well find that he also secretly has had Phil Jones in his backline, just because he was being played OOP (Out Of Position) in the midfield and hence has more chance of scoring or assisting. In another time, perhaps, a Manchester United fan would feel like killing himself after a defeat against Blackburn, but now the pain is somewhat numbed; after all, he had Yakubu upfront in his team. Even the grand finale of the last season, when Aguero sealed an epic victory for Manchester City, was often marred by mini-league triumph riding on the goal, or defeat riding on the yellow card that ensued; people even went as far as to ask, “Why couldn’t he keep his shirt on?”
A study in the US has revealed that a whopping 41% of NFL fans would rather see their fantasy team score well than see their favourite team win on the pitch. Though the situation in UK is not that grave, more than 2.7 million people played the official Fantasy Premier League (FPL) last season, and the number looks set to increase. People have often tried to maintain principles, with many fans deciding not to pick players from their rival teams, but in a competitive environment like the one fantasy football creates, it is a mere matter of time before all principles are laid to rest and an Arsenal fan picks and captains Gareth Bale in the pursuit of the mini-league victory and year-long gloating rights. The lines between fandom and rivalry have been blurred like never before, and with so many people cheering on so many different teams for so many different reasons, one can only pray for the survival of English football culture as we know it.
Editor’s note: EPL Talk will let you know when the Fantasy Premier League opens for the 2012-13 season, so you can play in the EPL Talk mini-league against thousands of fantasy football players from around the world.