We’ve all been there, haven’t we? When we’ve unearthed the next Lulinha or Adryan, just to receive the soul-shattering news that the sacred work permit has been denied. Or maybe we haven’t because we play in some hipster league without the need for them, or because we pitched up in plain old Spain or Italy where the rules aren’t as stringent. The pull of a Brazilian wonderkid is something that keeps us coming back to Football Manager year after year, on an endless search for that one player who will drag you to Champions League glory and you clamour over for years to come. It’s all the more better if you unearth him without having to type in “Football Manager 2020 Wonderkids,” into Google – although if you’re into that, we’ve spoken to the man who knows.
Paulo Freitas has been Football Manager’s Head Researcher for Brazil since 2005, so it is him and his assistants that you have to thank for all the years of glory Renato Augusto brought you from midfield in FM2007 or the goals Vinícius Júnior scored you in last year’s offering, before Real Madrid signed him in real life, making him virtually unsignable in the game.
Freitas is Brazilian born and bred, lives and breathes football in a way many claim they do but very few can prove like he can. Outside of the sport, the lawyer’s main passion is history, but a role with Football Manager that predates his current 14-year position – he was an assistant for a few years before that – makes it clear that football comes first.
“I think I am qualified,” Freitas told me, “due to being a neutral and my knowledge of Football Manager and Brazilian football.”
Freitas and I first crossed paths when he commented on a previous article I wrote for Pundit Feed – Edmundo: Ronaldo Wasn’t Better Than Me – on Twitter. Engaging with fellow tweeters, I checked out his profile and saw the former Sky Sports correspondent was also a Football Manager scout. After exchanging some messages about Brazilian football, I decided it was worth asking him if he was willing to discuss his role with Football Manager. “Yes, it would be fine,” he replied the same day, “but there might be questions I may not be allowed to answer.”
“Damn,” I thought, “I’ll never know the best-kept secrets of the game,” but what followed was a wonderfully open interview from a wonderfully open man, who was more than willing to discuss a range of topics – from Palmeiras’ rampant 1996 season to his favourite Brazilian strikers in real life (Ricardo Oliveira is one) – outside of Football Manager.
“There is an assistant researcher for each important club,” he opened by saying, “and for specific areas of Brazil, this way we can cover as many clubs as possible.” Considering the size of Brazil – it is bigger than the whole of Europe – it must be a monumental task, especially considering the expectations players of the game have of the country. To get it right, variation is needed in the numerous roles Freitas leads as the Head Researcher.
“Head researcher is a role of organizing data and tasks between assistant researchers, besides doing research as well, while assistant researchers are more focused on a specific club and its players and staff.”
With a growing influence being exerted on the real-life game, you would imagine clubs would be eager to work with Football Manager, to provide up-to-date information, a look at the players up close, and build a relationship that would benefit both sides. It is well known that the database is admired by professional clubs and scouts. In the Netflix documentary Sunderland ‘Til I Die, eagle-eyed viewers noticed that the shortlist of players that had been drawn up as possible transfers was remarkably similar to what a Player Search on the game would throw up, and in 2008 Everton struck a deal with Sports Interactive to have the database shared with them pre-release. In 2014, such relationships were made official by Sports Interactive studio director Miles Jacobson.
“From now on, it’s official; real managers around the world will be finding and comparing players using data and a search system that will be very familiar to players of Football Manager.
“The information gathered by our network of more than 1,300 scouts around the world, combined with Prozone’s amazing performance data, makes this an invaluable tool for any football club that takes player recruitment seriously.”
However, not all clubs, at least in Brazil, are as receptive to it: “Licensed clubs may help with some info,” Freitas told me, “but non-licensed ones generally will not help at all.”
In turn, the more professionalised these relationships have become and the more respected the game is as an indicator of talent, the more praise should be given to those that make it possible; those such as Freitas. I asked him if there was anything he was particularly proud of achieving with Football Manager.
“Yes, [successfully predicting] the likes of Neymar, Ganso and others in the very beginning [of their careers], and more recent ones like Gabriel Jesus and Richarlison as well.”
Neymar was phenomenal on Football Manager 2011. Aged just 18 when the game was released, for many he’d develop into the best player in the virtual world. One gamer reported buying him for £30m in the second season for his Birmingham City side to see him score 36 goals across the four competitions.
On the flipside, Freitas admitted that it doesn’t always pan out exactly like real-life, and who can blame the researchers? We all saw YouTube videos of a certain someone performing his famous seal dribble aged 17.
“It happens a few times, like Kerlon and Evandro Roncatto, who didn’t develop as well as hoped.”
Kerlon’s career was hampered by knee injuries, but it is unlikely that they alone were the cause of his underwhelming career. After a four year spell at Italian giants Inter, which probably pocketed him enough to live on for the rest of his life, the attacking midfielder went on to play in Japan, Miami, Malta and Slovakia, before retiring before his 30th birthday. He didn’t even receive a senior cap for Brazil, despite having won the Top Scorer and Best Player Award at the South American U17 Football Championship in 2005 and winning the Campeonato Mineiro with Cruzeiro aged 18.
Undoubtedly, some of you are reading this in the hope that Freitas has some pointers for the wonderkids of the future and I am pleased to tell you that he did not disappoint, from all of the questions I put to him, there was only two he could not answer and this was not one of them. So who are they then?
“João Pedro from Fluminense, who is joining Watford, Reinier (Flamengo), Antony (São Paulo) and Victor Bobsin (Grêmio).”
João Pedro has cost Watford just £8m, which looks to be an absolute snip if this goal that he scored on June 5th is anything to go by. The acrobatic overhead kick by the 17-year old striker came in the 97th minute of a cup tie with Cruzeiro to draw the game 2-2 and take it into extra-time. FM legend Ganso scored the other. Reinier looks pretty good, too, as does Antony and Victor Bobsin. The best thing about Freitas’ tips is that they basically come with a guarantee.
“I have control over all of it [their current ability, potential ability, and individual attributes, but of course we can’t give absurd ratings.” I put to him the famous story of Tó Madeira, a player that literally did not exist but made it into the release of Championship Manager 01/02 thanks to a cheeky scout. Could that ever happen again? “Not in Brazil’s research,” came the reply.
“I think it’s as accurate as a game can be, real life is of course much more complex and dynamic than any game could be.”
With the transfer window upon us, it is only a matter of time before social media will be awash with YouTube montages and “Welcome to XXXX’ videos of potential signings. Accompanying the chatter are regular comments of “he’s good on Football Manager,” which can sometimes invoke responses of criticism for basing your opinion on a video game.
“I think FM and other games are good starting points for a fan to find out about a player but in the end, they are still just video games and not comparable to watching the player in real life.”
Some players are active in trying to get a fair reflection – or at least their interpretation – of themselves in-game. Adebayo Akinfenwa famously called out FIFA over his strength rating, which led to him becoming the strongest player in the game until this year’s winter update, and Michy Batshuayi has done similar, publicly stating his move to Pro Evolution Soccer when his FIFA persona was given a passing rating of 59. Frietas said that players hadn’t complained to him in a similar way but did add that a few have provided information about themselves to provide accuracy. For FM gamers, Freitas had some useful advice when it comes to players’ attributes.
“They should not focus too much on the current ability, and rather focus on the specific attributes that are important in a given position, as the match engine takes into account only the attributes when simulating a game.”
With the English – and most of Europe’s – season over, it won’t be long before eyes turn to next year’s iteration of the game, and it’s a busy time of year for the team involved in putting it all together, given the volume of transfers that will take place between now and its, likely, October release date.
“There is always something new being added, but the core aspects of the game are hard to improve much.”
“I always prefer the most recent [game] as it is more up to date, and it has improved features compared to the previous games.”
“The game has grown a lot since 2005, with many more staff roles being added for instance. The youth side of the game also grew a lot, which means more research is needed nowadays than in the past.”
So, with Football Manager 2020 just a matter of months away, is there anything fans can look forward to? “Unfortunately nothing I can reveal,” Freitas informed me, sticking firmly to script.
Before we concluded the interview, there was one thing I wanted to know, one thing that would make or break the sentimentality I, and so many others, attach to the game. Do the makers play the game themselves? I willed the answer to be yes or it would all seem so hollow.
“I usually play either as Flamengo,” Freitas said, keeping the whole visage of the importance we place on the game as players intact, “or as teams in less famous leagues, like with Pyramids from Egypt.”