The year is 2001. Cherno Samba is at Millwall, Maxim Tsigalko is at Dinamo Minsk, and Taribo West is available on a free. We all know the drill. Get the green-haired rock alongside Isaac Okoronkwo, sit Kim Kallstrom in front of them, and go from there. If you’re struggling to get Tsigalko in because of those pesky work permits, there’s always Joao Paiva to get you started.
But what happens if you don’t do anything? That’s what we decided to do. We loaded up a new game, selected a few leagues (England, France, Germany, Italy, Holland, Spain, Portugal), and went on holiday for ten years. It’s safe to say there was some variance between real life and what our little test provided us with.
It was a good ten years for Italy in our parallel universe, as they won the World Cup in 2002 and 2010, to take their total to five, beating Brazil and Ukraine in the finals. They could have made it three on the bounce if it wasn’t for the mid-decade rise of tiny Belarus, who, in 2006, knocked out the hosts and went on to reach the final where they lost 2-1. It wasn’t even our friend Tsigalko carrying his country either. As of June 2011, he’d made just 6 international appearances.
The real shock in international football was to be found in the European Championships where, after Italy had dispatched Spain in the final of Euro 2004, the continent’s finest head to Scotland for the next edition. Having advanced by the skin of their teeth in a group with Ukraine, Czech Republic and Scotland, Finland got a kind quarter-final draw against Bulgaria, winning 1-0, before overcoming Holland 3-2. Playing in front of a sold-out Hampden Park, the minnows managed to beat Greece by the same score-line to become European Champions. A wonderful achievement for the likes of Jussi Jaaskelainen and Mikael Forssell – overcoming the Super Greeks is no easy task.
Over in South America, it was routine stuff in 2005, 2007 (both Brazil) and 2009 (Argentina) but a US side including Brad Friedel, Claudio Reyna, Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Cobi Jones, beat Colombia 1-0 in the final. Missing from the defeated side was a 15-year old Radamel Falcao, who come July 2009 had made his way to FC Koln, where he’d scored 48 goals in 72 games. His key attributes lay in his Strength, Finishing, Off the Ball and Stamina that all come in at 20.
The African Cup of Nations provided plenty of diversity with a different winner each time – Cameroon winning it in 2002, followed by South Africa, Senegal, Ghana, and finally Algeria in 2010 – and despite it seeming logical for Australia to win the OFC Nations Cup every year (they left in 2006 in real life), they failed to win it in 2006 and 2008, when New Zealand and then Vanuatu were triumphant. A little look at their squad shows Pita Kalotong (Key Attributes – Marking 18, Positioning 15, Teamwork 19) marshalling the defence, and Richard Iwai (Agility & Strength 20, Determination 18, and Finishing 13) grabbing the goals up top.
The last of the international action was in the Asian Cup, which saw China defeat North Korea in the 2004 final, and Japan beat Indonesia four years later.
The Premier League
When our simulation concluded at the end of the 2010/11 season, Arsenal were crowned Premier League champions for the first time since the inaugural campaign of this experiment. The only player left at the Gunners was Ashley Cole, who had overseen his side win two Premier Leagues, one FA Cup and League Cup, and two Charity Shields. Arsenal fans will be pleased to know that Cherno Samba was leading the line, winning the Golden Boot with 23 goals – 3 ahead of West Ham’s Nathan Ellington, who in turn had 2 more than Southampton’s James Beattie. They’ll be less impressed with their centre-back pairing of Clint Hill and Calum Davenport, but their return of two Premier League titles equals their real-life counterparts.
From 2002/03 to 2007/08, Manchester United won 5 of the 6 titles, making them the most successful club of the decade, including 4 on the trot, but Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2005, so it was successor Guus Hiddink responsible for their success in the second half of the decade. Their title win under Fergie in 2002/03 set the Premier League points record with 97, with Ruud van Nistelrooy also setting the Golden Boot record that season – 29.
As in real life, Wes Brown, Rio Ferdinand, and Darren Fletcher remained at the club, but so did van Nistelrooy and Diego Forlan. Interestingly, having sold Quinton Fortune to Spurs in the first season, they bought him back during 2007/08 for £12.25m, and he went straight into the starting line up alongside the likes of Rafael van der Vaart and Tim Cahill.
The biggest Premier League shock saw Newcastle enjoy five seasons in the top two of the Premier League, finishing 2nd in 2005/06, and winning it in 2006/07 and 2008/09, both times finishing runners-up the following year. Their achievements were thanks to the management partnership of Martin O’Neill and assistant Mick McCarthy. Their first title was built around a spine of Shay Give, Kieron Dyer and Craig Bellamy, and bolstered with Sylvain Distin, Mark van Bommel and Jermaine Defoe. Come their second title win, they’d added flying wingback Luke Chadwick to the mix, as well as hardman Gennaro Gattuso.
The highest risers in English football were Carlisle, who finished 2011 11th in the Premier League, while Leeds, Blackburn and Manchester City suffered relegation. Wolves hoisted themselves into the Premier League for the 2005/06 season, but then suffered back-to-back relegations down to League One, before further embarrassment in 2010, with relegation to League Two.
The Best Players in the World
Ze Roberto was an unexpected superstar winning three consecutive FIFA World Player of the Year Awards from 2004 to 2006, with Hernan Crespo rounding off the decade with back-to-back trophies. The World Player of the Year (the Ballon d’Or, if you will) was a striker’s domain as David Trezeguet won three and van Nistelrooy and Crespo two each.
In Africa, Haruna Babangida, who remained at Barcelona throughout, winning the Champions League, UEFA Super Cup and 5 La Ligas, won the African Player of the Year twice, and in 2009, became teammates with Thierry Henry. The Frenchman joined from Arsenal for £17m. Carles Puyol, Xavi, Thiago Motta, and Javier Saviola went the distance at the Catalan club.
In South America, Ronaldo eventually found his way home to Brazil, joining Flamengo in the summer of 2008, going on to win two South American Player of the Year awards, after barely playing for Real Madrid since 2005. A six-month spell in Inter didn’t see him recapture the form of old, and despite signing him for £8m, he left on a free and caught the plane back to Brazil.
Barcelona won three Champions League in real life during our window, with Milan winning two, while Liverpool, Manchester United, Porto, Real Madrid, and Inter all got one. In our world, Milan came out on top with four, Roma two, and United, Juventus, Barcelona and Inter all getting one. Reality lined up with the virtual just once – 2003.
The Decade’s Best Players in Real Life in the Game
David Beckham left Manchester United for Real Madrid in 2003 in real life, but in the game, he stayed at Old Trafford until 2009, at which point he signed for Notts County of the Championship. After a two-year spell, he became manager of Wigan at the age of 36. Two months into the job and he has an unbeaten record of four wins and two draws.
Before Madrid turned for Beckham in real life, they were purportedly interested in Ronaldinho, who was at PSG. In our alternative world, he remained at PSG until 2006, then spent two-and-a-half years at Inter, before signing for Rangers. He enjoyed the same amount of time there also; his best year being his second in which he scored 13 and assisted 11 in 23 games. Rangers signed some of the world’s best during the decade, including Gianluigi Buffon, Gareth Barry, Lucio, Tomas Rosicky, Emile Mpenza, Michael Owen, Philippe Mexes, Joe Cole, Figo and Roque Santa Cruz. As of summer 2011, Ronaldinho is sunning himself in the Newcastle sun. No, really.
Zinedine Zidane also ended up in Scotland, spending his last two seasons there at Celtic, after two seasons in Rome. Their transfers weren’t as impressive as their Glasgow rivals but did mirror real life when they signed Freddie Ljungberg.
Cristiano Ronaldo was just a young pup back in 2001 but still made his way to the Premier League in-game. Joining Newcastle that summer, he made just 42 appearances in 7 years at the club, before being loaned to Arsenal in 2007. He seemed to impress in North London, but not Highbury. Tottenham spent a massive £2m on the 14-times capped Portuguese forward, where he was finally valued. His only trophies to-date are an FA Cup with Newcastle in 2006 and one with Spurs in 2010. In 2011, Sunderland spent £11m to sign the former wonderkid.
The big Swede, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has made 286 virtual appearances, netting 115 times and has made 71 assists. Pretty good stats. Unfortunately, from Ajax, he went to Schalke and from there to 1860 Munchen. He’s their best player, but he’s also just spent a season in the second tier. Not quite the lion he thinks he is in real life.
Perhaps even sadder was the tale of Frank Lampard. Capped just eight times for his country, he missed out on the 2006 World Cup squad, with Sven-Goran Eriksson opting for a midfield of Kevin Cooper, David Vaughan, Kieron Dyer and Matthew Piper. Not even a centre-back pairing of Rio Ferdinand and Sol Campbell could make up for that, and they rightly exited the tournament in the quarter-finals. They didn’t qualify for Euro 2008 at all, failing to progress from a group of Ireland, Denmark, Lithuania, Liechtenstein, and Slovenia. They were back for the World Cup in 2010, but only to get knocked out by Denmark in the second round.
Back to Frank Lampard. He left Chelsea in 2005 after they accepted an offer of £2m. He spent 18 months there, coinciding with their double relegation. He moved abroad, signing for Maritimo. Sick of Portugal, Lampard signed for Port Vale of the Championship, who have just been relegated. A 32-year old Lampard looks set for League One football next season.
We can’t mention Lampard without mentioning Steven Gerrard, so for comparison: Gerrard only earned two more caps at ten, also moved to Portugal for a couple of seasons (Benfica) and then moved back. Aged 31, he’s just helped Carlisle to a mid-table finish in the Premier League, alongside Jamie Carragher and Francis Jeffers. Gerrard thinks the latter is an essential squad member.
Championship Manager Legends
This section could go on forever, so I apologise now if you’re favourite doesn’t make it. We’ve already touched upon Samba and Tsigalko, with the former enjoying much more success. His accolades extend to a Premier League winners medal, a Players’ Player of the Year Award, and three Premier League Team of the Season spots, as well as this season’s Golden Boot.
Jamie Victory bounced around the lower leagues, playing for Boston, Norwich, Sheffield United, Kidderminster, and Barnsley; Mike Duff made it to the Premier League and made 42 caps for Northern Ireland. In 2007, he won the League Cup with Birmingham, and in 2011 he earned a spot in the Premier League Team of the Year.
Swedish anchorman Kim Kallstrom was bought by Blackburn in 2003 and sold a year later to Spurs. Four seasons were spent in North London before he moved on to Montpellier.
Elsewhere, Alexandros Papadopoulos won the German Cup with Leverkusen and finished runner-up with Greece at Euro 2008. His strike partner at club level was Julius Agahowa, who was the 2005 African Player of the Year and has won the German Cup three times, and the Bundesliga once.
In Sweden, Kennedy Bakircioglu enjoyed a prolonged spell at Kobenhavn, before joining Sampdoria, and Alexander Farnerud joined West Ham, where he won a string of personal accolades, before being signed by Lazio for £10m, and then became a Premier League winner with Arsenal.
The most impressive career, however, goes to Super Greek striker Anastasios Skalidis. In 358 games, he has scored 350 goals and made 33 assists – Messi-like stats. He seems to get better with age, in his last two seasons scoring 114 in 99. Enjoying life in France, he won the League Cup with PSG and then joined Metz, guiding them to five straight Ligue 1 titles. Criminally, he did not make his international debut until 28, since scoring 5 in 3 appearances.
Well, there we have it. In an alternative universe, Michael Owen ended up partnering Cherno Samba at Arsenal, Cristiano Ronaldo played for Newcastle and Sunderland, and Russ Wilcox (Head of Recruitment at Doncaster in real life) became England manager.
Championship Manager will forever hold an appeal, standing as a reference point to which we can all hark back to the good old days when you didn’t need a degree to understand the mechanics of a football management game, and it didn’t take an age to complete a season.
Whether you WIBWOBed or not, marked the ‘keeper or didn’t, or played with Roma or Rushden and Diamonds – it matters not. You were a football manager and these men were yours. What a game.