Comment: Reality of the Fantasy fad

THERE must be some people in Britain who still do not know what Fantasy Football is. But their number grows smaller by the day.

Fantasy Football is big business. Thousands participate in it. It is featured in the national press; it appears on television; most important of all, it is hip. David Baddiel, Frank Skinner, Roddy Doyle, Roy Hattersley are all at it, and it has taken root among the chatterering classes to such an extent that it is surprising Michael Portillo did not add it to his list of modern social ills.

It would be tedious to explain precisely what it is: roughly, it involves players 'managing' their own imaginary sides, whose fortunes are determined by the fortunes of real players in football's real leagues, although there is no need to visit a real ground in order to play. (The game is coordinated by computer.)

What is more interesting is the way in which fantasy leagues have caught the imagination of predominantly middle-class people who, 10 years ago, or even five years ago, would not have been so openly enthusiastic about anything connected with football.

Even though the game has still has its deep-rooted problems with self-image, the fact is that football is becoming respectable again. The effects of the Taylor Report, while driving up admission prices, have made many football grounds less hostile environments (Leeds United fans notwithstanding), while high-profile football fans from David Mellor to John Major have reinforced the message that you do not have to be a social outcast to love our national game. And then there was Nick Hornby, whose excellent book about being a football fan, Fever Pitch, was enthusiastically embraced by London's literati, and has helped to spawn a new soccerati. In one leap, following football went from being the activity of brutes and philistines to being sophisticated and chic.

Fantasy Football (a white- collar rather than blue-collar pursuit) is very much part of this movement, and clearly anything that encourages the development of the game is to be welcomed. But does it really promote serious interest in football? Will it actually make people more likely to attend matches? The cynical answer is no. Fantasy Football encourages people to be interested in the performances of individual players, rather than teams. The football question of the Nineties is not 'Did Spurs play well?' but 'Did Nick Barmby get an assist?'

People who call themselves football fans play out their fantasies on computer networks with no more romance than stockbrokers playing the market. The human, and the parochial, side of the game - the misery of watching your team lose 1-0 in a scrappy game on a wet weekday evening - has been exchanged for imaginary wheeling and dealing. There once was a time when the fantasy element came from watching football.