Football by the fire . . . now that is sad

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WE ALL know how sad men are. We've heard them discussing the dirt in their fuel lines ad nauseam and pontificating incessantly about great guitarists they have worshipped. But nothing could have prepared us for the spectacularly sad phenomenon that is football's Fantasy League.

Personally, I thought men's football fever couldn't get much worse, after the arrival of satellite television. Suddenly, all over the country, men started taking the morning off work to watch repeats of The Footballer's Football Show, a sad excuse for a programme in which former footballers talk footballese to their hearts' content. Without warning, men rushed out to buy Amstrad double videos so they could record Premier League matches and FA Cup games on Sky and BBC 1 simultaneously. Ah, the joys of technology - even overcoming the nightmare of insensitive programming. You can't get much sadder than that, I thought.


For anyone who has managed to avoid it so far (congratulations, by the way), the Fantasy League allows every faceless fan to select and 'manage' their own fantasy football team. The rules, even by male standards, are simple. Each fantasy manager has a fantasy pounds 20m to spend on a team of real-life players. Points are awarded for goals scored, made and saved, and deducted for goals conceded. Once you have bought your team, all you do is watch Match of the Day and read the papers each week and add up your total.

The premise is an obvious one, because as anyone who knows anything about football will testify, every football supporter under the sun could manage England far better than the England manager ever will. Course you could, lads. (Imagine if women sat around discussing how they could run Chanel better than Karl Lagerfeld. Fantasy Fashion, anyone?) Fantasy League has finally given men the opportunity to prove it and there are now more than 1.5 million of them playing various forms of the game. Several newspapers have their own versions, and now (finger on the pulse) even the BBC has chipped in with a weekly half-hour programme entitled Fantasy Football League.

Yes, some bright spark at the Beeb has realised that some men are so sad, not only are they watching television late on a Friday night but somehow The Word is not quite bad enough to do them justice. They have, after all, probably just spent the entire evening down the Dog and Duck talking about the changes they So BBC 2's Fantasy Football League is a sad night out down the Dog and Duck talking about the changes men might make to their Fantasy League teams. Immortalised.

The BBC show is hosted by two post-alternative comedians, David Baddiel and Frank Skinner (flatmates in real as well as televisual life - sad]), both trying very hard to be men of the people, diamond geezers, out-bloking even the most committed of blokes in their blokishness, despite their obviously middle-class status.

Each week Baddiel and Skinner are joined by two different celebrities, each of whom has their own fantasy team. These have recently included the football fanatics Peter Cook, Roddy Doyle, Eddie Large and Roy Hattersley, along with the token women Sue Johnston (formerly in Brookside) and Mandy Smith and a token, er, fox, Basil Brush. At the last count, Basil was in the lead ('The boys done brilliant, we're taking each game as it comes. Boom] Boom]').

With an affected craziness reminiscent of the worst of Saturday morning children's television, guests come in through a polystyrene front door accompanied by chanting and hoots of surprise from the studio audience ('It's Karrrren Braaaady]') despite the fact that their impending arrival was announced not at the end of last week's show but also in this week's opening sequence.

Fantasy Football League's saving grace is its archive footage and clips of recent football blunders that Match of the Day and Grandstand wouldn't touch with a bargepole: own goals, penalty misses, sendings-off, a referee butting a player. Sad, it's true, but for anyone who likes football, funny none the less. Another high point is 'Phoenix From The Flames', where great football moments are recreated by Skinner, Baddiel and the likes of Charlie George or George Best, re-enacting legendary incidents - such as George's FA Cup winner or Best's notorious disallowed goal against Gordon Banks - in what looks like the back garden.

The worst thing about all this is the way the programme, like the Fantasy League in general, has denigrated the spirit of the true football fan. These days even the most fanatical Manchester United supporters, for example, have been forced to start following the progress of Leeds with bated breath, because they have selected Gary Speed as one of their fantasy players. Leeds. The number of Chelsea fans who have bought David Seaman, Arsenal's pompous goalie and the most points-productive player in the Fantasy League, is a disgrace.

The days when football was about picking a team you identify with and sticking with it for life have been undermined.

I'm not opposed to fantasy as such - as a Chelsea supporter, that goes without saying. Let's face it, after a trophyless 24 years, what would I have left but for fantasy?

To prove it, I'll describe one of my own (revealed here for the first time): if Chelsea get past the semis and through into the FA Cup Final at Wembley this year and Manchester United do the double, we'll be on our way to Europe. There we will crush the mighty AC Milan in the greatest display of total football ever witnessed.

Now that's really sad.

(Photograph omitted)