Cult of the Football Manager Game and the Legend of Tonton Zola Moukoko

Kenny MillarSpecial to Bleacher ReportNovember 3, 2014

Sports Interactive

It's 'Football Manager' week at Bleacher Report, and to kick things off we asked self-confessed obsessive Kenny Millar to explain the cult of a game that has taken over the world.

There's no one-size-fits-all mould for the Football Manager devotee.

Cult members are drawn from all sections of society—including some of the most influential movers and shakers in the game.

To celebrate Football Manager’s 20th anniversary, Iain Macintosh, Neil White and I co-wrote Football Manager Stole My Life. The intention was to celebrate all that was great and good about the people who produce and play the massively popular management simulator.

It seemed to strike a chord, as we discovered at a sold-out Q&A at the recent Manchester Football Writing Festival.

We were fortunate to be joined by Sports Interactive gaffer Miles Jacobson—who had the room, and later pub, eating out of his hands with an endless supply of anecdotes.

Blindingly obvious that he still doesn’t consider it a job to churn out one record-breaking version after another, Miles also hinted at the then top-secret 90-minute 'An Alternative Reality: The Football Manager Documentary'.

It packed out Vue cinemas up and down the country—and is already a hit on other platforms—proving, alongside our little book, that the interest in Football Manager extends way beyond loading up Steam for another shot at firing a non-league minnow to Champions League success.

Or leading Hibernian to a Scottish Cup triumph—which does seem unrealistic in real life and should prompt a 'Game Over' message’—but no-one wants to read about that.

However, everyone does have their story to tell and that’s what made working on Football Manager Stole My Life so much fun—with a snapshot into an obsession that looks set to roll on for millions of dedicated diehards for the foreseeable future.

The book was the brainchild of Neil—one of two football fanatics who runs BackPage Press publishing—who understands the cult as well as anyone because, for starters, he can’t keep his eyes off his battered phone.

It’s primarily meant for calls and texts, but it’s instead his vehicle to guide an assortment of Scottish journeymen to virtual greatness.

We found more than a few kindred spirits along the way.

A personal favourite was the contributor who shook his bedroom doorknob pre-match, as if he was making his way along the presentation line.

Others told tales of wearing a jacket to replicate the ice-cold conditions of a Champions League away night in Ukraine, or setting fire to newspapers to replicate the 'Welcome To Hell' reception in Turkey.

There were stories of interventions from worried friends, with poor Matt McMahon having his disc snapped in two before his very eyes, while Mark Cooper loved, lost and loved again until he found that special woman who would tolerate, and even embrace, his love of Football Manager.

That just scratches the surface and there’s plenty more where that came from. Cult membership extends to the cast of thousands who scout players for Football Manager—whether it’s the paid Head Researchers or their army of amateurs.

Ze Chieira runs the show in Portugal and was able to reminisce about discovering Deco as a 20-year-old back in 2007. And he knows what he’s talking about, as Porto’s Chief Scout. Just don’t mention To Madeira…

His Belgian colleague, Kristof Terreur, is a London-based football writer for leading newspaper HLN and talked about the potential of his country’s brilliant batch long before they were household names.

Football Manager boast an enviable track record of touting talent before some of the clubs even realise what they have at their disposal, but to the fully-fledged cult members the near-misses are cherished just as much, if not more.

How else could the constant interest in Tonton Zola Moukoko be explained?

A star of the 2001/02 version of the game—then known as Championship Manager—he looked to have the world at his feet as a Derby County wonderkid who turned down AC Milan and Juventus.

Off the field problems meant he never hit the heights he should have and—after an exhaustive search—we tracked him down at Swedish minnows IFK Lidingo.

Screenshot courtesy of SI Games

Tonton joined us for the book launch in London, enjoying a tour of SI towers before starring in an epic five-a-side marathon against their staff team and starry-eyed readers. To his own amazement he was welcomed like a God, a virtual-reality VIP.

He explained: "I probably get more people asking me about the game now than 10 years ago, when I first appeared. It’s so popular now.

"Throughout my career, new team-mates knew who I was because they played the game. We always had a laugh about it. Of course, I played it too."

What most people probably don’t know is that Tonton now runs Congo United, a newly-formed team who recently celebrated promotion from Sweden’s bottom tier.

He lovingly built the club to help those from different backgrounds find some common ground through football—and he’s sure to have his FM fan-base flocking to see him.

Football Manager Stole My Life

That Football Manager connection is what binds someone like Tonton to an Andre Villas-Boas (another self-confessed one-time addict), to comic Kevin Bridges and poor Matt McMahon that had his dreams shattered by concerned friends.

One size truly does fit all in the Football Manager cult.

Kenny Millar wrote Football Manager Stole My Life with fellow fanatics Iain Macintosh and Neil White. When he's not playing FM, Kenny is a sports journalist for the Scottish Sun.

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