The date is Saturday, 26 July, 2042. The place is Glasgow, Scotland.
Ivica Strok walks onto the pitch for the final time as a Celtic player and captain. This is his testimonial match, a fixture against former club NK Zagreb, a final chance for the 99,237 fans packed into Sharples Park to say goodbye to, arguably, the club’s greatest player.
He scores, of course he does, but when the final whistle blows at the end of the game, it signals the end of a phenomenal career for the 40-year-old Croatian striker—903 appearances for Celtic, 836 goals, 23 league titles, four Champions League trophies and countless other cup wins and personal accolades that mark out Strok as the most important player in the most dominant period of Celtic’s 154-year history.
With time called on his illustrious playing career, and with no desire to become a coach or a manager himself, what’s Strok to do?
He becomes a charity figurehead that has been nominated for a Football Blogging award, and whose shirt and testimonial programme are currently on display at the National Football Museum in Manchester. With the line between fantasy and reality sufficiently blurred, it’s safe to stay that Strok is not your usual Football Manager newgen.
Strok was once just your usual Football Manager newgen—a fictional, generated player who entered the video game to replace another who's retired.
After stints at Dynamo Dresden, Brighton & Hove Albion and Hearts, I was appointed manager of Celtic in 2017. Although I won the Scottish Premier League with ease in my first couple of years, it was becoming increasingly obvious that if the Glasgow side wanted to make inroads on European club football, they couldn’t keep relying on the erratic form and occasional goals of Georgios Samaras and Modibo Maiga.
After sending my scouting team all over the world—from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe—a report finally landed on my imaginary desk about a young striker taking Croatia by storm: Ivica Strok.
My interest was piqued, and my scouts were rarely wrong, but he was only 18 and had only played in the second tier of Croatian football. Did I have another Henrik Larsson on my hands? Or was he going to replicate Henri Camara’s shocking spell on loan at Parkhead?
Either way, at just £5 million, it seemed worth the risk. In hindsight, it was to be the greatest investment Celtic would ever make.
Over the next 22 years, Celtic would dominate Scottish football in unprecedented ways, breaking the record of 54 top-division titles won by rivals Rangers and then running away with the record themselves, leaving the blue half of Glasgow far off in the distance.
Celtic would also achieve their aims in breaking through in European competition, winning four European Cups during Strok’s time at the club and reaching the final a further two times.
He would be nominated for the Ballon d’Or on several occasions, coming second in the voting in 2032 after helping guide Croatia to that year's European Championship trophy. He won Golden Boots, Golden Shoes and Player of the Year awards, and he would become Celtic's and Croatia’s record goalscorer.
He was the complete striker, scoring with his left foot, his right foot, headers, free kicks, penalties, from three yards to 30. He was a legend in the game, but the game can only give you so much legendary status.
A player of Strok's calibre and status deserves statues built for him. He should adorn magazine covers and be collecting lifetime achievement awards.
Football Manager, at this point in time at least, doesn't allow for that life outside the game. Football Manager might not allow for it, but I could.
Armed with Photoshop software, time on my hands and a vivid imagination, Strok came to life outside the game. He was inducted to the Scottish Football Hall of Fame, scored at Soccer Aid and featured on the cover of magazines. His life was no longer being lived on Football Manager but was being played out on his own Twitter account.
His account grew and grew, with more followers wanting to know about his latest adventures. Websites wanted to interview him about his distinguished career, his name featured on football forums, he held an AMA (ask me anything) on Reddit and even inspired a man in Australia to buy a Celtic shirt with his name and number emblazoned on the back.
Strok had reached out from the game and was now invading the consciousness of Football Manager fans on whose games he didn't even feature. And then his influence began to stretch further.
When my brother took his own life in December 2014, I used Football Manager to help me pass the time while waiting for his funeral and then during compassionate leave from work. Now it was Strok's turn to give something back, as he became a figurehead in raising money and awareness for a suicide prevention charity called CALM. He has posed with their logo, name-checked them in interviews and told his story on the CALM website.
So we return to that summer afternoon in July 2042. It's traditional for a footballer to give the proceeds of his testimonial to a charity; of course, there were no proceeds to give after Celtic’s match against NK Zagreb because the match only took place on my laptop. But that didn't stop me, and that didn't stop Strok from raising money for CALM.
With help from a friend (thanks again, Charlie) a testimonial programme was produced featuring Strok’s story, biographies of his team-mates, messages from both captain and manager and infographics regarding the Croatian striker's career. It even featured an advert for Football Manager 2043.
The programmes were put on eBay, and within a week all 100 were sold—raising £500 for CALM. Well, it was much easier than running a marathon.
One programme, along with a Strok replica Celtic shirt, has now made its way into the National Football Museum in Manchester and sits proudly on display in the same building as shirts from other football icons like Lionel Messi, Pele and Diego Maradona.
Football Manager is just a game, but as the game becomes more realistic, the boundaries between fiction and reality are becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish. Strok is just a newgen, but he represents the love so many have for their fictional players and for Football Manager itself.
Above all that, he represents an amazing and hugely worthwhile cause.
Jonny Sharples is a Football Manager obsessive who has played every title in the series since first being introduced to the game via Championship Manager '93. The author donated his fee for this article to the CALM charity.