How Real Soccer Is Different From Fantasy Soccer

The stadium scene.
Nov. 3 2011 7:18 AM

Guts, No Glory

What I learned watching an English Premier League match up close.

Adel Taarabt of Queens Park Rangers is chased by Scott Parker of Tottenham Hotspur during the Barclays Premier .
Scott Parker (L), defensive midfielder of England's Tottenham Hotspur

Clive Rose/Getty Images.

LONDON, England— “The Game Is About the Glory.” That motto, painted in blue on white, circles the interior of White Hart Lane. Tottenham Hotspur, the soccer club that has played here for 112 years, stepped onto the pitch Sunday as the English Premier League’s hottest team, unbeaten in their last 10 matches across all competitions. I came to watch them dazzle their opponents, Queens Park Rangers, with a blizzard of goals.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

But that wasn’t what I saw. What I learned from watching the world’s toughest league up close, 20 feet from the pitch at midfield, is that the game isn’t about the glory. It’s about the work.

Coaches understand this. For three years, I helped coach my son’s grade-school soccer team. The hardest part was getting the kids to do things that help the team but reap no glory. The kid who puts the ball in the net gets hugs and high fives. The kid who delivered the cross gets ignored. The kids who play defense hear from their teammates only when they cough up a goal.

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This year, I signed up my son for a new team. But the coach exacted a terrible price: He got me hooked on the Premier League’s fantasy soccer game. Instead of coaching a real team, I’ve been managing a fake one, checking live scores and recording every match I can find on American TV. Nobody with a job can watch all those games, so you zip. You fast-forward till you get to a goal.

When you watch soccer this way, you see games decided by brilliant strikes. You fall in love with players like Rafael Van der Vaart, Tottenham’s free-firing midfielder, and Emmanuel Adebayor, the club’s gazelle-like forward. I own both of them in the fantasy league, and Adebayor is my captain, which means his goals count double. I came to White Hart Lane thinking he might score a hat trick.

I was wrong. He had a terrible game. He blew headers from point-blank range. He failed to convert a breakaway. He fired wide from 12 yards. Late in the match, he went up to meet a perfect cross in front of the QPR goal. I watched in horror as another Spurs player lunged forward, intercepted the cross, and botched it.

Van der Vaart played wonderfully. He blasted shots and crosses, delivering a lethal strike half an hour in. The star of the day was Spurs winger Gareth Bale, who scored twice in Tottenham’s 3-1 victory. If I’d been watching the match on TV, I would have thought that was the story. But from just behind the Tottenham bench, what I saw—and heard, with the staccato punch of every ball—was the intensity of man-to-man combat. Time slowed down. Encounters that seemed slight on TV were actually complex and hard fought. And the hero in this unrelenting struggle wasn’t Bale, Van der Vaart, or Adebayor. It was Scott Parker.

Parker is the other guy Tottenham acquired this year along with Adebayor. He’s cheaper, slower, clumsier, and 6 inches shorter. Hardly anyone owns him in the fantasy league, because he plays too far back in the formation. What you want as a fantasy manager is a midfielder like Van der Vaart, who really plays striker, not a midfielder like Parker, who really plays defense. Parker doesn’t score or get credited with assists. He leaves that to the guys up front.

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