Football Manager can propel a relative unknown to a global audience more so than his actual exploits can.
The 2011 edition was the first to include Mexican sensation Carlos Fierro, who develops into one of the game's deadliest forwards on every annual release since then.
The teenager netted five times and grabbed four assists as 'El Tri' lifted the Under-17s World Cup that year, earning the Bronze Ball gong in the process – yet his loyalty to Guadalajara has thus far kept him from a European transfer, which would undoubtedly bestow upon him a higher global reputation.
Despite this, he has acquired an almost cult-like following from Football Manager aficionados. At the time of writing, if you were to type his name into Google, the suggestions all relate to either Football Manager or EA Sport's FIFA franchise – which is notoriously less realistic in terms of judging and mapping player development.
Then if you click the search button, the results mainly comprise of Football Manager forum threads with gamers discussing his ability, posting screenshots of his progress and venting frustration at their attempts to sign him due to his inability to attain a work permit.
Despite this occasional problem, Carlos Fierro is the quintessential Football Manager wonderkid: cherished by loyal gamers for his youth, boundless ability and cheap asking price; unbeknownst to your average - even the relatively well-informed - football punter.
Yet will the 19-year-old's career be half as successful as Football Manager reckons? Let's have a look at the game's history of judging young players, as well as the effect it might have on them.
In case you're unfamiliar with the Football Manager franchise, it is a series of computer games that began in 1992. First released on the now-defunct Amiga and Atari ST, its main drawback was the absence of real players – each team contained randomly generated names. Nowadays, it is not only so addictive that it has been cited to cause 35 divorces between 2004 and 2012, according to Football Manager Stole My Life: 20 Years of Beautiful Obsession.
It is recognised as a useful scouting tool by actual coaches, such is its level of realism. Six years ago, Everton announced a partnership with the game's developers, Sports Interactive, which enabled David Moyes and company to gain access of advanced copies of future releases to scout overseas talent. Therefore the Merseyside outfit has the opportunity to gain first-dibs on the stars of tomorrow. André Villas-Boas was hooked; his understanding of tactical systems stemming from countless hours on the game in his youth.
Harry Redknapp has publicly admitted his use of the game's database in the past, with The Daily Mail citing that he he once 'defended an obscure signing referencing his stats from the highly successful simulation'. Unconfirmed rumours even attest that during his time at Chelsea, José Mourinho studied Colchester United's squad on the Football Manager 2006 ahead of their FA Cup fifth-round tie that year.
The game is progressively becoming more detailed and realistic with every annual release; the most recent title perfectly demonstrates the series' reputation for being able to judge the potential of youngsters yet to prove themselves at the highest level - in the form of one of Manchester United's brightest sparks last season.
Adnan Januzaj's rise to prominence for both club and country may have come as a surprise to many, but just play out a season on Football Manager 2014 and watch his virtual counterpart undertake an eerily similar transformation, eventually becoming an important player for both of The Red Devils he represents as he has done in real life (a similar instance occurred with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in 2012).
Football Manager's rating system works on the basis of two hidden attributes which can be accessed using third-party database editors. Each ranging from 0-200, these are CA (Current Ability) and PA (Potential Ability) - the latter of which dictating the maximum ability a player can reach.
PA's are either fixed at a set number for every disc, or - for players too young or inexperienced to be allocated a precise numeric value - randomly assigned for each new game a negative between -1 and -10. The highest of these, -10, will generate a random number between 170-200, -9 between 150-180, and so forth. For example, Neymar has a fixed PA of 190, while Januzaj's -10 indicates that he could either eclipse Lionel Messi's 199 to become the finest player in history, or reach the glass ceiling of 170 along with the likes of Edin Džeko, Luka Modrić and Alexis Sánchez - or anything in between.
The 2014 World Cup showcased many of the latest Football Manager prodigies: Paul Pogba (PA of -10), Raphaël Varane (178), Mario Götze (182) and James Rodríguez (176) have cemented their reputations as global superstars and genuine future contenders for individual honours such as the prestigious FIFA Ballon D'or, while Mateo Kovačić (-9), Éder Álvarez Balanta (-10), Raheem Sterling (-9) and Adnan Januzaj himself also took part in the competition.
Football Manager has attempted to foresee the future of these players, as it has done for many other hot prospects. A quick search of Google for 'Championship Manager 03/04 wonderkids' produces a host of familiar names: back then merely teenagers with tons of potential, now leading players starring in this summer's World Cup as well as plying their trades for the top Champions League clubs – Vincent Kompany, Francesc Fàbregas, Sergio Agüero, Phillip Lahm, Fernando Torres – just to name a few. But you'll also see a multitude of prodigies that have since faded into obscurity during the last decade.
It's fair to say that the game's judgement of potential is usually highly reliable, especially since the brand change from Championship Manager to Football Manager in 2004, although there have been notable exceptions during this time.
The likes of Kerlon (famed for his 'seal dribble' which can be found on YouTube), Sherman Cárdenas (Colombian winger yet to leave the domestic league), Bojan Krkić (still forging a good career with spells in Italy and Holland but far cry from the perception that he was to become one of the main men at Barça), Cherno Samba (from England's next best striker to second-division Greek football) and Freddy Adu (suffered an astonishing fall from grace after being touted to become the next Pélé at the age of 13) could not replicate the incredible qualities bestowed upon their world-beating virtual counterparts.
The player most renowned by hardcore fans for the remarkable difference between his depiction in the game and his real-life achievements is the wonderfully named Tonton Zola Moukoko. If you didn't play Championship Manager instalments around the turn of the century, you certainly won't have heard of him.
If you did, however, chances are you watched him become the greatest player of our generation. In reality, the Congolese-born Swede was at Derby for three years but never made a single appearance in English football and has since been flitting about in leagues across Scandinavia. The midfielder reportedly admits to being constantly bombarded with phone calls from fans who still rever him for his boundless ability on their Championship Manager saves, while there are countless websites and Facebook groups full of purists who can share memories of his exploits on the game and discuss his whereabouts today. Tonton Zola Moukoko is admired by many as he graced their computer screens, but he never quite managed to grace the football pitch.
Considering the esteem held in the game by footballing experts, it is not by any means preposterous to suggest that a player could be put off by its perception of their potential. Anderlecht's Romelu Lukaku was the hottest property on the 2011 instalment - deservedly so as he finished as top scorer in the Jupiler Pro League despite being just 16 years old (his 17th birthday came a few days after the season's conclusion).
His progress, however, stalled after a miserable first term at Stamford Bridge where first-team opportunities were few and far between. Lukaku refused to hold the Champions League trophy after Chelsea's triumph over Bayern Munich, stating that he did not feel worthy of the honour. His only start in the Premier League came on the final day of the competition at home against Blackburn in a game of little importance due to the fact that The Blues could mathematically only finish sixth and faced Bayern Munich in the aforementioned Champions League final in less than a week's time.
Accordingly, Di Matteo handed rare starts to Ryan Bertrand and Sam Hutchinson while also resting established regulars such as Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard and Petr Čech. Yet the insignificance of the occasion did not stop Lukaku from turning in a man-of-the-match performance. In his only real chance to impress throughout the entire campaign, he shone. But the Belgian could do without the weight of expectation placed upon him by Football Manager.
In September 2012, MailOnline reported that he expressed anger at the comparisons between himself and Didier Drogba; a look at his profile on that year's Football Manager will tell you that even they have dubbed him as 'the next' version of the powerful Ivorian. Earlier this year, Drogba again called for the parallels to stop being drawn, as per GiveMeSport. With two goal-laden loan spells under his belt, Lukaku is closer to achieving what Football Manager has predicted: becoming the world's most sought-after centre-forward.
Yet, following a mixed World Cup on a personal note - Lukaku looked visibly disappointed after failing to register a single touch in the opposition area in the Group H game against Algeria prior to his substitution in the 58th minute before scoring what proved to be the winner against USA in the Round of 16 - the expectation clearly still weighs heavily on his shoulders.
The fact that he is predicted to become one of the planet's finest players by a team of experienced researchers on an enormously well-respected football series must become a serious burden for the young man. Media attention is problematic enough, but when thousands upon thousands of gamers are expecting you to actually possess the world-class attributes your cyber equivalent acquires in the game, pressure will mount.
Anyway, here's to another year of watching Football Manager wonderkids either flop of flourish under the rigours of the real game. Cheers!
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